Happy (belated) Mother’s Day!
It’s always a tight-rope to talk about mothers in kids’ books or YA books. On the one hand, there are lots of mothers, good, bad, and indifferent, who make appearances in books for young people. However, since kids’ books are supposed to be about the kids, and YA books about the teens, the mothers often have to be shuffled into the background. It seems like a disproportionate number of YA protagonists have mothers who are dead or absent, while picture book mothers are often too perfect, since the protagonist kids need to have their adventures against a relatively safe background.
With that said, here are some picture book and YA mothers who have stuck out to me. I know I can’t begin to cover all of them, so please add your favorites (or least favorites!) in the comments, and check out Wendy Daughdrill’s post that celebrates mothers in YA lit.
The Berenstein Bears and Mama’s New Job by Stan and Jan Berenstein. The Berenstein Bears are one of those picture book families in which the mother sometimes seems a little too perfect. I feel like this tendency is more pronounced in later books in the series, especially in the ones where poor Papa Bear becomes the bad example time and again. However, the series also has a lot of good, realistic parenting moments (maternal and paternal), and I think Mama’s New Job is one of these. It shows the process of Mama going from a stay-at-home bear to a working woman and how the whole family makes the adjustment and helps her along the way.
Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild by Mem Fox, illustrated by Marla Frazee. I, as a mother, love this book because Harriet’s mom is not perfect. She tries and tries not to yell, while Harriet tries and tries not to get in trouble, but in the end, Harriet’s mom just loses it and starts yelling. All turns out ok, and Harriet and her mom both learn about apologizing and trying again.
Love You Forever by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Sheila McGraw. Ah, the book that parents love to hate. I’ve heard about people who love this book and people who hate it, but not a whole lot of middle ground. In it, a mother sings the same lullaby to her son as he grows older, and older, and older (including into adulthood), and people seem to see it as either a testament to maternal love’s endurance or an example of maternal overprotectiveness. I remember listening to this book as a kid, and I always though the scene where the mother drives across town to rock her adult son to be funny and charming–of course, I thought, no real mother would do that, but lots of mothers probably feel like they could. Love it or hate it, Love You Forever is a classic “mother” picture book.
Yoko Learns to Read by Rosemary Wells. Yoko is a Japanese American cat for whom learning to read in English becomes much quicker after she discovers the library, because she and her mother have only three (Japanese) books at home. I like the Yoko stories because they show how Yoko’s mother helps Yoko even while she navigates her own difficulties in a new culture–in this case, she doesn’t want to tell the teacher that she herself can not read English. Yoko is both supported by her mother and has the chance to teach her in return.
Heckedy Peg by Audrey Wood, illustrated by Don Wood. This is a book I remember loving in early elementary school, and it’s one my kids check out over and over again from the library. While a witch who turns seven kids into food is certainly the attention-grabbing character in the story, it’s the kids’ mother who turns out to be the star. She follows the witch to her hut in the woods, demands to be admitted until she’s successful, and correctly guesses which child has been turned into which food to save them all from the curse. At the end of the story, she ensures that the witch will never bother her family again.
The White Bicycle by Beverley Brenna (2013 Printz Honor Book, 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults). Taylor Jane Simon is nineteen years old and has a summer job in France, but her mother, Penny, insists on tagging along. Taylor has Asperger’s Syndrome, and as the story progresses, Taylor’s narration lays out the ways in which Penny is overprotective and “often wrong.” I find this book interesting because, given Taylor’s unique point of view (I wouldn’t go so far as to call her an unreliable narrator), the reader can see both the ways that Penny is overprotective and some of the reasons why. The summer’s experiences, however, give Taylor the determination to demand her own independence, and start to prepare Penny for giving it to her.
The Tyrant’s Daughter by J.C. Carleson (2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults Nominee). Her father’s death in a violent coup has forced Laila, her mother, and her younger brother to flee to suburban Washington, D.C. from their Middle Eastern country. While Laila tries to figure out the truth behind who her father was and reconcile this with her memories, her mother stays busy pretending that their life is still under control and desperately trying to negotiate with the CIA about how the current civil war back home should be managed. The struggles of a family who have far bigger issues on their minds while still getting through daily life prove a fascinating read.
Zel by Donna Jo Napoli (2005 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults). In this retelling of the fairy tale Rapunzel, Napoli gives three viewpoints on the events: Zel’s, her love Konrad’s, and the “witch’s,” known only in the story as “Mother.” In telling Mother’s side of the story, Napoli provides a fascinating examination into what factors would make a woman steal a baby to raise as her own, and then imprison the young woman she professes to love so much.
A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Phillipe Lardy (2006 Printz Honor Book, 2006 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book). Unlike the other books in this list, A Wreath for Emmett Till is neither fiction nor narrative, but a collection of poems (a “heroic crown of sonnets,” to be exact) commemorating the life of the young boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. It includes two poems that focus on his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, one that likens her to Mary, mother of Jesus. The afterword notes that Till Mobley dedicated the rest of her life to civil rights activism.
Imani All Mine by Connie Porter (2000 Alex Award Winner, 2000 Top 10 Best Books for Young Adults). This is this only YA book I know of (and now I expect to get a flood of others!) where the protagonist is a mother herself. Tasha is a fifteen year old mother who still likes to do the normal teenager things (watch TV, hang out with her friends), but is deeply devoted to her baby Imani and to being a good mother. She also has to deal with the violence in her neighborhood, and her fear of the man who raped her. Porter examines not just Tasha’s motherhood, but also her relationship with her own mother and the difficulty that poverty brings to being a mother of any age.
The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan (2006 Best Books for Young Adults). While Percy Jackson’s mom takes more of a back seat than the other moms in this list, she is certainly an interesting character in her own right. She stays married to an abusive and (literally) smelly man, but stands up to him by finding blue food to eat. She seems blind to all of Percy’s failings, but continues to send him away to boarding school. As the book progresses, both Percy and the reader slowly learn why his mom makes the choices she does, and her own brand of heroism shines through even while the book is focused on Percy’s hero’s journey.
-Libby Gorman, currently (still) reading The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith