The Problem with Mothers in Children's Books
As it’s Mothering Sunday weekend, I thought now might be a good time to talk about how mothers have been represented in children’s books over the years. When I was doing my MA in Writing for Young People, I wrote an essay on the subject, and I’m including it below in case anyone fancies taking a peek. When I wrote it, I was struck by how ‘good’ mothers are often seen as an impediment to a child having an adventure in a children’s book. Children’s authors, in an understandable effort to allow their protagonist more freedom, often remove the mother from the narrative, or at least create a character that would be unlikely (by virtue of her many character flaws) to meddle in her child’s life, thereby allowing an adventure to ensue!
At the time I wrote my essay, I firmly believed that authors should be more creative in their approaches to freeing the protagonist from maternal influence, and somewhat naively dismissed the ‘easy’ option of killing them off or making them so evil they simply didn’t care about the wellbeing of their child. I vowed never to do such a thing in my own writing, believing this approach led to a glut of stories with absent, dead or disengaged mothers, often resulting in a lack of positive female role models in children’s fiction.
So, with these thoughts swirling around the back of my mind when I began writing Fledgling, I ended up creating a mother who, due to her flawed character, was entirely disengaged with her daughter, Cassie. In fact, she was so self-obsessed and wrapped up in her own problems that she became the perfectly absent mother – exactly the type of character I’d been so sniffy about in my essay! ‘Student me’ would have given me a good ticking off for writing a character like Maria Engel, but in my defence I’d also vowed to create strong, intelligent female role models for young readers, and I hope I achieved that to a degree with Cassie’s mum. To further add to my defence, some characters just plop into an author’s head fully formed, and this happened with Maria Engel. She was such a ferocious presence I was too cowardly to write her any other way!
In my second book Wren, I dreamed up a dare-devil mother who had an overwhelming desire to fly. I wrote the first two thirds of the book with her alive and well. She was a brilliant mother, supporting Wren in her engineering adventures, but the story just didn’t feel right. I took the painful decision to ‘arrange an accident’ (ahem) that removed Wren’s mother from her life – and immediately the story began to work. My student self had vowed never to do such a thing and again I chastised myself for going against all my principles (and I had to re-write the first two thirds of the book as a result of my decision!). But I believe the story came alive as a result, and by using frequent flashbacks to Wren’s mother’s life, I hope I was still able to present her as a capable human being with an enormous personality, immense skill and a great deal of confidence. But, I did feel terrible guilt for what I did to her, and Wren!
So, I think my point is that however hard authors try to create great mothers (and positive representations of women in general) that still allow a child to have an adventure, it’s much more difficult than it sounds. If you’re writing a children’s story, and are wondering what to do with the mother, and feel you need to remove her from the picture, consider ways to make her presence felt, even if she isn’t physically present. In my next book, my main character’s mother is a stuntwoman who works on films in Hollywood, tidily removing her from her daughter’s life. Her absence becomes particularly problematic when my protagonist’s step-father is injured, and the situation allows an adventure to proceed! This slightly more creative approach to the ‘mother problem’ has helped me to sleep more easily at night!
Since writing my essay in 2018 many brilliant books have been published that recognise the diversity of parenting partnerships. If I was writing it again, I’d give more attention to parents in general and not just mothers. I’d also consider the role of fathers, same-sex couples and other caregivers in impeding an adventure. Authors writing now need to establish who is doing the caring when deciding who needs to be ‘dispatched’. In fact, it’s one of the first decisions a children’s author is likely to make when planning their book.
Good luck with your writing and I wish you well in your endeavours to free your protagonist from the shackles of maternal care! Happy Mothers’ Day!
(N.B. I’ve left the references in just in case anyone happens to be interested in reading more on the subject.)
The mother in traditional children’s literature is often portrayed as ‘too good’, ‘too bad’ or dead, resulting in a shortage of positive female role models in these texts. How is more recently published children’s fiction changing to represent more aspirational mother figures, while still allowing the child protagonist the freedom to have their adventure?
An issue for any children’s author is how to deal with the problem of parents – particularly mothers. An impediment to adventure, they are often dispatched before the story starts. Alternatively, they are presented as distant, ineffectual or just thoroughly unpleasant. This essay will look at how diminishing the mother role in this way has resulted in fictional mother figures that represent women in a negative light. I will also look at whether more recently published works portray more interesting and aspirational mother figures.
The fact that mothers are often represented as stereotypes in traditional children’s fiction is problematic. According to Gibson (1988, p. 177) ‘stereotypes flatten and stifle,’ resulting in fictional female characters that lack richness and depth. This problem of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ mother stereotypes will be explored in detail, with a discussion on how more recently published books are moving away from this two-dimensional characterisation. I will also consider whether contemporary children’s literature now depicts the closer relationships modern mothers have with their children, and how this closeness might not be a barrier to a child’s freedom to have an adventure.
As books are considered an ‘important way for a culture to transmit its social values to its children,’ (Gibson, 1988, p. 177) it will be argued that stereotypical or negative portrayals of mothers is problematic, both in terms of the representation of women in children’s literature, but also in the subsequent lack of positive female role models in this genre.
It should also be noted that as almost all children’s books are written from the point of view of the child protagonist, mothers are never going to be given the attention they might if the book was written from another perspective. This is, of course, perfectly reasonable, but is it still possible for mother characters to be represented better, even when drawn through the eyes of a child?
A quick glance through my own collection of children’s books reveals an interesting statistic. Of 18 randomly chosen titles written in the last hundred years, 67% feature dead mothers, 11% have absent mothers, 18% have remote or disengaged mothers and 4% represent ‘good’ mothers. Of course, a wider research project might reveal different figures, but I still find these percentages revealing. Interestingly, a survey from 1970 found that ‘less than 3% of the depictions of mothers were “realistic”: in the [children’s] novels, mothers were disproportionally seen as being paralysed at home while in real life they were beginning to go out and get jobs.’ (Just, 2010)
The death or absence of a mother is often necessary for removing the main impediment to an adventure. In James and the Giant Peach (Dahl, 1966) James’s parents are killed by a rhinoceros that has escaped from London Zoo. In Journey to the River Sea (Ibbotson, 2001) Maia is orphaned when her parents are killed in a train accident in Egypt. In the recently published Beetle Boy (Leonard, 2016) the mother is also dead. The young protagonist in all these novels is therefore placed in a vulnerable position and open to abuse by other adults, allowing the story to unfurl without the protection of the mother figure. Catherine Murdock (2009) noted: ‘The simple act of eliminating mum provides a venue where anything dangerous or magical or gallant can happen.’ The absence of a mother allows a child to become a hero and ‘grow up’ as the story progresses.
The rarely seen ‘good’ mother, often appears as ‘an idealised … figure who offers eternal love and sacrifice’ (Calland, 2016, p. 153). In Charlotte’s Web, (White, 1952) Fern, as a stand-in mother to Wilbur, displays ‘motherly’ qualities such a nurturing and feeding. When Fern is distracted by Henry Fussy, Charlotte takes on the mother role, but presents a more realistic form of parenting, and exhibits both traditional female and male traits (Rollin, 2005, p.44). Thurer (1994) argues that the ‘sentimentalised image of the perfect mother casts a long, guilt-inducing shadow over real mothers’ lives’, suggesting that this representation of mothers in purely nurturing terms in children’s fiction is unrealistic and unfair to real life mothers.
A particular trait of the ‘good’ mother is that she acts protectively, at all costs. She is likely to foresee potential pitfalls and problems and will prevent a child from taking risks or embarking on an adventure. These are the ‘mama cats, constantly carrying their kittens back to the nest’ (Murdock, 2009) and are the reason why all too often the mother has to be dispatched.
When Mrs Heap castigates Marcia in Septimus Heap: Magyk (Sage, 2005) for overworking Septimus, he was ‘amazed because he didn’t realise that that was what mothers did, although he rather liked it’ (Murdock, 2009). Mrs Weasley, the closest thing Harry Potter has to a mother, is similarly protective and goes to great lengths to keep him safe. Harry Potter’s birth mother was almost saint-like, because she died to save her son, leaving an everlasting ‘protection’ in his veins through the power of her love. These are good examples of how mothers can be portrayed as positive, protective figures, yet still allowing the protagonist to take risks and grow as a person.
Another mother figure sometimes seen in children’s books is the smothering, indulgent type who lives their life through their child, often to the child’s detriment. Augustus Gloop’s mother in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Dahl, 1964) is unable to resist his pleas for food. This seemingly ‘good’ mother becomes ‘bad’ in her desperation to please her child.
Alternative guardians are sometimes introduced in children’s fiction as replacement ‘mother figures’, but they are often portrayed as less able or willing to protect their young charges. Fathers are often portrayed as being less responsible parents, and an author may use this stereotype to allow the child protagonist to face a particular peril, without the safety net that might be imposed by the stereotypically ‘good’ mother. Mothers are generally seen to be more controlling than fathers, who often appear more distant. Adventures are more possible when the father is in charge!
The ‘bad’ mother or step-mother is a staple of children’s literature, with the most obvious examples found in traditional fairy tales. However, a new type of ‘bad’ mother is popular again in contemporary young adult fiction, and some of the most ‘sharply written and critically praised works reliably feature a mopey, inept, distracted or ready-for-rehab parent’ (Just, 2010). In Coraline, (Gaiman, 2002) the mother and father, though not evil, are distracted and allow Coraline to become prey to the ‘Other Mother’. Aunt Petunia, as substitute mother to Harry in The Philosopher’s Stone (Rowling, 1997), displays a level of unpleasantness more likely to be found in a traditional fairy tale. Characters such as Aunt Petunia provide a perfect foil against which the young protagonist can fight. Unfortunately, as with the ‘good’ mother, the ‘bad’ mother also perpetuates a negative representation of women. Just (2019) argues that ‘the most memorable “bad guys” are …, in many cases, the mothers, matching in pathos what the wicked stepmother once conjured up in malevolence’.
Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials: Northern Lights (Pullman, 1997) is decidedly evil – a child killer and a witch. Yet she is depicted in more complex terms than this, and in the final book in the trilogy finds redemption.
The ‘incompetent’ mother is also a familiar feature in children’s literature. Even if physically present, an ineffective or disengaged mother still allows a protagonist the freedom to pursue their adventure. Recent examples of this can be found in Twilight (Meyer, 2005) and The Hunger Games (Collins, 2008). In Twilight, Bella’s mother has moved away to follow her husband, leaving Bella ‘at the mercy’ of the vampire, Edward. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s mother suffers from depression after the death of her husband. This gives Katniss the opportunity to step up to the role of protector. As the story is told through Katniss’s eyes, the mother is maligned and diminished, allowing Katniss to triumph as a strong and resourceful young woman - empowered by her mother’s ‘inadequacy’. In Artemis Fowl (Colfer, 2001) the protagonist realises that his mother’s recovery from mental illness will bring an end to the freedom he’s enjoyed whilst she has been ill, causing complex mixed feelings. The suggestion is that her recovery and subsequent elevation to the role of ‘good’ mother will become an impediment to his freedom.
Therefore, to allow a child to have an adventure, the mother figure is often removed from a child’s life, either by death or illness. The end result is often a negative representation of women. Murdock (2005) argues, however, that ‘far from belittling motherhood, children’s books embrace it, idealise it, deify it,’ because mothers need to be singled out for dispatch, as they are the most important, protective figures in a child’s life - rather than the more stereotypically ‘imperfect’ father figure.
Jacqueline Wilson features a mother with bipolar disorder in The Illustrated Mum (1999). As a result of her illness, Marigold is often erratic and unreliable, but despite her troubles, and the state of anxiety her children constantly live in, they clearly all love each other. This is a mother that might have been portrayed as ‘incompetent’ or dangerous in the hands of a less compassionate author writing at a different time, but Jacqueline Wilson creates a complex, multi-dimensional and lovable mother in this dark, provocative tale.
Gilmore (2017, p. 97) suggests that an alternative, positive mother figure is beginning to emerge in contemporary American children’s fiction written by women of colour. She writes that ‘mothers from ethnic minority backgrounds depicted in children’s picture books reject the mainstream “good mother” model and prove more multidimensional, serving as a different mothering example for the future.’ She continues that ‘these mothers are naturally emotional and resilient, and creative … all the while encouraging independence, promoting education and preparing their children for challenges, such as dealing with racial oppression.’ The suggestion is that female writers of colour are less likely to be bound by traditional stereotypes, and as a result are creating more realistic, engaging and multi-dimensional mothers in their writing.
Fraustino and Coats (2017, p. 15) use the example of Show Way (Woodson, 2005) as an example of this, with Big Mama ‘mothering’ large numbers of children with stories of her mother, grandma and great-grandma. Through quilt-making she recollects their shared history and together they look forward to a better future. Show Way honours the generations of women whose inner strength allowed them to survive the horrors of slavery and who now, with great resilience, look forward to a more positive future.
The portrayal of the mother figure in children’s literature has implications for everyone in society, but especially children, so authors almost have a responsibility to create an environment that allows adventures to happen without diminishing the adult female role in the process. Gibson (1988, p. 180) suggests that it should be possible to be a mother in children’s fiction ‘without either gaining the cosmic significance of a Dementor or being limited by aprons and pie-baking.’
However, it is only in the last decade or so that more mainstream children’s books are emerging that feature stronger, aspirational mother characters. In To the Edge of the World (Green, 2018), the mother moves her family to a remote island in pursuit of her own happiness, leaving her husband behind (rather than following him, which is the usual scenario) resulting in a positive and life-affirming experience for the young protagonist. The mother also smells of fish, rather than roses! In The Huntress: Sea (Driver, 2016) the mother-figure takes the form of a one-eyed grandmother, captain to The Huntress warship, fighter, healer and all-round multi-dimensional woman. In The Wolf Wilder (Rundell, 2015), the mother, Marina, is a physically strong woman with a broken nose and arms that feature ‘an embroidery of scars and muscle.’ She teaches her daughter to do pull-ups on the door frames and to be ‘brave not stupid.’ Marina and her daughter appear to be more like siblings than mother and daughter in the way that they work and survive together.
Mothers in the twenty-first century are likely to have a closer bond with their children than they did in the past, and this fact needs to be reflected in children’s literature. Wang (2013) reports in a Pew Research Centre analysis of time use data that mothers find time spent with their children more rewarding than their paid work, despite child-caring being considered an exhausting activity. Wang further reports that ‘when it comes to feeling happy, time with children ranks high’, suggesting that child care is seen as a positive experience for most mothers. She further states that women in America in 2014 spent on average 14 hours per week engaged in activities with their children – this compares with 10 hours per week in 1960. Throughout the twentieth century mothers typically spent less time with their children because of the heavier burden of housework (Pappas, 2013). Wang also argues that mothers are more likely to prioritise spending time with their children over being alone or involved in their communities. Therefore, books that accept and embrace this closeness, whilst still allowing the young protagonist the freedom to have their adventure should be more mainstream.
And so, this ‘new mother’ that is appearing more often in contemporary novels might even be ‘allowed’ to survive into old age. She may even be an active participant in a story, reflecting the closer relationships mothers now have with their children. She could be strong, clever and funny, rather than a shadow in the background - and no longer chained to the kitchen sink. If she has to be really ‘bad’ for the story to work, then she might be confusingly kind at times, helping children to make sense of more complex or manipulative characters. Of course, she must be imperfect, as that will make her more human.
Recently published children’s books are beginning to feature more interesting, multi-dimensional mother figures who are more likely to represent real-life twenty-first century care-givers. Stereotypical, domestic or ‘invisible’ mother figures are finally being replaced by mothers with careers, mothers who are physically strong or mothers who don’t quite fit into the ‘box’ of what motherhood used to be. This means that contemporary children’s literature is increasingly offering a more realistic and positive representation of women, which will benefit not only young readers, but society as a whole.
Calland, R. (2017) ‘Animal mothers and animal babies in picture books’, in Fraustino, L. and Coats, K. (ed) Mothers in children's and young adult literature: from the eighteenth century to postfeminism. Mississippi, University Press, p.97.
Colfer, E. (2001) Artemis Fowl. London: Puffin Books.
Collins, S. (2008) The hunger games. New York: Scholastic.
Dahl, R. (1966) James and the giant peach. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Dahl, R. (1964) Charlie and the chocolate factory. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Driver, S. (2018) The huntress: sea. London: Egmont.
Fraustino, L. and Coats, K. (2017) Mothers in children's and young adult literature: from the eighteenth century to postfeminism. Mississippi, University Press.
Gaiman, N. (2002) Coraline. London: Bloomsbury and Harper Collins.
Gibson, L. (1988) Beyond the apron: archetypes, stereotypes, and alternative portrayals of mothers in children’s literature, (4), p. 177. doi: 10.1353/chq.0.0187.
Gilmore, K. (2017) ‘Minority mama: rejecting the mainstream mothering model’, in Fraustino, L. and Coats, K. (ed) Mothers in children's and young adult literature: from the eighteenth century to postfeminism. Mississippi, University Press, p.97.
Green, J. (2018) To the edge of the world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ibbotson, E. (2001) Journey to the river sea. London: MacMillan.
Just, J. (2010) ‘The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit’, The New York Times, 1 April. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/04/books/review/Just-t.html (Accessed: 20 November 2018).
Leonard, M.G. (2016) Beetle boy. Frome: The Chicken House.
Meyer, S. (2005) Twilight. Columbus: Little, Brown and Company.
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Pappas, S. (2013) ‘5 ways motherhood has changed over time’, Live Science, 10 May. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/29521-5-ways-motherhood-has-changed.html (Accessed: 25 November 2018).
Pullman, P. (1997) His dark materials: Northern lights. Southam: Scholastic.
Rollin, L. (2005) ‘The reproduction of mothering in charlotte’s web’ in Butler, F., Higonnet, M. and Rosen, B. (ed) The Children’s Literature Foundation. Yale University Press.
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Rundell, K. (2016) The wolf wilder. London: Bloomsbury.
Sage, A. (2005) Septimus Heap: Magyk. London: Bloomsbury.
Thurer, S. (1994) The Myths of motherhood. How culture reinvents the good mother. New York, Penguin Books.
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Wang, W. (2013) ‘Parents’ time with kids more rewarding than paid work’. Pew research centre journal. pp. 1-10. Available at: http://www.pewresearch.org/wpcontent/uploads/sites/3/2013/10/parental-time-use_10-2013.pdf (Accessed: 22 November 2018).
White, E.B. (1952) Charlotte’s web. London: Puffin Books.
Wilson, J. (1999) Illustrated mum. New York: Doubleday.
Woodson, J. (2005) Show way. New York: Putnam.
Lucy Hope is the author of two children's books, Fledgling and Wren, and has a third book coming out in October 2023. All three books are published by multi-award-winning children's publisher, Nosy Crow. Her debut, Fledgling, was nominated for the Carnegie Medal for Writing 2023. In 2019 Lucy graduated from the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University with distinction. She's endlessly fascinated by the process of writing a book, and is excited to share her thoughts on the process of creating a large work of fiction in this new blog!
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