Children’s literature means all new things to me as I read it as a mother. Last spring I taught two books I love, in two different classes, and began to wonder why I love them.
In my children’s literature class we were talking about Charlotte’s Web, perhaps one of the most perfect novels ever written. This simple story of a pig and a spider never fails to touch me, perhaps because it seems to be essentially a fable about the strength of maternal love. Charlotte dies after saving the life of her surrogate child, Wilbur, knowing she’ll never meet her own children, the spiders whose eggs she deposits carefully in their egg sac in the last creative act of her life. Even as I read it aloud in class, my eyes welled with tears as I read of her death and Wilbur’s careful guarding of her eggs until they hatch the next spring.
In my other class, an upper-division course for English majors, I was teaching The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald. It’s far less well-known than Charlotte’s Web, but I read and loved it as a kid. The novel tells the story of the motherless princess Irene, her great-great-grandmother, and the miner boy, Curdie, who encounters them both. Together, Irene and Curdie save their kingdom from an attack by gruesome goblins who live under the ground, right next to the mines where Curdie and his father work. Strangely, though, it’s also a maternal story, a story of a (great-great-grand) mother who watches over a child, whose love safeguards even when she herself is out of reach: Irene is protected throughout the novel by a magical string (almost a web, indeed) spun for her by her great-great-grandmother, invisibly binding them together.
Both of these fables of maternal love, I find, are actually of surrogate maternity. Charlotte is not Wilbur’s mother (the mind boggles!) — though we’re never told it, Wilbur’s mother must in fact have been butchered at some point. (The family eats bacon in the first scene, when Fern adopts her tiny piglet). In The Princess and the Goblin, the princess Irene’s own mother is dead, and the great-great-grandmother is not even visible to everyone (including, at first, Curdie), setting up the possibility that she’s a ghost, perhaps even the ghost of Irene’s own mother. So while maternal love animates these tales, actual mothers do not.
As I cast my mind back over my favorite books for children, I find that mothers are strangely lacking even as their love is extolled, and I worry about what this means for me. Just think about it: in so many of our favorite books, the heroes and heroines are orphans, motherless children, or perhaps even abandoned children. The pattern begins in fairy tales: Hansel and Gretel, abandoned in the woods by their parents (the mother is sometimes called a stepmother, to soften the blow a bit); Snow White, whose mother dies in childbirth; Cinderella, oppressed by a stepmother and an ineffectual father . . . the list goes on. In picture books, children are often simply on their own: Peter Rabbit in Mr. Macgregor’s garden, Max from Where the Wild Things Are off in his dream-boat, Frog and Toad, Ruby and Max. As we often discuss in my children’s literature class, parents get in the way of a good story. Who wants to read about a well-adjusted kid staying home with his or her parents, after all?
Well, I do. And they do exist: think of Bread and Jam for Frances, for example, or Blueberries for Sal (well, even there, Sal gets separated from her mother and starts following around a bear mama instead, but you get the picture). Still, it seems to me that overwhelmingly our literature for children is about independence and separation from parents, not about connection.
So I’m torn as I reread The Princess and the Goblin once again. Do I want to read it to Nick? In the novel I read aloud to him last year, The Magician’s Nephew, the main character’s mother is dying, and I stumbled over the words as I read them to him, hoping he wasn’t really paying attention to that part, wanting him to focus on the adventure rather than the reason for it. As it turned out, he did — at age six and even now at seven, he wants adventure and doesn’t seem to care what brings it on. But still, I worry. After all, this is the kid who had to leave Finding Nemo after the first few minutes. Yeah, you got it: mom gets eaten. Bam. Between that and the overloud music, he was overwhelmed. His dad carried him out of the theater.
Reading children’s literature as a mother, I find myself removed, left out, rejected. Stepmothers fare worse — Snow White’s kills herself dancing in red-hot shoes at the wedding ball — but the impulse is the same. And in case you think this is all yesterday’s news, that today’s stories for kids don’t do this, just think of Ice Age (another dead mother), or The Lion King (dead father). It’s everywhere. My students, revisiting these texts as young adults, seem stymied by this data. They have grown up, even more than I did, under the protective gaze of loving parents; yet the children in the literature they read as kids, or read now in my class, are forced into early independence. Once I had them answer an exam question: “Do parents matter?” Most of them came to the reluctant conclusion (you could see it in their arguments, how hard they worked to make the mothers count): no, not in the literature they read. It’s eye-opening for them, newly (almost) independent college students; they become somewhat sentimental about their own parents as they work through their own separation from them. But they also enjoy the independence of the kids they read about, even envy it. I don’t blame them, but I have to wonder.
In The Princess and the Goblin, as in Charlotte’s Web, maternal love is miraculous. It protects and saves without smothering or over-protecting. It reaches beyond physical boundaries and blood ties; it partakes, quite literally, of the divine. Charlotte’s miraculous web and the magic string that leads Irene out of the mine both represent the invisible ties mothers weave from their children to themselves, binding them in a web of love and sacrifice. Perhaps to attribute such things to real mothers would be too overwhelming, too much of a reminder of the ways in which mothers can bind and suffocate their children. There are other possibilities as well: perhaps our oldest literature reflects the reality that often mothers died before their children were grown, and later novels simply build on this tradition. Perhaps it’s developmental: many books for pre-readers, after all, have omnipresent mothers. And, as I think about it, I’m not crazy about them, either — Love You Forever and The Runaway Bunny are just as creepy, to me, as all the dead mom stories. It seems all a mother can be in these books is omnipresent or absent, hovering or abandoning. What we’re talking about, then, is a maternal principle rather than real mothers: real mothers, in all their messy variety, would complicate the plots too much, direct the focus away from the child protagonists.
Well, maybe. All I know is, I’m looking for a fun, adventurous mother in the next book I read.