There’s an almost unspoken rule in kids fiction; before the story begins kill the parents. Harry Potter loses his parents, Sophie in the BFG is an orphan, etc. etc. Then there’s a whole other category of what you might call half-orphans; children who have lost their mothers (i.e. Danny [champion of the world], Hiccup [How to train your dragon], Belle [Beauty and the Beast].)
There must be some literary reason behind all this maternal slaughter but the one that seemed to flair up most for me (after I decided to keep my characters’ mums alive) came as a bit of a surprise.
Initially I assumed that all the parents were being killed off because parents would make the story too boring for kids. However, the more I write mum characters the more I see how brilliant, exciting, and shocking they can be. Turns out mums aren’t so boring after all. So why do so many children’s books commit matricide?
I can boil my feelings on it down to a moment I had when writing ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame’. There’s a battle, a character full of malevolence and power is poised to begin a magical takeover of the non-magical world, and all the key good guys are lining up to stop him.
Key among these is a mum with more than enough power to take him on. Originally I had her set up to do just that and then something shoved that option aside; fear. Not her fear (she was brave, bold, and everything I needed her to be), instead I found myself burgeoned with ridiculous amounts of worry on the part of her child. This is when I realised the real reason that parents stay out of the action in children’s fiction; it’s all just too much for the children to take.
As a writer you’re faced with a choice between endless descriptions of a child’s concern for their parent, or you can avoid this and make the child seem uncaring or even callous in their disregard for their mum’s safety.
The simple truth is that you can’t write a believable child without addressing their relationship with their parents. When you take their parents out of the picture, your character can get on with the adventuring.
When you take the mum out, in a strange way, you remove the character’s worries about the possibility of losing a source of deep reassurance, support, and love. Mums can’t always be part of the action because the risk is simply too great for the child protagonists.
It looks like mums are sometimes too big, too emotionally all-encompassing to be included in children’s stories. In other words mums are a bit too awesome for kids books.
Can you think of any kids books that manage to keep the mums involved? Do you have any favourite literary mums? Feel free to share in the comments and over on Facebook or Twitter.
As always thanks for reading, and happy mothers day to all the mums out there.
All the best, John