That's Not My Mum!
Bookseller Martha Greengrass has a wonderful mother so, she wonders, why do mums in children’s books often get such a bad rap?
Like many people, as Mother’s Day comes round again, I am prompted to hurriedly stick a card in the post and thank my lucky stars for having the sort of mum who has always been in my corner. It’s not been an easy task. A lifetime of being an endless supply of everything: tissues, plasters, cuddles, boyfriend/career/health advice, she’s propped me up countless times. Really, a card is the least I can do.
She’s also been quietly propping up my bookcase for most of my life, helping me to form some lifelong friendships with my favourite reads. She was there when I first met Anne of Green Gables, held my hand when I met trolls with Bilbo, shared fits of giggles at the disgusting Twits and she provided a shoulder to cry on when Beth died (still ranking right up there as one of the most devastating moments of my life).
Mums in children’s books though, don’t always get much credit or even that much page space. They’re often edited out altogether, the authors perhaps reasoning that only so much dangerous, intrepid adventuring can be done if there is a parent around to question: “just exactly how safe is it in that magical, snowy land beyond the wardrobe?” or “I’m not sure that Wonderland sounds an appropriate place for a 7 year old, tell me more about this talking caterpillar”.
Some of the greatest children’s books make quick work of getting the mums (frequently both parents, but mums especially) out of the way pretty swiftly. Often with a short, sharp, shock right at the beginning - before you’ve had too much time to get comfortable. It’s the tried and tested Bambi plotline. Plenty of heroes start their history being swiftly orphaned, all the better, we can only suppose, to get on with all that adventuring business. Anne Shirley, Oliver Twist, Harry Potter, the Baudelaire children, Mary Lennox... the list is lengthy.
Even when they are present (or at least not deceased) the mothers in children’s books are seldom the sort you might like – Roald Dahl manages to get in several nasty examples - who can forget the horrors of the evil Miss Trunchbull? Even the mothers who aren’t downright dangerous are often either useless or consigned to being in the background. If you believe Enid Blyton they’re primarily there to pack lunches (how else are the Secret Seven/Famous Five going to come by all the sandwiches and ginger beer?) and remember to make sure the St Clare’s students don’t go off to school without their gym kit.
But there are exceptions, some of my favourite mums in fiction have a twinkle in their eye and something slightly wicked up their sleeve. Like Mrs Potts in the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (she was only killed off for extra pathos in the film) who encounters a flying, magical car with just the right balance of pragmatism and joy. The Mrs Weasleys of the book world; who are kind and caring but also fearsome, brave and utterly terrifying when they need to be. You have to do a bit of searching for them, but they are out there.
All of which makes me doubly thankful for my ever-present, ever-adventurous, wickedly wonderful mum, outside of the fictional world. If those stories teach me nothing else, it is that good parents are hard to come by.
Perhaps the really good mums just know when to let their children go off and learn to explore the world (including the book world) for themselves. Learn how to fight dragons, get shipwrecked, ride a broomstick or find a magic land all by themselves, safe in the knowledge there’ll be someone there to share it all with when you get home again.
So thanks Mum, for always being there at the first and last page and of course if I need a pack of tissues or a cuddle, I’ll still yell.