In her latest article drawing on her records of her children’s responses to literature, Virginia Lowe observes how her young son Nicholas reacted to tales of missing mothers.
One morning before school, Rebecca had asked for our tape of Milne’s When We Were Very Young, and she and Nicholas, two years, nine months (2y9m), were listening to it happily while they ate breakfast. It had almost reached the end when at ‘Disobedience’ Nicholas reached over and firmly switched the machine off, saying he wanted to listen to a different tape, one that was out in the car. Of course Rebecca (5y11m) objected, and as it was almost finished, I suggested they listen to the end and then get the one from the car. Rebecca switched the player on again, and he switched it off immediately. At first I thought he just was being obstreperous, irritating his sister (it was obvious that she did too) but then I stopped for a minute and remembered the ‘song’ that had been playing.
V: Do you not like that one because the mummy gets lost?
N: [fervently] Yes!
V: Would it be all right if we skip that one and go on to the next song?
So I fast-forwarded to the next song and all was well.
Said to his Mother,
‘Mother,’ he said, said he;
‘You must never go down to the end of the town, if
you don’t go down with me!’
And you remember, she does! And she ‘hasn’t been heard of since’.
Subsequently there were various missing mother queries, or else mothers behaving badly (in his eyes anyway). He didn’t want to hear Hansel and Gretel any further than the parents’ plotting (2y10m), and Tom Kitten, Rebecca’s favourite Potter, was marred for him by Tabitha Twitchett bearing down on her little son, angry at him for tearing and dirtying his ‘elegant uncomfortable clothes’ (3y4m). He called this ‘the bad part’ and refused to let that page be opened (3y4m).
He was tense throughout the final pages of Minarik’s Little Bear (illustrated by Sendak) – ‘Birthday Soup’.
Text: I never did forget your birthday, and I never will.
N: Why did she forget?
V: She didn’t – she was just out buying the cake!
N: Where did she get it from?
V: A baker’s shop I guess.
N: Without him?
V: Well yes, she left him at home.
He had been anxious for Little Bear because Mother had left him alone, despite having all his friends arrive to help him make the birthday soup (3y7m)..
At the same age he asked ‘why isn’t the Mummy going?’ in Adam’s Tyger Voyage and ‘Why was she alone in the palace?’ in Thorn Rose.
V: I guess her mummy and daddy are out somewhere! But his reply was
N: No, they’re dead.
Perhaps it was the ominous tone of the retelling (Le Cain’s version). Or perhaps he was misremembering what was to come (he had previously heard other versions of Sleeping Beauty).
But there were actual dead mothers too. Chief amongst them was De Brunhoff’s Babar the Little Elephant – his mother is shot in The Story of Babar. Nicholas was fascinated by the deaths, and took the book off to pore over alone, almost like pornography, as soon as it was read (3y7m). ‘It’s so funny that there are two dead people on the same page’ he said, and later had a long discussion with his uncle about the hunters shooting her. She isn’t illustrated, but the dead king is.
There were Ginger’s missing parents in Tim to the Rescue (Ardizzone).
Text: They invited Ginger to stay with them which he was very pleased to do, as he had no home of his own.
N: He can stay with them forever. Where are his mother and father? (I said he didn’t have any, and suggested they might have died.)
Max’s mother is missing too – in that she doesn’t appear in the illustrations of Where the Wild Things Are (Sendak). For six months, Nicholas queried this: ‘Why did he eat up his mother?’ (3y3m). It seemed so obvious to us that Max was just being cheeky, that we apparently never gave him a full and clear explanation, and it’s also quite possible Nicholas didn’t see as naughty the mischief Max was being punished for, anyway. He showed no distress here though, perhaps because here, whether he is intending to eat her or merely threatens to, Max is in full control.
In real life of course, mother is the ultimate security. Rebecca (6y8m) had told NIcholas he would die when he was a hundred, as his great grandmother was, and he replied (3y5m)
N: I’m going to stay three for ever, then I won’t ever die, because my Mummy loves me so much.
Dr Virginia Lowe lives in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. She is the proprietor of Create a Kids’ Book, a manuscript assessment agency, which also runs regular workshops, interactive writing e-courses, mentorships and produces a regular free e-bulletin on writing for children and children’s literature generally. See www.createakidsbook.com.au for further details. Her book, Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two children tell (2007) is published by Routledge (978 0 415 39724 7, £29.99 pbk).
When We Were Very Young, A.A. Milne, illus E. H. Shepard, Egmont, 978-1405211185 £7.99 pbk
The Tale of Tom Kitten, Beatrix Potter, Frederick Warne, 978-0723267775, £5.99 hbk
The Story of Babar, Jean de Brunhoff, Egmont, 978-1405238182, £6.99
Tim to the Rescue, Edward Ardizzone, Frances Lincoln, 978-1845074586, £11.99 hbk
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, Red Fox, 978-0099408390, £6.99 pbk