Mothers in Modern Children’s Books

In a great deal of children’s fiction, mothers are either dead, disappeared or distant. As a mother myself, that’s always a little frustrating – although I realise that the reason my children haven’t discovered a Magic Faraway Tree in the garden, escaped to another world through the wardrobe, or fallen down a rabbit hole is because I’m always there, beating on the door, interrupting every scene, making a nuisance of myself with my rules and fussiness.

The following children’s books all feature mothers very kindly – in one even pointing to the fact that they are superheroes – so for mother’s day, I’m celebrating the mothers who feature, rather than fade into the background.

the paper dolls

The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
One of the slightly lesser known Julia Donaldson stories, this is a nostalgic ride through childhood, describing the craft activity of a small girl, and her memories of it as she grows. The mother, first labelled as ‘nice’ in the text, is portrayed with more empathy in the pictures – the reader sees her on her knees beside her daughter with a cup of tea in hand. She looks on fondly at her daughter colouring in the paper dolls. She has clearly helped to make them.

The mother disappears as the girl takes her dolls away to play, but returns to join in the make-believe at the breakfast table – donning a crocodile puppet. Unfortunately she can’t rescue her daughter’s paper dolls when a nasty boy comes to snip them to pieces. The little girl then grows into a mum herself:

“And the girl grew…into a mother”, my favourite illustrations portraying the child growing from holding a book to holding a baby – and then

“who helped her own little girl make some paper dolls”, this time at the table, but mimicking the former picture, with similar props.

The text doesn’t rhyme, as in many favourite Donaldson titles, but there is a superb sing-song rhythm to the story, which a reader can’t help but pronounce as its read aloud.

Of course I’ve picked it for the depiction of a mother who plays with her child, but actually the story is about loss – the fluidity of time, the memories of things now long gone, including people, and the inherited culture that continues from one generation to the next. Because after all, as mothers, we’re teaching children about our heritage, and giving them tools to manage and enjoy their future. Purchase it here.

polly and puffin

Polly and the Puffin: The Stormy Day by Jenny Colgan, illustrated by Thomas Docherty
Just published, this is a book that captures the relationship between mother and child in a few simple words, and with just a few pages evokes real emotion in the reader.

Polly and the Puffin: The Stormy Day is the second in the series. Polly is waiting for her father to come home in his boat, but the waiting is difficult, and even harder when it’s raining outside and a storm makes her feel anxious. With beautiful two-colour illustrations throughout, shades of orange and grey creating the perfect mix between a child’s outlook and the approach of a grey storm.

Of course, her puffin, Neil, features heavily in this series of books about the friendship between the girl and the rescued puffin – and the illustrations of Neil are also accentuated by the chosen colour palette (black and white and an orange beak). Polly is distressed when he flies off into the storm and she has to wait for him to return as well as her father.

There are some beautiful touches of interplay between mother and daughter. Polly wakes up early, the inference is that it is too early, and:

“Mummy was trying to do Busy Stuff.”

She asks Polly for five minutes – and the author turns to talk to the reader:

“Can you just give me five minutes?” said Mummy. (Does your mummy ever say that?)”

There are some real moments of emotional intelligence all the way through the book, from the illustrations of Mummy at the computer with Polly hanging round her neck, to Mummy’s comforting of Polly during the storm:
“I would come and find you. That’s what mummies do. Shelter you from storms.”

Mummy also shows Polly that she is not alone in her waiting – with a sympathetic and understanding explanation of all the other people who are waiting in the café. There is a beautifully happy uplifting ending of course – a hug of a story. At the end there is information on lighthouses, recipes and activities. Perfect for newly independent readers, and mums who want their heartstrings twanged. You can buy it here.

superhero street

Superhero Street by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
For my eagle-eyed readers, you’ll see that this is the second in Phil’s series of Storey Street books, and the first, Demolition Dad, I featured last Father’s Day, so it’s rather fitting that this second slots into my Mother’s Day post.

Mouse lives on Storey Street with his twin and triplet brothers. He is obsessed with superheroes, and knows he could be one himself, as heroes tend to come from the ordinary – just look at Clark Kent. So far though, he hasn’t been successful.

When he and his mother accidentally foil a bank robbery, his dreams of being a superhero come true. When other ‘superheroes’ arrive at his house, he and they band together to stop a dastardly villain returning to claim her missing diamond.

The story is slightly more insular than Demolition Dad – it is almost entirely focussed on Mouse’s family, with friends on the street as periphery characters only, but this is mainly because Mouse’s own family is a bit of a mess, and rather sprawling. Mouse feels overlooked at home, with five smaller brothers to look after, his parents are exhausted. Then when his Dad walks out, Mouse’s despair sinks to new levels. If children are unhappy at home, it’s hard to shift the focus away.

Because this is for younger readers than Phil Earle’s YA territory, he very cleverly weaves the silliness of the story, complete with madcap and lunatic characters such as superhero Dandruff Dan, into the mix, so that bodily function jokes mask the seriousness of a father leaving home and the burden left behind on the mother.

The underlying message is that anyone can be a superhero if they act in the correct way – Mouse’s mother is certainly a superhero in my eyes, and in illlustrator Sara Ogilvie’s eyes: her portrayal of Mum in the kitchen supervising her six boys. Mouse’s mother is also the school lollipop lady – another community superhero.

Phil’s penchant for authorial references and asides to the reader always makes me giggle, and emphasise that he’s telling a story:

“People throw parties for lots of different reasons. Birthdays, weddings, chickenpox…don’t laugh, it’s true, go and ask your mum. Well, go on! OK, are you back? Comfy? Good…”

So combined with the silliness of the plot, the hilarious illustrations, and the comedic text, this makes for a riotous book despite the underlying seriousness.

A superhero writer – showing the goodness of mothers. For readers aged 7+ years. You can buy it here.

sam and sam

The Secrets of Sam and Sam by Susie Day

What’s better than one mum? Two mums! As Susie Day puts it in The Secrets of Sam and Sam:
“One mum was good. Two mums was best.”

This novel is a spin-off title from Susie Day’s much loved series about Pea (including Pea’s Book of Best Friends). Secondary characters in Pea’s books, the twins Sam and Sammie move centre stage with their own story here, in a loveable tale about being twins, having a loving family, school trips, conquering fears, making friends and builders!

Told in a series of vignettes about Sam’s secrets, and then also third person narrative about both twins, as well as letters, annotations on the book Mum K (child psychologist) is writing, and various other documents and text messages, this is a hilarious look about finding out who you are, what you can achieve, and how to make friends.

Sam is scared of heights and wants to avoid the school trip, which sounds dangerous and risky. Sammie is delighted about the school trip, but rather worried that her best friend has a new best friend. And she needs to prove to everyone that she’s definitely the Best Twin. Meanwhile Sam and Sammie’s two mums have secrets of their own.

This is a fun story that children will whizz through, sympathising at times with both twins, and seeing the delightful irony and wit that shines through Susie Day’s writing.

The author is brilliant at conveying the messiness, stresses, and love of the family unit in all its different guises and ways – even with the peripheral characters in this novel, and that’s what makes the read heart-warming, sincere, and sharp too. She imbues her characters with a warmth and generosity – even when they’re making mistakes (the adults too), so that the reader both empathises with them, and feels a familiarity with the book too. Her settings are incredibly visual – the street is particularly well-described, so that the reader is completely immersed.

Dotted throughout with doodly illustrations by Aaron Blecha, the book feels both meaty in content and yet satisfyingly easy to fly through – highly recommended for children aged 8+ years. And it features a family with two mothers. Hard to beat on Mother’s Day. You can buy it here.