Oh, the glories of book shops! Where you can go along of a summer evening and listen to a group of interesting and funny women talk about books, and mothers in kids’ books to boot.
Kerry Clare and some of the other contributors to The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood gathered at Parentbooks on Harbord Street to discuss the representation of mothers in children’s books. They brought books and food and insights and laughter to share and it was a wonderfully intimate discussion about finding or not finding mothers on the pages of our kids’ books.
Kerry began by telling us that one inspiration for the topic was a blog post by Liz Harmer about how, at one point in her parenting life, the picture books she was reading to her children were more helpful to her as a struggling mother than parenting books:
in the horror-show that was my life after the second child was born I had already found my parenting identity in martyrdom. All I knew how to feel was guilt. I had no idea that a new baby would find all of the breathing room in my full life and take it for herself. I had no idea that the toddler would respond to my being overwhelmed by cranking up her own despair.
At this point, any parenting advice was a smart to the open wound I’d become.
And so, we began to talk about mothers and parenting and how they unfold on the pages of children’s books. What do we find there and how does it speak to or about us?
Heather Birrell read from her own childhood copy of Pippi Longstocking and talked about how, while her own daughter is rather indifferent to the book, as a writer and a mother, she loves the fact that Pippi is motherless. She is successfully independent as an orphan of nine, and a lot more likeable than the kids up the street with intact families . The absent mother in kids books, a remarkably frequent thing, allows kids independence, freedom from rules and from cloying love or authority. Pippi’s mother, so Pippi imagines, watches her from her perch in the sky through a little hole in the clouds, and Pippi is always able to assure her that she is doing perfectly well. As a writer herself, Birrell said she is always killing off mothers in her short stories. It’s just so much more convenient to the engine of the plot and character development to have them out of the way.
We agreed that it was wonderful to find yourself, as a mother, celebrating books that did away with mothers so that kids can bloom, because isn’t that what we want for our kids, after all?
Amy Lavender Harris talked about how grandmothers often fill the maternal role in the Eastern European tradition, and she read from Rosie’s Dream Cape by Zelda Freeman to illustrate the multiple roles that the grandmother fulfills; she is the figure of authority, conscience, forgiveness, generosity and connection to the old world and to the missing mother.
Heidi Reimer read from one of Sarah Garland’s Eddie books, Eddie’s Kitchen, and made the wondenderful observation that the illustrations enable a kind of covert and underground conversation, mother-to-mother. The illustrations are wonderfully lush, and the house is packed and cluttered. The mother in these books exemplifies grace in the chaos of family life, though the illustrator is also careful to portray her outside of her role as mother. At one point, she is huddled on the stairs, alone, speaking on the phone to a friend who is having a rough day.
Patricia Storms chose Tomi Ungerer’s No Kiss for Mother from which to read and reveled in the illustrations that would never pass muster today: a depiction of kids smoking stolen cigars and parents punishing their kids (with canes no less!). Originally published in the 1970s, the book has been reissued by Phaidon, and perhaps the fact that the family in the book is a family of anthropomorphic cats makes it possible to publish it again today. She admired that the conclusion of the book does actually provide a conclusion to the tension between an adoring mother and a son who does not like to be coddled and kissed. They compromise; each gives ground. The ground has shifted for both of them by story’s end, and the rebellious child is not simply drawn back into the normative family fold. That family has had to change, just a bit, to accommodate him.
Kerry finished off the night with a discussion of one of Shirley Hughes’s Alfie books, Alfie Gets in First. Kerry remarked on how wonderful it was to read about another mother struggling with the mind-numbingly boring but immensely difficult negotiations of motherhood: how to get the stroller through the door and up the stairs, ditto with baby. Predictably, Alfie gets into the house before mother and stroller and baby and locks himself in and them out. Panic ensues. Kerry was grateful for the feeling of solidarity she felt with the mother in the illustrations and how she felt a lot less alone reading those books to her children. Again, the illustrations are lush and chaotic and depict the clutter and detritus of the busy family home.
Kerry finished up with a reading of Stephany Aulenback’s lovely If I Wrote a Book About You and talked about how motherhood enables creativity and productivity and how finding solutions to the stupid problem of the stroller on the sidewalk and through the narrow door could be worthwhile in and of itself as well as leading to all manner of other kinds of creativity.