The Greatest Mothers in Children’s Literature?

Generally sidelined, often peripheral and frequently killed off, who are the mothers that stand out in children’s books? 

In classic stories, mothers tend to fall into one of two categories: evil, such as the many stepmothers in fairy stories, or functional: for example, the only introduction Mother warrants in Milly Molly Mandy is, ‘Mother cooked the dinners and did the washing.’

An exception to this is The Family from One End Street, in which the mother is at the heart of the story.  Her children may spend their days having adventures, but they come home each night to their mother.  Her centrality is shown by the opening lines of the story,

‘Mrs Ruggles was a Washerwoman and her husband was a Dustman.  “Very suitable too,” she would say, though whether this referred to Mr Ruggles himself, or the fact that they both, so to speak, cleaned up after other people, it was hard to decide.’

Absent mothers

In many books, mother characters are entirely absent.  As a plot device, it is often necessary to free up children to embark on adventures or explore the world, and the presence of parents would hamper this freedom.

The most common way to give children liberty is for the mother to have died.  This can have a two-fold purpose.  The first is to enable the children to live more independent lives (fictional fathers are often seen as being less involved).  In books such as Beetle Boy, A Pinch of Magic, The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates, The Infinite, Millions and High Rise Mystery, the mothers of the protagonists have passed away, leaving their children the opportunity to forge their own paths.

The second is often to provide inspiration to their offspring, which drives their ambition and the path their life takes.  In Orphans of the Tide, Ellie is driven to live up to her brilliant inventor mother, Hannah Lancaster: wearing her coat, following her path as an inventor, and providing a nurturing role to the younger orphans where she lived.  And similarly, in Brightstorm, Maudie’s destiny is to emulate her mother Violetta’s engineering expertise.

Some protagonists follow their mother’s legacy closely.  In I, Coriander, Coriander is heavily influenced by her mother’s skill with plants and medicines, and like her, is torn between the ‘real world’ and the fairy world from which she originally came.

The quest towards reunion

In other novels, the characters’ yearning for their mother and their (literal or metaphorical) journey to be reunited is central to the story. 

After escaping from a concentration camp, David (I am David) travels across Europe in harsh conditions, hoping to be together with the mother he only dimly remembers, always travelling towards her.  Similarly in Inkheart, it takes nine years for Meggie to find her mother again, after she is accidentally written into a fantasy book. 

Sometimes it is the child who is left behind.  In The Light Jar, Nate is left for days in an abandoned cottage while his mum went out for supplies and didn’t return, a trauma so great that it caused the return of his imaginary friend from early childhood.   

Ade, from The Boy in the Tower, longs to have his mother back.  Though physically present, she is afflicted with a deep depression that leaves her unable to support him throughout the destruction of their neighbourhood by mysterious plants. 

And possibly the loveliest reunion of mother and children is that in Owl Babies when the mother returns with the words to her fretful children,

‘What’s all the fuss?  You knew I’d come back.’

Idealised mothers

Some fictional mother figures are ever present, and form the epitome of a nurturing parent.  Mother in The Railway Children was unusual for her time, in that she was both the breadwinner and the caregiver, after being plunged into poverty following her husband’s arrest.  Marmee in Little Women is central to her girls, showing great fortitude in difficult circumstances and encouraging her daughters’ individuality.

Mrs Weasley and Mrs Stanton (from Harry Potter and The Dark is Rising respectively) are both mothers whose family is their world.  Though living through dangerous times with threats from harmful powers, they are focused unwaveringly on the wellbeing of their children (and in Molly Weasley’s case, other people’s children too!)

More recent examples of this are Mamochka in The Girl who Speaks Bear, who adopts wild toddler Yanka after finding her in a bear cave, and is unswervingly devoted to her, despite not being sure if she is fully human. 

In The boy at the back of the class, the narrator’s mum performs a dual role: both as a realistic parent juggling two jobs and financial difficulties, and as a teacher to readers of the book.  As she explains to her child the plight that their new refugee friend may have experienced, she educates the reader too, so they can have a well-informed understanding of refugees and the hardships and prejudice they can face.

Resisting stereotypes

The list of absent, or functional mothers, performing a peripheral caring role is long.  But what about the characters who are drawn in more complex ways?

The first complex mother I remember reading about in childhood was Peggy in Back Home, in which 12 year old Rusty returns from America, where she was evacuated five years previously.  She interprets her mother’s reserve as coldness and indifference, and her busyness in the war effort as a sign that she doesn’t want to spend time with her.  When she corrects her grammar and tells her, ‘Boasting doesn’t down too well in this country.’ Rusty feels rejected and isolated.  But Peggy herself is a strong, modest and selfless character, renowned among her colleagues for her bravery and capability, though with the very human flaw of struggling to readjust to a daughter who seems to have outgrown her.

Some fictional mothers are depicted in an equally realistic and less idealised way, with the duality of their lives as a parent and their lives as an individual causing barriers or friction.  Tanya’s mother in The 13 Treasures is so exhausted and broken by her daughter’s strange and apparently destructive behaviour (it is actually the fault of fairies), that she takes her to live temporarily with her grandmother.

Patina’s mother struggles to balance bringing up her children with a long term illness and medical care, so Patina and her little sister live with relatives, seeing their mum on a part time basis- though she remains a strong, guiding influence in their lives.

In The 1000 Year Old Boy, Alfie’s mam has to make difficult decisions to regularly move them on and remain isolated in order to keep the secret that they are Neverdeads (immortal).

After trying to embrace living a simple life as part of the natural landscape of the woods, October’s mother (in October, October) can no longer cope and makes the difficult decision to return to civilization when her daughter is a toddler, visiting her only occasionally for a number of years.

Dr Flossdrop from the quirky novel Zinnia and the Bees is another flawed, yet relatable parent.  When her eldest son leaves home under acrimonious circumstances, she retreats into working long hours as a dentist and leading campaigns for social justice, while her lonely daughter Zinnia copes with her hair becoming infested with a swarm of bickering bees!

Mothers as the enemy

Less common outside of fairytales are the mothers in the role of ‘baddies’.  The hugest transgression in fiction is for a parent to not be on the side of their child.  Max’s mother is Where the wild things are rejects him and leaves him alone, while Bernard’s mother (in Not now, Bernard) is so indifferent to her son as an individual, she fails to keep him safe and doesn’t notice or care when he is replaced by a monster.

The Other Mother in Coraline is an extreme embodiment of evil.  She bends the whole world around her to serve her desire to entrap Coraline, just as she has trapped countless children before.  She initially tempts her with promises of favourite meals (no recipes!) and sought after possessions, but will only fully accept her if Coraline will let her eyes be replaced by buttons. 

This idea of rejecting your child as they are being the ultimate evil is also shown in Goodnight Mister Tom.  The disturbed and tragic Mrs Beech abuses and deeply traumatizes her son William, who only survives by being evacuated.  In one of the most upsetting scenes in children’s literature, her profound neglect and rigid idea of how children should behave leads to the death of William’s baby sister.

Mothers who lead the way

In the rarest category is mothers who are central to the story: not as a supporting character, but a fundamental part who it is impossible to tell the story without.

Marina from The Wolf Wilder is an inspirational character who her daughter Feodora idolises.  She teaches Feo their livelihood wilding wolves and how to live in harmony with their harsh, snowy surroundings. Her strength, determination and refusal to be cowed by powerful men lead to her arrest, and her devotion to her daughter is unwavering.

‘My love for her is a thing you should underestimate only if you have a particularly powerful death wish.’

Unusually, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH features a mother mouse as the main protagonist.  In a quest to save her ill son Timothy, she sets out to find a cure for him, braving encounters with dangers and predators.  Enterprising and resourceful, with a quiet, natural authority, Mrs Frisby is a bold adventurer, holding her own in unfamiliar settings.  Her quick wits and lively curiosity drive the plot as much as her maternal love.

And lastly, the mother who evades all categorisation: Marisa Coulter.  Ruthless, powerful and highly complex, she is utterly absorbing- both to the characters she encounters and to the reader.  Willing to commit any crime necessary, including the murder of children, she is established in Northern Lights as heartless and self-serving.  After leaving her daughter Lyra as a baby, there are signs that twelve years later she is beginning to feel some kind of love towards her, saving her from danger.  This softening continues throughout the trilogy of His Dark Materials, culminating in Mrs Coulter’s willingness to give her own life to keep Lyra safe in The Amber Spyglass.  Simultaneously a hero and a villain, deeply flawed and endlessly fascinating, Mrs Coulter rejected the traditional role of motherhood but was ultimately defined by her unexpected love for Lyra.  A deeply flawed woman, but a perfect character.

Books featured:

Milly Molly Mandy- Joyce Lankester Brisley

The Family from One End Street- Eve Garnett

Beetle Boy- M. G. Leonard

A Pinch of Magic/ The 13 Treasures- Michelle Harrison

The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates

The Infinite- Patience Agbabi

Millions- Frank Cottrell Boyce

High Rise Mystery- Sharna Jackson

Orphans of the Tide- Struan Murray

Brightstorm- Vashti Hardy

I, Coriander- Sally Gardner

I am David- Anne Holm

Inkheart- Cornelia Funke

The Light Jar- Lisa Thompson

The Boy in the Tower- Polly Ho-Yen

Owl Babies- Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson

The Railway Children- E. Nesbitt

Little Women- Louisa May Alcott

Harry Potter- J. K. Rowling

The Dark is Rising- Susan Cooper

The Girl who Speaks Bear- Sophie Anderson

The Boy at the Back of the Class- Onjali Q. Rauf

Back Home/ Goodnight Mister Tom- Michelle Magorian

Patina- Jason Reynolds

The 1000 Year Old Boy- Ross Welford

October, October- Katya Balen

Zinnia and the Bees- Danielle Davis

Where the Wild Things Are- Maurice Sendak

Not now, Bernard- David McKee

Coraline- Neil Gaiman

The Wolf Wilder- Katherine Rundell

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

His Dark Materials- Philip Pullman

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