A few good mothers

Another mother’s day has come and gone, and I have been thinking about the mothers that inhabit the pages of many children’s books. We are either idealized as the “perfect mother” or conspicuously absent: disinterested, ill or dead. Most mothers are somewhere in between.

In reality, motherhood is much more messy and interesting, and involves bugs, furry critters, sand castles, sticks, stones, sickness, splinters, school, snacks, babysitters, a lot of love and a little sleep. Here are some quirky old books for young children that celebrate the wonderful world of motherhood:

1) The adoring new mother: Mrs. Waterlow is a picture of maternal beauty and grace in this gorgeous illustration by Henriette Willebeek Le Mair from A Gallery of Children (1925) by A.A. Milne. This story represents a romanticized image of motherhood, but I do remember the feeling expressed here–that feeling of overwhelming love and need to protect my baby from harm. And the joy of tucking her in, safe and sound, at night.

“Thank you, and thank you, God, for giving me my darling darlingest. You do understand, don’t you, that it doesn’t matter what happens to me, but oh! don’t let anything terrible happen to her!”

2) The brave pioneer mother: The ultimate working mom, Mrs. Moodie is a pioneer woman who valiantly takes care of her large family and runs the family homestead in Canada’s untamed frontier. This story is adapted from the autobiographical novel, Life in the Backwoods: A Sequel to Roughing it in the Bush (written in mid 1800’s) by Susanna Moodie–think Little House on the Prairie but set in Canada. Here, Mrs. Moodie saves her large brood and their log cabin from burning down in the middle of a cold Canadian winter. Someone please, give this woman a warm coat and a hot toddy!

3) The caring nurse: In Donald Has A Difficulty (1970), by Peter F. Neumeyer and Edward Gorey, young Donald gets a nasty splinter in his leg. His mother “felt his hurt keenly” and methodically removed the splinter while calming poor Donald’s fears. My own mother is fantastic at getting out splinters and always sealed the deal with a soothing snack at the end of the procedure.

“She told Donald to think of other things.”
“He was feeling better, and able now to take nourishment.”

4) Fearless protector of all things small and furry: In Surprise in the Tree (1962), written by Sara Asheron and illustrated by Susan Perl, Jerry comes home from school to find out that his new (and mischievous) kitten is stuck up a tree. Jerry’s mom immediately calls the fire department to rescue the kitten, only to find out that her son is stuck up the same tree! Throughout the adventure, Jerry’s mom is level-headed in leading the charge to save her son (and kitten). How many mothers have gone to great trouble to retrieve a lost pet? Let me tell you about my daughter’s pet caterpillar…

“Jerry!” she cried. “What are you doing up there?” “I can’t get down,” said Jerry.
A happy ending!

5) The ultimate non-helicopter mom (or, the mom who lets her kids make a mess in the house): The mom in Dr. Seuss’ famous The Cat in the Hat (1957) is the type of mom that many kids think they want: a mom who will leave them alone to tear the house apart on a rainy day. This is not about a mother leaving her children home alone–the hat-wearing Cat is a fun, fantasy babysitter (and he even cleans up the mess in the end). Mom comes home in a good mood, kids are happy. This story reminds me: we all need space.


“I know some good games we could play,”

Said the Cat.

“I know some new tricks,”

Said the Cat in the Hat.

“A lot of good tricks.

I will show them to you.

Your mother

Will not mind at all if I do.”

6) The mother who listens and lets imagination take flight: Another vintage book, A Space Story (1978) written by Karla Kuskin, is a lovely story that starts and ends with my favourite parenting moment of the day–tucking the kids into bed at night and chatting about all the thoughts running through their heads…often the conversation turns to the stars, the moon, and space…and anywhere their imagination takes them.

And far, far away a boy looks out the window at the night sky. “How many stars are there in the sky?” he asks his mother. “Billions and billions,” she says. “Do people live on them?” he asks his mother. “People can’t live on stars,” she says. “But I suppose there might be some people out there on planets some there.”

What mothers do you love (or hate) in books?


  1. My all time favorite: Moominmamma, as I’m getting older I respect her even more. She express this perfect piece of mind one can not but admire.

      • Hi Sigrun, I’m not sure if most of these books are in print anymore…except for the Dr. Seuss…and probably only ever in English. Not read by most families today, mostly memories from my own childhood. Your new book looks wonderful, I love anything that expresses the different emotions to children, as an alternative to the cult of happiness we live in. I will add that to my must-read list. Cheers, Anne

  2. I loved this post and I’d like to read the books in it. You know, I have recently started reading about motherhood, more from a psychological viewpoint, but had never really considered prominent mums in books and how they are portrayed. They sort of seem incidental. I shall go and have a think – thanks for the inspiration!

  3. A Space Story was written by Karla Kuskin, but it was not illustrated by her. It was illustrated by Marc Simont. A wonderful story!

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