04 November 2010

No more dead mothers

So. Here's a question: in children's literature, is it preferable to be an orphan than motherless?

Let's consider the options.

If a child is orphaned by the death of both their parents, it is usually a device which frees up the child to have an adventure--the sort which could never have been enjoyed if constrained by the banalities of family life. There may be some shuffling about among disgruntled relatives, but for the most part orphaned children in books tend to reach the end of their adventures having either created or joined the best family for themselves. While their struggles as orphans are evident, their triumphs are just as prevalent. As examples I present Anne Shirley, Harry Potter, and the Baudelaire siblings.

Now let's look at motherless children. There is no sense of adventure for these unhappy souls. They are usually stuck working through their grief while also trying to contend with the ill-equipped parent who is still around. Books in which the mother has died seem to require an awful lot of growth on the part of their young protagonists. In fact, that usually seems to be the point of the book--showing the reader how the child grows, managing to survive the dark pit into which they have been figuratively thrown.  Surviving a dead mother is an adventure of sorts, but not a particularly fun one. Katherine Marsh's The Night Tourist, K.L. Going's The Garden of Eve, and Sally Nicholls' Season of Secrets all feature children who have recently lost their mother and are trying to somehow reach or retrieve their deceased parent.  A notable exception would be a character like Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice, who is several years removed from the death of her mother by the start of the series. Even though she still misses her mother--particularly the impact of her feminine influence in her life--her grieving and subsequent transformation has happened off-screen.

So where does this leave us? I would say it's better to be rid of both parents and just get on with facing the world. Being motherless is simply too angsty. Do you have any examples to present for either argument?


Isa said...

John Connolly's "The Book of Lost Things" has a child that has lost the mother and he goes through a lot of hard times.
If you want to extend that to the loss of one parent only, the Katniss in "The Hunger Games" lost the father and had to grow up very quickly.

Kara Schaff Dean said...

Katniss definitely fits the pattern of the "wrong-parent" child: her mother is completely ineffective at dealing with the situation, leaving Katniss to muddle through on her own while trying to grieve as well.

The Bumbles said...

I'm with Isa - I thought immediately of The Book of Lost Things. The little boy loses his mother to a terrible illness, absorbs a new step-parent and a move during a time of danger in the world due to war, but goes on a magical adventure that is dangerous as well - but teaches him to be strong, who to trust and to appreciate those that he still has. It is actually a very funny book, despite the motherless premise.

I'm about to begin reading "The True Story of Hansel & Gretel" by Louise Murphy which sounds like it will give me a good example of your orphaned characters to contrast and compare to the example above - which also had a strong fairy tale basis.

Kara Schaff Dean said...

I've read The Book of Lost Things. It had definite YA cross-over appeal, but I would debate whether or not it was written for other than an adult audience. Still, it's a good example of a mother-less child who gets to do more than sit at home and wring his hands.

Ms. Yingling said...

Milo, Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze is a new example of how angsty it can get. The touch was light, though, and Milo was trying to move along while still preserving some memory of his mother.

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