Even the smallest #mom wields the powerful #magic of #love. #celebrating #motherhood #writing #kidlit #writinglife

“Why isn’t Huck Finn’s dad nice to him?” Blondie asks from  behind her beloved stuffed dog Sledgehammer.

Bo closed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and stared at the cover a good long moment before answering. “Some parents are not that nice, kiddo,” he says, and goes on to talk a bit about alcohol addiction.

I came in after her prayers as I always do to give her a hug and kiss goodnight. “I hope Huck gets away soon,” she says.

“He can’t have any adventures if he doesn’t.”

Blondie nods, then brightens. “I can’t wait until my birthday party!”

So it goes when talking to an almost-nine-year-old: from horrifying parents to birthday celebrations in the blink of a beautiful eye.

It struck me, then, how few stories I read during my own childhood that contained positive parent figures. There’s no parents in the Chronicles of Narnia that I recall. Ramona Quimby had a mom, I think…but she wasn’t a major character, or at the very least, memorable. Fairy tale parents are usually evil or inconsequential. Babysitter Club books are usually about girls solving their own problems without parental help (why else would a babysitter be around?). I don’t recall Nancy Drew having extensive scenes with her folks. Few of the detective novels I read had much of anything to do with family, come to think, unless you count Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. But that’s a brother, not a parent, and he only shows up twice.

Huh. No wonder Blondie’s reaction to Huck Finn sticks with me still: I didn’t have that kind of exposure to the Nasty Parent at her age. Even the evil stepmom of Cinderella doesn’t go on drunk binges and whip Cinderella with a belt. Huck Finn’s dad is nasty. Scary-nasty. The sort of nasty that’s talked about on the news or in a television series, not a kid’s book.

Now why am I going off like this? Because here in the U.S. Mother’s Day approaches, and I want to celebrate the positive parent characters in children’s literature. Seriously, they exist! Like…um…oh! Ray Bradbury created a loving relationship between father and son in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Even Diana Wynne Jones, who had a miserable relationship with her own parents, could still create some flawed yet very loving parents in books like Archer’s Goon and The Ogre Downstairs.

Today, I’d like to look at one of the strongest moms in fantasy fiction, a widow with four young children, one of whom’s gravely ill.

I am, of course, talking about Mrs. Frisby.

Or Brisby, if you knew her by the Don Bluth film like I did.

For some reason the film adaptation of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH named her Brisby. I’d like to think it’s because Hermione Baddeley, who voiced Auntie Shrew, really rattles your teeth whenever she shrilly hollers Mrs. Brisby’s name.

With all due respect to Robert C. O’Brien, the book moves with a much…quieter, calmer pace, I’ll say, than the Bluth film.

And, well, let’s face it: O’Brien doesn’t have any electro-magic wielded by rats voiced by the majestic Sir Derek Jacobi, let alone a soundtrack composed by the ever-wonderful James Horner.

Bluth’s version of Mrs. Brisby is a widow just like the Mrs. Frisby of the book, and both versions do have four children and one suffering from pneumonia. But unlike Mrs. Frisby of the book, Mrs. Brisby is constantly facing certain death in order to protect her kids. From standing in the bones of other mice to speak with the Great Owl…

…to running under the farmer wife’s feet in order to sedate Dragon, the barn cat that KILLED HER HUSBAND, Mrs. Brisby puts her life on the line time and again for her family. I can still remember the terror racing through my little-kid heart when the giant rat guard tries to electrocute Mrs. Brisby at the gate into the rose bush…

…or when the Brisby home begins sinking in the mud and all the kids inside are gasping for air.

(Oh yes, Bluth’s films are both awesome and TERRIFYING. Just ask MG author Celine Kiernan—she worked for him!)

But because I felt the terror then, and saw this little mommy mouse defy her fears to run into a moving tractor to disable it while the ceiling started to cave in around her sick son, because I felt the panic in her pulling rope after rope around her sinking house to keep her children from drowning—because I felt all the fear Mrs. Brisby experienced, the courage she also displayed resonated with me very, very deeply; it resonates with me still, thirty years later. In a story of mice and electro-magic rats, I saw motherhood in its purest form:

Love, fearless and boundless, strong and eternal.

May our own hands brave the fire to protect those who matter most.

What positive parent characters appear in your favorite stories? Please share so I can give Blondie something to look forward to…

I’ll be the first to admit the moms of my own fiction are, shall we say, some nasty pieces of work. Scope out my novel and free short stories on this site to find out more.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

60 thoughts on “Even the smallest #mom wields the powerful #magic of #love. #celebrating #motherhood #writing #kidlit #writinglife

  1. Hmm, most classics for children have quite distant parents, allowing for the kids to go off and have adventures. The kids in E Nesbit’s ‘The Railway Children’ have a father wrongly arrested and a prison and a mother at home writing novels. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five kids had a grumpy uncle and mousey aunt in charge of them for the holidays. Even Wendy had to play the mother in the Peter Pan tale in the absence of the children’s real mother in Neverland.

    More recently, Max’s mother sends him to bed in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ but at least she relents and gives him his supper even though we never see her. And of course fairytales (children’s classics are sort of descendants of these traditional tales) often have a wicked stepmother replacement. I’m sure Freud and Bruno Bettelheim have a lot to say about absent mothers and weak fathers!

    But then I remember Else Minarik’s ‘Little Bear’s Visit’ (sensitively illustrated by Sendak) that our children (and now grandchildren) loved, and that has lovely parents and, especially, loving grandparents—who just happen to be Victorian/Edwardian bears!

    Liked by 5 people

    • Oh how lovely! I’ll have to check out Minarik. I agree that the “absent parent” trope does allow for more adventuring by kids. It just hits me now that this storytelling tactic is a sort of mixed blessing: sure, kid characters get a chance to do something themselves, but then kid readers don’t see positive parent/kid relationships in stories. Of course not EVERY story HAS to have such a parent character, but positive parent characters don’t have to be some unique rarity, either. Argh!
      And thanks for the lovely comment, by the by. xxxxxxx

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I guess the in-between zone makes for boring fiction. As a kid I liked the heroic stance of overcoming adversity. Neglecting parents provide the ideal challenge, as (at best, of course) such situations can spark self-reliance. Then there is the other extreme – the over-protective parent, which can adversely disable a child’s confidence.
    Often we find parental models later in life that encourage the rite of passage we may have missed.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Oooo, excellent point! The parent of either extreme becomes, willingly or not, a challenge a child must overcome. You’re actually reminding me of another Diana Wynne Jones story–Black Maria, I believe it’s called in the States. It’s the story of a mother-widowed, I think?-and her two kids who go to live with the mother’s aunt in a little town. Turns out all the women of the town have a degree of magical control, while the men are always sent elsewhere. The aunt uses her magic to sort of control the mom, which means the kids struggle to rebel against their mom while also fighting for her freedom from the aunt.
      But as you say, we don’t always appreciate these models at the time. Heaven knows I appreciate Mrs. Brisby nowadays at a whole new level. 🙂 xxxxxx

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Please check out Anne Fine’s “Step by Wicked Step” particularly the story where the step parent is the one that is actually the loving parent. I read it with a class of 11 year olds. It promoted a lot of interesting discussion. Great post Jean Lee.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I loved Tom and Huck as kid. I still do and have my copies, with my fav page numbers all written on page on! I could see their upbringing was pretty awful and dirt poor but then so was that of every kid round about so I never gave it a thought. For me art sure was mirroring life. There you go.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh true! Yet another reason why I connected so deeply with Diana Wynne Jones, though it’s not like I was growing up during WWII. What an accomplishment, when a writer creates a character whose experiences are truly timeless! xxxxxxx

      Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed they can. Lol, just smiling there. A few weeks back we took wee man home from his football training through where I grew up and I showed him the school and he was all excited, going ‘And did you have toothbrush time etc.’ And I said’ ‘No darling most of the boys and girls there were lucky to have proper shoes and a carpet on their floors so really, I don’t think toothbrushes were a priority…’ Well you could see him looking with fresh eyes and thinking… ‘Ohhhhh what kind of place was this?’ Just passing on that universal thing there. xx

        Liked by 2 people

      • lol aw, toothbrush time! Yes, we shock our own kids when we tell them we didn’t have “brain breaks” where the teacher puts on a music video and lets the class dance like mad for five minutes, nor did we have smart boards, or ipads…they look at us like we survived the Dark Ages. xxxxxx

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yep. We did indeed survive ages unknown to them and it never did us any harm but I could also see this respect that day in the funniest way for me but the way he would equate it… imagine little boys and girls like me with no toothbrush time….poor Neena. And wow, she is here….. I won’t cross her again. When in fact I at least had a toothbrush…

        Liked by 1 person

      • ‘The past is another country’ is how The Go-Between begins, and as a powerful beginning it’s hard to beat (in this case a commentary on the phrase ‘other times, other customs’, that loose translation of the Latin O tempora, o mores!).

        Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a great topic. My remembrances of reading and also the comics was of parents that were not so much cruel, as absent. This has me thinking.

    My daughter read all the Ramona books, and I rather liked their household, where it felt kind of ‘normal’, whatever that is. Meeting life and its obstacles together. They feature both mother and father in various situations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that’s what I vaguely recall, too. As a kid I’m connecting with Ramona, but the parents are at least there. Have you ever come across the Ruby and Max pictures books by Rosemary Wells? They’re cute, and capture the sibling relationship well, but I’ve never understood how there are never, EVER any parents in the stories. Even Blondie noticed this. “Why do they only talk to their grandma? Where’s their mom or dad?” Good question, kiddo!


  6. How about the “Little House on the Prairie” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder? I loved those books as a kid. I was quite unhappy at one stage in my childhood and losing myself in those books really helped me. I’ve read them again as an adult and they’re still wonderful (and I still cry when Jack the dog dies, even those he was an old dog and had a good life, and had gone to the’ Happy Hunting Grounds’, as Laura’s Pa told her).

    Liked by 1 person

    • YES!!!! Excellent example of the family unit coming together! I only read a couple of those as a kid, never connected. But you’re right that THOSE are a lovely example. Plus that reminds me of the American Girl books; I read the Kirsten, Samantha, and Addy series as a kid, and all those had strong family units. Thanks for reminding me!


  7. Dear Jean, this is a beautiful and touching tribute to mothers, no matter the size. The following lines are quite emotional yet made me smile, thank you.

    “. . . I saw motherhood in its purest form:
    Love, fearless and boundless, strong and eternal.”

    “May our own hands brave the fire to protect those who matter most.”

    Charlotte’s Web, holds strong memories for me. I felt Charlotte to be Wilbur’s mother figure. The book shares some unfortunate realities of life while at the same time instills the idea of hope, love and compassion. I hope you enjoyed a lovely Mother’s Day, wishing you and yours a terrific week ahead. ~ Mia 💗

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Wish there was a “love” button for this post, Jean. You always inspire such fascinating discussions and force me to dig into the recesses of my memory about literature, film, music, and so on. [Granted, it’s a place I like to be: lost in thought!] IIRC, the Pevensey children [I, terribly under-read English major that I am, because I’ve never read any of the Narnia books but have seen parts of the first, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe] were sent to an (uncle’s) home in the countryside due to the bombings in London, so the mother was presumably left behind. Can’t remember if the father was said to be in the war. In any case, the figure that sprang immediately to mind was Atticus Finch. Granted, again, they were in a very different time to the one we’re currently in, in the US (with the exception of some painful political and racial issues that continue to play out), but I recall him as a loving father to Jem and “Scout” Finch, especially Scout. Calpurnia, of course, was a wonderful stand-in mother for Jean Louise, too. But, at least in the first book (and movie with Gregory Peck et al), To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is a good man and moral, if sometimes a bit stiff or stern (again, the era) father. Now, Go Set a Watchman is a different beast entirely–and one that I have not yet read. I understand Jeff Daniels is in an Aaron Sorkin-updated TKAM and that the portrayal of Atticus is much more nuanced, showing his flaws (the 1 interview I saw yesterday was pretty vague about his flaws, but I interpreted them to be about Atticus’ underlying racial suppositions that were sadly common to the time, even though he did defend Tom Robinson against the allegations to the last).
    All that said, Ms. Brisby/Frisby! Oh, goodness. Thank you so much for the stroll down memory lane. I think I might’ve read one of the books when I was young, but I was definitely captivated by the movie, not knowing (or caring a whit) at the time that the great Sir Derek or the delightful Dom DeLuise (or many others) were in it. But, yes, most definitely. Children’s literature is not all it seems. For myself, as a writer, I find myself having used a lot of child characters as the main character to work out the hurts I underwent (as well as a few good times) as a kid. And my work with a child protag doesn’t always begat a child-friendly story; it’s very often PG-13 and above, to borrow a film standard.
    Finally, finally, as others have said, the lack of parental figures in children’s lit also allows the plot to function, logistically, as well as helps the child reader to see her/him/their self in that child’s place, overcoming those obstacles. You should package these blog posts and sell them, Jean. They’re golden!
    P.S. Flannery O’Connor’s grandmother character in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is a fascinating example of what some women were like in that time and in the South and, to my mind, a telling example of ‘what not to do’ as a parent or grandparent. But, then, I read it as a non-religious person. Christians, I have read, see the outcome of the story as a portrayal of grace. Summary: Literature is littered with less-than-stellar, completely inept or corrupt, or absent parental figures.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Woah, what a response, Leigh, thank you!
      Yes, the Pevensie dad is, I believe, in active service, which is also why the kids are sent to live elsewhere. One thing I try to keep in mind is that there *are* great examples of parents in literature, but that we just don’t always find them as kids. Had I read Diana Wynne Jones as a kid, for instance, I’d have seen some awesome family dynamics in tales like Archer’s Goon, The Dark Lord of Derkholm, and The Ogre Downstairs. Plus there are the parent characters we read but don’t remember, such as in the Cleary Ramona series or the mother in the Little House on the Prairie books. But this is also a matter of taste; I wasn’t reading stories for drama, but for adventure! Fantasy! Cool stuff! And as you say, I think that’s why parents are often absent: they’re not a part of the adventure. Or, like in Coraline or the first Ewok Adventure: Caravan of Courage, the parents need to be rescued.
      Thanks so much for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. My understanding is that the filmmakers changed the name from Frisby to Brisby because they didn’t want to risk a lawsuit from Frisbee (the throwing disks). The book is a lot different from the film in that it lacks the sword and sorcery element. I came across the movie first and have always revisited it every few years and I enjoy watching it with my children. Actually, my children gave me an excuse to finally read the book to them 🙂 Bluth is an interesting personality too, he used to work for Disney and got fed up with their cheap animation of the Aristocats era, so he started his own studio. The Secret of Nimh is absolutely beautiful compared to other animated films of it’s time. Elizabeth Hartman gives a very nuanced and heroic voice performance as Mrs. Brisby. Sadly, Hartman’s life ended in tragedy as she killed herself five years after the film’s release. Thanks for sharing, I think the film is elevated by all the stories that surround it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • WHAT?! That is such an absurd reason…and yet, I can’t say I’m all that surprised. Oh yes, Bluth is a wonder, full of unique stories that both strike the heart of kids (Oh, American Tail!) and othertimes…no. (Rockadoodle. What…what was that?) Secret of NIMH is one of THE films of its age, magic and imagination inked into every cell.
      Thanks so much for reading!


  10. Swallows and Amazons… Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Danny the Champion of the World… The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper… I’d like to claim credit for all these suggestions, but they come from Himself and my wonderful writing friend, Mhairi:). You’re right – parents are very much under-represented in children’s fiction – clearly to give them elbow room to do their own thing. Thank you for a cracking article, Jean:)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. That’s a thought… I loved The Magician’s Nephew and thought it worked really well as a prequel. Have you looked it up on Goodreads? They tend to clearly date the various editions – and give them in the recommended reading order.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: #WritingLife: The Neglected Garden | Jean Lee's World

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