Fictitious mothers - how real are they?

Apropos of Mothers' Day, when I started thinking about the most memorable mothers in children's fiction, I soon realised I wasn't the only one interested in the subject. Do a search in Google, and you'll find many a list of the good, bad, and down right terrible. 

So which mothers can I recall? And how real are they, anyway? 

I remember some mothers for their convenient absence. As shadowy figures, they lurk in the background, providing sustenance and surety. Think Swallows and Amazons. There is a realism to these mothers, in that they are there but not there - very much how they might appear in the minds of children similar in age to the characters themselves.

I remember mothers for their convenient absence ... providing sustenance and surety

With the background security of a 'good' mother at home, children are at ease to focus on the here and now of things, the immediacy of adventure, the losing themselves in imaginary worlds.

And of course as a child reader, you want to read about kids like you, not about boring mums and dads. YOU want to be the centre of the story, the protagonist, the one in control, the one who sorts everything out.

As a child reader ... you want to be the centre of the story ... the one who sorts everything out

As a parent, I remember Sarah Garland's single mother from the picture books I read to my own children, the wonderful connection displayed throughout the illustrations of a day simply shared – gardening, shopping, and swimming. As a single mother, I felt a real connection to these stories, the affirmation that it was OK to be as I was. And there was recognition, too, in the small details of this picture-book family's life.

As a single mother, I felt a real connection ... the affirmation that it was OK to be as I was

Other memorable mothers in my list, unsurprisingly, are the bad mothers – the Roald Dahl mothers, who actively hate and despise their children. And then there are the dead mothers, of Oliver Twist, and Harry Potter – their ghostly legacy left to haunt the story. These might at first appear as extreme, unrealistic mothers – and yet they are all too shockingly real.

There are the dead mothers ... their ghostly legacy left to haunt the story

It's interesting to note how the bad mothers of fairytales, were altered to the more palatable role of stepmother. A need to reflect the notion of the time that children, and no doubt the rest of society, must be protected from the truth - that real mothers are quite capable of terrible cruelty against their own offspring.

The realism depicted in the last fifty years of children's and YA fiction, is redressing the balance, to some extent. Flawed mothers, both redeemable and irredeemable (think Jacqueline Wilson's mothers). Politically correct and incorrect mothers (think Ladybird books), cool, laid-back mothers (think Meg and Charles Wallace's mother in Madeleine L'Engle's a Wrinkle in Time quintet), adoptive mothers (The Cuthberts in Anne of Green Gables, Mrs Weasley in Harry Potter), detached, cold mothers (think Mrs Coulter in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy).

Real mothers are quite capable of terrible cruelty against their own offspring

We have this wide variety of mothers, but do we have truly diverse mothers – gay mothers, disabled mothers, mothers from all ethnicities?

The role of mothers in children's fiction, in whichever guise, is surely threefold: to reflect the true nature of what it's like to be a child growing up in today's society, to act as a foil for the authentic unfolding of a captivating story, and lastly as a point of reference and reassurance for the reader. It's only fair, therefore, that every child has a chance to read a book and feel - Yes. This is about me. This is about me, and my mother.

Don't forget to check out the good reads from last week's Words & Pictures. It really is worth taking the time to delve in to these - a veritable buffet for the hungry creative in search of nourishment:

Monday's How to submit your picture book professionally, with Natascha 
Tuesday's ten minute blog break from Nick  
Wednesday's itch getting a creative scratch from Alex Craggs
Friday's historic moment with Sarah McIntyre - pictures do mean business
Saturday's Moving in the right direction, with Jo Thomas

Nancy Saunders is the new Editor of W&P. You can find some of her short stories here, and on Twitter @nancyesaunders


  1. All my books are about me and my mother ... but not all the characters are mothers. There is also a always a quirky, outrageous Filipino mother figure prone to saying shocking things, the way Asian mothers do. My daughter spots the character immediately and says, 'Mom, this is YOU!' Thanks for the lovely post and happy Mother's day, everyone, literary or not!

  2. How wonderful to hear, Candy. Having read Shine, I think I know what you mean! Cheers :-)


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