Here's a discussion I've been meaning to write for a while, requested by commenters. A few years ago, I read a Horn Book article about the lack of mothers in fairy tales and books, and it mentioned, among others, Princess Academy. The article's writer (I'm embarrassed I can't remember who) challenged herself to change that and write a book where the protagonist's mother was a present, strong character. She talked about her work and how she had to scrap it. In a story, it's just impossible for a child/teen to have any adventures, to grow on his/her own with a mother present. The mother would take care of everything, the mother would carry the burden of worry. You want your protagonist to be as close to and involved in the action as possible, and for a young protagonist, a mother (a capable, present mother) will interfere.

I tried the same thing once. I was determined to have a mother and father who were present, who had the adventures alongside my hero. Again, it didn't work. Boring. The real growing up a person does is gradual and often subtle. In a story, you speed things up, let a few large events stand in for a hundreds of small events. If a mother especially is there, the young character doesn't have a chance to grow, to make choices, to be a hero.

200px-Mrs_frisby_and_the_rats_of_nimhSo why not make the mother herself the character? Traditionally a children's book has a child as the main character. I can think of only one exception: the extremely wonderful Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and it's subsequent movie, The Secret of NIMH (notice the title change--no need to highlight a Mrs is the main character, after all). Any other mother main characters I'm missing?

While this is a general rule, great authors can break it. I can think of many wonderful mother supporting characters who manage to stay out of the protagonist's way.

Charlotte, that lovely spider. What a clever device! She's a mother character, and yet she's so small and vulnerable with such a short life span. She can't take care of everything, but just enough. 200px-CharlotteWeb

Mrs. Weasley is great, one of the most memorable mothers in literature and film. If she'd been onsite, she would have prevented some adventures. Rowling got around that with the boarding school scenario.

I think of Elastigirl from the Incredibles, but the children are not the main characters, and she does have to leave them alone at one point--the point at which they really come into their own powers.

Looking over my own books, about half the mothers are dead. Jack, Rapunzel, Rin, and Razo have excellent mothers who aren't perfect but definitely have strengths. They all must leave them behind to have their adventures or save their mothers themselves.


What do you think about the missing moms? Any examples of present mothers who didn't get in the way? What about fathers?

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Published on May 14, 2012 12:55 • 476 views
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message 1: by Heidi (new)

Heidi The 13th Reality series' main character Tick has a good mother living in the same house he does. He has his adventures because his dad helps him sneak away and they don't tell mom what's going on until after Tick has left. Tick does tell his dad what's going on and his dad sees the importance and helps him while trying to protect as best he can. I thought it was a good balance. I don't like the stories where the parents are stupid so it was nice to have one where the main character lives in a functional family.


message 2: by Laura (new)

Laura The Fablehaven Series have both mom and dad, but the story really starts while the parents are away. The grandparents become the role models for the main characters.
I think most authors choose absent moms because the characters have to rely on themselves instead.


message 3: by Laura (new)

Laura After browsing my shelves, I finally found a series with strong parents. The "Little House" series have both parents. Most of the other books on my shelves that have both parents, one or both are totally dis-functional or act against the child's best interest.


message 4: by Catrina (new)

Catrina It's true. I've tried to think of books where the mother isn't dead and they are usually dingy, ill or an absentee parent. So interesting!


message 5: by Kendra (new)

Kendra What about the Mortal Instruments series? Not a child's book, but a strong mother role. The Dad is a complete lunatic, but I really liked the Mom in the story.


message 6: by Laura (new)

Laura Kendra wrote: "What about the Mortal Instruments series? Not a child's book, but a strong mother role. The Dad is a complete lunatic, but I really liked the Mom in the story."

True...a lot of books have 1 strong parent and 1 crazy, mean or lazy parent.


message 7: by Chantal (new)

Chantal What about The Wild Girls, by Pat Murphy?


message 8: by Denise (new)

Denise Thank you for this fascinating commentary. It does seem that girls best individuate when separated from their mothers in some way, and this makes for better stories. "From Girl to Goddess" by Valerie E. Frankel discusses this, as well.


message 9: by Maia (new)

Maia B. "The Mother-Daughter Book Club" by Heather Vogel Freiderick (sp?) has a very strong mother element...the dads are there too, but it's mostly the mothers. They're very important...but this is the exception.


message 10: by Pollyanna (new)

Pollyanna I found a few, but it is interesting to see how few there are. Little Women, has a strong mother character, though their father is away for part of the book. Also The Swiss Family Robinson has both parents present throughout the book. in Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, the main character has two healthy, functioning parents though they don't have a strong presence in the story. Also Savvy by Ingrid Law has an intact family, even though her father has an accident.


message 11: by Cherene (new)

Cherene Very interesting. I have often wondered about the lack of a good mother in Jane Austen's works, but hadn't realized how common that theme is in most books. As a mother, it makes me wonder how much I am stifling my children's growth by being there to solve every problem for them. My oldest is 15, and I have a hard time letting him make his own mistakes. This post makes me realize that I need to find the right balance between being fully present and allowing my children the space they need to learn life lessons and grow.


message 12: by Riya (new)

Riya Percy Jackson's mother is very present in all of the books, yet Percy and his friends still have A LOT of awesome adventures, and while his mom obviously worries about him, I think that she understands that Percy is a demigod and he has to do what he has to do. Their relationship is so sweet and Rick Riordan is amazing. <3 long live the Percy Jackson series!!


message 13: by Melody (new)

Melody McBride There was a book I read within the last year, Unearthly by Cynthia Hand, that has a strong mother figure. Mostly it's because the main character is a girl who finds out she's an angel, and her mother has to teach her everything about it so she doesn't mess everything up. Haha. But it's when the mother isn't around that she made her mistakes and had to figure things out alone.


message 14: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Have you read any of Kristen Randle? "The Gardener", the mother is present and gives amazing advice to the main character. In Breaking Rank the boy main character mother is there and you can tell he is who he is because of her. But I do agree with you, you almost always have to get rid of the parents in some way or another in order for a teen to go on amazing adventures and learn the hard way.


message 15: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca O. Speaking of books where the mom is the main character.... Found an old childhood favorite at my library sale. http://www.amazon.com/Country-Bunny-L.... (after reading this book, My son claims he will teach his kids to care for the house while he is an astronaut. I have suggested that he start by cleaning his own room, so he may teach them by example. ;)


message 16: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca O. Oh and books with present mothers... Sharon Shinn's the safe keepers secret and the truth tellers tale both have important, strong mothers.


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