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The Adventures of Mommy Buzzkill

Here’s an interesting game: name one children’s adventure story — just one — in which the mother is present.

A short list of things that wouldn’t make the cut includes The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Madeline, The Secret Garden, “Cinderella,” Eragon, the Bartimaeus trilogy, My Father’s Dragon, James and the Giant Peach, The Phantom Tollbooth, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, and Nightbirds on Nantucket. In Crispin: The Cross of Lead, the mother dies in the first sentence; in The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp, on the third page. All we see of Eloise’s mother are two size-three-and-a-half shoes. The parents in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe toil in London while their children travel to Narnia. The single mother in Half Magic works full time, missing all the magic, while Percy Jackson in The Lightning Thief lives mostly motherless at summer camp. In virtually every adventure story you can name, the mother is decidedly absent from her children’s lives.

Given the ubiquity of maternal mortality in children’s literature, one marvels that the human race has managed to survive at all. Countless fictitious mothers die in childbirth (often producing a foundling in the process) or perish in the book’s opening pages. Many more stories feature a child away at sea, camp, work, or boarding school, or snatched by magic or kidnappers. An equal volume involve a living, attentive mother who just happens to be absent: the children experience adventure at school, on sidewalks, in the woods — somewhere beyond mother’s sphere. The tale might begin with the young hero’s conscious decision to cut the apron strings, particularly if the mother is close-minded or smothering. And of course—think Winnie the Pooh—some stories have mothers whose existence never even comes up.

Adventure stories can have fathers, of course. “Hansel and Gretel,” Nancy Drew, The Red Wolf, Princess Academy, The Hardy Boys, The Penderwicks. And young heroes and heroines often have a female caregiver, such as Ole Golly in Harriet the Spy, Eloise’s Nanny, and Madeline’s Miss Clavel, not to mention the archetypal wicked stepmother or Harry Potter’s odious Aunt Petunia: women who by definition are not mothers. But a real, full-time, flesh-and-blood mom? Not a chance.

This rampant literary exclusion, I used to believe, was a perfect example of maternity’s lowly status in our culture. Are we mothers so awful that we must be blotted from every possible story? I even tried to write a children’s adventure with a mom in it. But, strangely, it turned into an adventure about a mom, because whenever danger arose, she would step in to protect her child. Eventually, I put the story aside — its weaknesses extended far beyond my feminist projections — but the experience set me wondering.

Mothers in real life are giant, nonstop buzzkills. “Hold my hand…Use the safety scissors…Wear your helmet…Get a napkin…Finish your homework first…Don’t let the baby climb the stairs!” We are mama cats, constantly carrying our kittens back to the nest. Mothers in children’s fiction, when present, act just as protectively. In the second Septimus Heap book, Septimus, only recently reunited with his birth parents, watches, stunned, as Mrs. Heap lambastes his employer for overworking him. “Marcia was amazed because no one ever spoke to her like that. No one. And Septimus was amazed because he didn’t realize that that was what mothers did, although he rather liked it.” Mrs. Weasley, too — the closest Harry Potter has to a mother — goes to extraordinary lengths to shield and even to baby him. The young hero of Artemis Fowl, while heartsick over his mother’s mental illness, admits that her recovery “would signal the end of Artemis’s own extraordinary freedom. It would be back off to school, and no more spearheading criminal enterprises for you, my boy.” (Note that all three women spend the vast bulk of these stories apart from their children.) In The Mysterious Benedict Society, Mr. Benedict explains point-blank to his young charges that he employs only orphans because no parents would ever allow their children to face such danger.

Other adult caregivers don’t carry this onus. Female guardians — witness the children’s escapades with Mary Poppins, or the grandmother in The Witches — simply don’t guard that well. Nor do dads. Septimus Heap’s father starts a plague while playing a board game. Mr. Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, smart as he is, can’t save Meg from IT. The single father in Evil Genius cares far more about power than about his son. A fictional father may be indulgent, distant, or cruel. But he isn’t a buzzkill; not an effective one, anyway.

Even Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a trilogy centered on maternal redemption, proves this rule. Heartless Mrs. Coulter transforms into her daughter’s defender, whisking Lyra out of danger, yet still Lyra flees her. She does this not to save the world, as the plot would indicate, but for reasons far deeper and more universal. Lyra purely and simply must leave her mother’s sphere in order for there to be a story. It is by definition the absence of a mother, for Lyra, and for every other hero, that makes the adventure feasible. The simple act of eliminating mom provides a venue where anything dangerous or magical or gallant can happen. Child heroes are then at liberty to discover, to their shock and satisfaction, that they can survive on their own abilities. In other words, these heroes grow up. And with them mature the books’ consumers, as readers vicariously prove themselves heroic and competent.

This critical role of motherhood becomes even more apparent when one considers its antithesis. Imagine if you will a story in which the mother blithely observes her endangered child with nary a warning or gesture of concern. Could a fictional mother ever utter the words “Go whack that dragon, darling” without adding at the very least “be careful” or “wear your jacket” or “don’t forget dinner’s at six”? No. Inconceivable. As annoying as mothers may be, their obverse is downright terrifying. A mom who so casually abandons her children would no longer be a mother. That is, after all, a mother’s primal task: to protect. The scant handful of stories that do feature maternal abandonment The Schwa Was Here, Homecoming, The Great Gilly Hopkins, Because of Winn-Dixie tend to make this the book’s central theme, as protagonists struggle to understand the unfathomable.

Far from belittling motherhood, children’s books embrace it, idealize it, deify it. Mothers are much too important to young readers — even to teen readers — ever to be considered as fallible as…well, as dads. Even in these jaded times, we mothers cannot be present in any story in which the child needs protection, because the reader needs to believe without question that we would instantly overwhelm any quest.

There are lessons here, good lessons. Just consider Blueberries for Sal. Little Sal and a bear cub inadvertently switch places, much to their mothers’ panic, though ultimately both youngsters return safe and well-fed. The story shows children that it’s dangerous to leave your mother’s side, but not that dangerous. You can survive for a bit without her. Its message to mothers is even more significant, particularly in this era of hypervigilant helicopter parents: regardless of your own fears, your young explorer will not be eaten by bears. That’s, really, what all these books are saying. Your child can go anywhere, do anything, and ultimately find her way home. And, regardless of what she may sometimes do or sometimes say, she believes in you with all her heart.

—Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Catherine Gilbert Murdock is the author of Dairy Queen (featuring a hard-working, absentee mother), its sequels The Off Season and the forthcoming Front and Center (Mom is injured, and then away), and Princess Ben, in which the heroine’s mother perishes on page 15.

From the March/April 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Catherine Gilbert Murdock About Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Catherine Gilbert Murdock's debut middle grade novel, The Book of Boy, will be published by Greenwillow Books in Winter 2018. Catherine is also the author of Dairy Queen, The Off Season, Front and Center, Heaven Is Paved with Oreos, Princess Ben, and Wisdom's Kiss. She grew up in Connecticut and now lives in suburban Philadelphia with her husband, two children, and two vocal cats.

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