Mothers In Children’s Literature

“Mothers are either held up as paragons of selflessness, or they’re discounted and parodied. We often don’t see them in all their complexity.”

— Novelist Edan Lepucki contemplates motherhood.

The only time you truly become an adult is when you finally forgive your parents for being just as flawed as everyone else.
— Douglas Kennedy

It is partly a children’s book convention that you write from the kids’ point of view, so you cannot be entirely fair to the parents as well. If you are going to write about children of twelve and thirteen who have totally understanding and marvellous parents, there’ll be nothing to write about.

— Gillian Rubenstein

Early Peter Pan cover. Peter Pan considers mothers very overrated.

The subject of mothers is apparently very sensitive for Peter [Pan]: “Not only had he no mother, but he had not the slightest desire to have one. He thought them very over-rated persons”. This is rather a puzzling statement, since Peter’s desire is to have Wendy as his mother. But the desire is extremely ambivalent, and the Lost Boys can only speak of mothers in Peter’s absence, “the subject being forbidden by him as silly”. “Now, if Peter had ever quite had a mother, he no longer missed her. He could do very well without one. He had thought them out, and remembered only their bad points.” We know that Peter ran away the day he was born, because he heard his parents talk about what he was to be when he became a man, which was not his intention: “I don’t want ever to be a man…I want always to be a little boy and have fun”.

—From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva


Frances Spufford writes that characters in fairytales are symbols.

A character in a story exists in particular before it exists in general. A wicked stepmother is a woman before she is a symbol of what a child might fear in motherhood. The story of Snow White therefore says things about gender, and the encounters of daughter, stepmother, father and lover, before it can become a picture of a psychological process.

—The Child That Books Built


The following notes draw heavily from the Kid You Not Podcast, Episode 11

The mother in children’s literature is generally ambivalent and ambiguous.

mothers are all slightly insane


The idea of motherhood in Harry Potter and the Other Mother of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline represent two very different but very typical representations of the mother in kidlit. In HP, the concept of the mother is sanctified; the mother died to save Harry’s life. She leaves lingering protection in his veins so that evil characters cannot touch him.

Gaiman’s mother in Coraline is a reworking of a fairytale mother: Stepmothers are used to displace the child’s anxieties and unpleasant feelings for the mother. It’s less threatening for a child to be crossed or abandoned by a step-mother than by a birth mother. Bad mothers tend not to be biological mothers, at least on a surface reading of them.

In YA literature in the 1940s and 1950s through to the 1960s, parents were assumed to be always right. John Rowe Townsend writes in Written For Children:

In The World of Ellen March, by Jeanette Eyerly (1964) […] a teenage girl, knocked off balance by her parents’ impending divorce, concocts a childish plan to reunite them by kidnapping her little sister. The plan misfires, of course; Ellen is reprimanded by Father for foolish, irresponsible behaviour and realizes that she must “grow wiser, or wise enough to order her own life properly rather than try to make over the lives of her parents.” In other words, the burden of adjustment is on her, and she is at fault for not having the maturity and stability to deal with the situation her parents have placed her in.


ellen march


But by the end of the 1960s it was no longer assumed in children’s literature that parents are always right.

In John Donovan’s I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth The Trip (1969), the hero’s mother is a heavy drinker; his father has remarried, and “when we see each other everything has to be arranged.” Davy’s love goes to his dog and the male friend he’s made at school. In The Dream Watcher, by Barbara Wersba (1968), the hero’s parents are living together, but the father is a pathetic death-of-a-salesman figure and the mother is a dissatisfied, self-indulgent woman who has destroyed her husband and could easily destroy her son.

Written For Children

But Rowe Townsend writes that the most despicable parents of all in YA are the parents in the books by Paul Zindel. Zindel’s characters tend to be all the same across his work — the teenagers were similar and the parents were all awful.

In the eighties, parental iniquity was no longer a major theme. None the less, parents had been toppled from their former pedestal, and there was no way of putting them back.

Written For Children

What Makes For A Good Mother?

The bar for good mothers — in fiction as in life — is high. At least, for human ones.

That cat had six letters, and each litter had five kittens, and she killed the first-born kitten in each litter, because she had such pain with it. Apart from this, she was a good mother.

– Doris Lessing, Particularly Cats

This observation is far from new, but we’re far more forgiving of animal mothers than of human mothers. What has only recently begun to be talked about is that we are also far more forgiving of human fathers, in part because the job of fathering is so new — it was not so very long ago that ‘to father’ meant to provide the sperm and to provide, offering mentorship as sons grew older. I’m sure there have always been outstandingly paternal examples, but it’s the cultural idea of Fatherhood that I’m talking about.

Marieke Hardy sums it up when describing her own mother:

She was — and remains — a very good mother; open to any and every discussion, and a proponent of creative, generous living at all times. Though she’s never been one of those women described as ‘born to parent’. There’s an expectation that these delightful nurturing instincts set certain females apart from their sisters, draw a line in the sand of compassion that may rarely be crossed. A propensity for tea parties, a ‘way’ with dolls, tending to a scabbed-up knee with concerned frowns: these are the character traits of a very pleasant somebody born to make babies. Those failing to similarly measure up are spoken of in mean-spirited, disparaging terms. ‘She’s not very motherly, is she?’ remains, as a character appraisal, on a par with ‘She takes a while to warm up’ and ‘I just think she really enjoys the music of Jack Johnson.’ Display an iota of awkwardness when playing with a child and you are dismissed, pitied, slotted into the stiff-backed category of Cruella de Vils or wicked stepmother types who would rather skin puppies than do anything so maladroit as nappy changing.

You’ll Miss Me When I’m Dead





This is the ‘white’ side of the mother — the side who is protective, generous, devoted and gentle.

Fairy Godmother



Desire for the mother is at the heart of much of the literature of childhood, particularly in books for young children. [Picturebooks] evoke the body of the mother and early states of desire.

— Roni Natov

The modern world manifests an overwhelming human yearning for wholeness, oneness or integrity, a yearning apparent in oral appetites, sexual desire, religious fervour, physical hunger, “back to the womb” impulses [and] death wishes.

— Sarah Sceats

It’s striking to see that the mother in old comics — especially French and Belgian ones — will be a part of the domestic space, but not acknowledged in the language of the text. In these stories the mother is a chattel. In many picture books this is also the case. This normalises traditional motherly roles. The reason she is in the background is because she provides the comfort and security, almost metonymous for the home (much as a kitchen can be), and therefore important in the home-away-home pattern. The more discreet her presence, the more ideological the idea that mothers belong in the home.



This fairytale split is replicated even in very modern stories, including Harry Potter. There is another thing to do with parents: Get rid of them completely. Pippi Longstocking could not have had her adventures with the interference of parents, and neither could most of Enid Blyton’s characters. Pippi does have a father and in one book he features as King of the Cannibals. But she couldn’t have a typical mother. The mother is generally the more anxious, controlling side of the parents, with the father being more distant. Mrs Darling in Peter Pan is far more worried than Mr Darling about what is happening to the children. But adventures can more readily happen with the father present in the background.

Counting by 7s
Twelve-year-old genius and outsider Willow Chance must figure out how to connect with other people and find a surrogate family for herself after her parents are killed in a car accident.

We still view motherhood as mandatory and fatherhood as voluntary.

— Levin, co-founder of The Parents Village


Death is another kind of absence. This time, the mother is not absent because she’s not worth mentioning but rather the direct opposite: The dead mother is the ultimate absence that is a presence. In most books this is the case, and definitely in the Harry Potter books. The parents may as well be alive.

Jacqueline Wilson provides plenty of examples of absent mothers.

Double Act Cover

Mimi by John Newman is another. The mother’s absence is the epicenter of the whole story. The father is there in body but doesn’t step in to fill the domestic gap, until other mothers turn up and force him into the role of parent.

In Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, The Milk, the working mother is required to leave the family home at the beginning of the story because she needs to attend a conference. She fills the freezer with meals and tells the father to remember to stock up on milk, as that’s the only thing she hasn’t been able to micromanage before she leaves. Once she is gone, the children run out of milk, presumably because the father is useless. However, the father redeems himself because while he is out buying milk he has a remarkable adventure. This story relies on the stereotypes that working mothers are hyper-organised and men with working mothers for wives hide behind their newspapers and let her pick up the slack at home. It is yet another story in which the mother must be disappeared before the father can have some real, carnivalesque fun with his own children.


There’s something inconceivable about losing your mother, yet it’s all over children’s literature. Death of mothers in fairytales made sense; it was prudent to prepare children for death because it happened so frequently, but now the number of dead mothers in children’s stories is disproportionate.

See also: Why all the orphans in children’s literature?




Drugs, alcohol, sex: These plots are all plentiful in YA fiction, but mothers who do not love their children? This may be the last taboo. Children often hate their mothers, but not the other way around.

The Illustrated Mum, also by Jacqueline Wilson, is another book about an absent mum but only because she doesn’t come home to sleep at night. This is a source of intense anxiety for the narrator. The mother lives with bipolar disorder. This is one of the most powerful of Wilson’s books. The children take it upon themselves to look after the mother. It plays on so many anxieties you have as a child. The mother doesn’t take care of the children and is unpredictable. She can be compared to the fairytale type of mother in Coraline. But ultimately, the mother in The Illustrated Mum does love her children. This is important: No matter how hopeless/useless/hated the mother in children’s literature, she pretty much always loves her children. The Tracy Beaker series (also by Jacqueline Wilson) also features a mother with mental illness.

In Tallahassee Higgins by Mary Downing Hahn, the mother leaves the little girl in the care of someone, leaves again, comes back and so on. There’s always the presumption that there is something wrong with the mother’s mind, rather than that she is a bad person. She is simply dysfunctional as a person. Tracy Beaker is slightly different in that you never see the mother. Tracy’s mother doesn’t do anything awful; she is simply not there.

A good example of an outright evil person who is also a mother is Mrs Coulter in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. It is revealed quite early in the series that her mother is a distant/cold/unpredictable person. She is evil, a child killer, a bit of a witch. But gradually in the third book there is a Sleeping Beauty type of twist in which she starts taking an interest in her daughter. She does love her child, rescuing Lyra from the guillotine. In the end she does sacrifice her own life to save her child. Again, a very bad person still turns out to be a good mother.

Mrs Coulter has something in common with the Other Mother in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline — both are Stepford wife tropes who have literal robotic elements. In Coraline the mother is gradually revealed as being a metallic, robotic insect on the inside. Lyra kisses Mrs Coulter on the cheek and her lips taste metallic afterwards. Later when Mrs Coulter gets angry at the journalist she emits the smell of burning metal.

Another truly bad mother is the mum in A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt (1983). This is the tale of four children abandoned by their selfish mother in a carpark. But again, the mother does love her children. She simply can’t look after them. The main character Geoff deifies his mother in her absence. The story ends with Geoff accepting that she is who she is and he decides to have nothing to do with her. His relationship with his mother can be read as almost inappropriately sexual. As in The Illustrated Mum and Northern Lights, the mother is considered beautiful and glamorous.

Another rare example of a mother who leaves her son can be found in the film Lean On Pete.


Bambi is a classic example of this: Bambi waits for his mother but she never comes back. Instead, his father turns up.

See also the Missing Mom trope at TV Tropes



First is the literal sacrifice of the mother’s own life, more common in fantasy than in realistic fiction.

Then there is symbolic sacrifice in which the mother sacrifices her life as an independent woman. There’s an interesting genesis to this. If we consider the young female characters who give birth during their teenage years in the course of YA stories, the young mothers, upon popping out babies, tend to suddenly develop this overwhelming maternal instinct. Twilight is a good example of this. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman is the same. All the young mothers normalise the maternal instinct. Melvin Burgess’s Junk goes even further in this regard. The baby offers a redemption from the lies she has been living. She realises she has to get out of prostitution and living on the street. Pregnancy is now a salvation. This is a strong statement about the maternal instinct.

See the following papers:

From Basketball To Barney: Teen fatherhood, didacticism, and the literary in YA fiction by Helen Bittel, which is about the popular subgenre of YA — the teen pregnancy and parenting novel.

Stories of Teen Mothers: Fiction and non-fiction by Cynthia Miller-Coffel

The sacrificing mother is related to the ‘smothing mother’, often represented in children’s fiction by children who are overfed/overweight. This mother has no fulfilment of her own — she lives for and through her children.

Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

In the book, Dahl blames the mother for failing to curb Gloop’s appetite: ‘And what I always say is, he wouldn’t go on eating like he does unless he needed nourishment, would he? It’s all vitamins, anyway.’

Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter
Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter

Mrs Dursley’s overbearing, infantalising love is the counterpoint to Harry’s complete lack of motherly love.



Abortion is rarely postulated in YA literature. But here is a Goodreads list of YA books in which a character actually goes through with an abortion (rather than simply considers it).

As for breastfeeding, given how it is to be encouraged, and how much of it is presumably going on in homes, there is remarkably little of it going on in Western picturebooks. In films for kids out of Hollywood, it is actually taboo. This is what makes the breastfeeding scene in Wolf Children quite transgressive to a Western audience. At one point we even see the areola. I have not once seen that in a picture book for Western children.

from Wolf Children, the movie



Food, especially sweet, rich food, often metaphorically represents the body of the mother in popular culture and that the desire for such food includes a subconscious yearning for the restoration of the primal relationship with her.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children

If you read carefully, you’ll notice that a lot of stories feature male protagonists with nurturing mothers who provide food. Note that in Where The Wild Things Are, for instance, Max returns to his room and there is a meal waiting. (Note that it’s still hot.)

You can find an example of a mother giving maternal comfort to a girl in Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights, when Ma Costa folds her great arms around Lyra and presses her to her breast. Generally, though, girls in children’s literature don’t derive quite the same amount of comfort from motherly types as boys. Carolyn Daniel speculates:

  1. Maybe girls aren’t thought to need mothers so much as boys do
  2. Maybe because girls are thought to become mothers themselves one day they’ll again be able to experience the mother-child relationship (albeit from the opposite side).

I’m going to add that there’s probably some weird homophobic stuff going on there, too. And also the female maturity principle.

It probably goes without saying, but the breast stands in metonymically for the mother.

Good mother = food/love/comfort

Bad mother = lack of food/lack of love/lack of comfort

Mothers in stories use food as a means of power exchange. Good mothers provide eaters with sustenance/power/energy. In exchange, good mothers are content with the emotional satisfaction she receives from providing the food. (And never complains about having to cook it all.) But the smothering mother provides food that poisons the eaters. She drains them of vitality/power/subjectivity. Instead of feeding, she absorbs this energy from the child. An example of that is the mother figure (actually the aunt) in Tom’s Midnight Garden, who is a great cook but provides Tom with far too much rich food. He feels imprisoned inside their small house, in quarantine because of measles, and doesn’t appreciate the food.


An article about the transformation of the mother in American-Mexican lit by Megan Parry

Roles Of Mothers In Disney Media from Wikipedia

Which Disney Mom Are You Most Like? one of those stupid quizzes, from Poptastic

10 Best Bad Mothers In Literature (for adults) from The Telegraph

A list of Parent Tropes at TV Tropes

It’s Not All about Snow White: The Evil Queen Isn’t that Monstrous After All a paper by Cristina Santos


13 Reasons Why Clay’s Mother Is The Fucking Worst from BuzzFeed. I agree, even as a mother myself, that Clay’s mother as depicted by the Netflix show was excruciating.

11 of the Best Moms in Children’s Literature from Brightly


mothers are that way


Ideology In Children’s Literature


Every novel, every painting, every work of art with meaning contains an ideology.

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.

George Orwell

This includes stories written for children.

One of the fundamental changes in critical thinking and teaching over the past twenty years has been the acceptance that ideology is not a separate concept ‘carried by’ texts, but that all texts are inevitably infused by ideology. This has been particularly difficult to accept in the world of children’s literature, which is still widely assumed to be ‘innocent‘ of concerns of gender, race, power, and so on — or to carry transparently manipulative messages.

Peter Hunt

We believe some ideologies so deeply that we consider them Truth: such ideologies as “education can improve people’s lives” and “it’s better to be rich than poor” can be difficult for people brought up in capitalist societies to recognize as arguable positions. But all adolescent novels are informed by such sociopolitical beliefs. Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example, infuses her own libertarian ideologies* into all of the Little House books, but most especially into the later books written for adolescents. Although in actuality the Ingalls family was closely connected to their neighbors during the historical season of blizzards depicted in The Long Winter (1940), Wilder portrays the fictionalised Ingalls family as living entirely isolated in self-sufficiency. Influenced by libertarianism, her ideological goal was to portray government intervention as both unnecessary and suspicious. William Sleator’s House of Stairs (1974), Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese (1977) and Virginia Hamilton’s The Gathering (1981) provide similar ideological critiques of government politics.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature

*I feel it’s a bit easier for a non-American to see libertarian ideologies when they crop up. From my perspective here in Australia, Australians value equality, in contrast to North Americans, who seem to value freedom. Equality wasn’t originally written into the American constitution (for obvious reasons — slavery.) Though membership to a certain culture gives one kind of insight, sometimes it’s easier to spot ideology in stories from a slightly different culture.

In the same way, it’s easier to spot ideology in work from the past. The past is a different culture. You’ve probably experienced the phenomenon of sitting down to watch a classic film — Gone With The Wind or The Long Hot Summer or even Friends from the early 2000s, and noticed how jokes once accepted and loved now seem hopelessly sexist, homophobic and racist. That’s exactly how future audiences will see the stories of today.

In order to understand…political ideologies…the reader has to understand at least two things: the historical context in which the story is set and the historical context in which it was written. The distinction is especially important for historical novels like The Long Winter, when the historical setting is significantly removed from the date of the novel’s publication.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature

The following are notes from various places, notably from Episode 9 of the Kid You Not Podcast, and from the book Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature by John Stephenswith extra insertions from me. If you’ve ever wondered what exactly is meant by ‘ideology’ and have come across words like ‘hegemonic’ without really understanding what the words mean, the Kid You Not podcast is a great way to spend 25 minutes. It’s clear and concise.


From a literary criticism perspective, all texts, especially fictional texts, are imbued with ideological content. This can refer to a system of values/beliefs/fears/world views, which are all linked to concepts of power. These values and beliefs will be distilled within language, whether through the words/images on the page or the words and images that are not there. [See: Where Are The People Of Colour In Picture Books?] Even picture books aimed at very young children can be ideologically charged. Sometimes ideology is hidden, because we’re bathed in it and therefore don’t even see it. “You’re soaking in it.”

No text, and therefore no children’s book, is devoid of ideology. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Ideology isn’t necessarily in reference to Nazi or communist propaganda. It might simply be an ideology of capitalism. While extremist groups have historically leaned on children’s literature to share their beliefs with impressionable audiences, but this is not what’s generally meant by ideology. Generally, ideology refers to children’s books at one end of the spectrum: Books designed to teach children something or deal with a specific problem.

Peter Hollingdale has written about the distinction between implicit and explicit ideology. He didn’t go so far as to explain that an explicit ideology can be communicated either directly or indirectly — but this is definitely the case. The difference between the two:

  • Novels with directly explicit ideologies go out of their way to explain certain views to the reader, in case the reader doesn’t pick it up.
  • Novels with INdirectly explicit ideologies trust that the reader has enough prior knowledge to pick up the messages in the book.

Some writers will tell you that books with direct and explicit ideologies are out of fashion, described as moralistic. But it’s a bit more complicated than that: Here’s what’s gone out of fashion: direct and explicit ideologies coming out of the mouths of adults. That includes adult characters and (presumably) adult unseen narrators. You’ll still see examples of direct and explicit ideology coming out of the mouths of first person young adult narrators. An example is the mini-lecture by the young adult narrator of Am I Normal Yet? in which she describes the problematic language around casual use of words like ‘OCD’ thrown around in everyday discourse. If this had come out of an adult, then it would have sounded didactic. But coming out of a ‘peer’, it sounds persuasive.

Not every book has an explicit ideology. But every single story has an implicit one, and it is this kind of book which tends to be the more powerful vehicle for an ideology, precisely because it is invisible. The implication: that things are simply ‘so’.

The more covert the social practice in narrative, the more a text demands a reader who knows how to interpret a fiction. This demand is itself an ideological assumption.

Different categories of stories tend to have common ideologies. For example, in the mouse tale it’s common to find the idea that ‘When mice become too reliant upon human technology, this leads to the downfall of their own society.’ Is this saying something about isolated, ‘primitive’ human cultures and what happens to them when they rub up against technologically advanced civilisation?


Jan Needle — fiercely and consciously political, overtly using his narratives to confront abuse of power, sexism, racism, economic exploitation and social neglect.

Diana Wynne Jones — ‘a very intelligent writer of absorbing fantasises, [who] appears to have been consistently unaware for most of her career that her depiction of women already socialized into conventional female roles is pervasively sexist (and to some extent classist).’ – John Stephens.

Jacqueline Wilson

The premise behind this [pink!] cover is that you should love your family and sister. This is accepted throughout the world. But actually lots of people don’t love their own family members.

Children’s books in general are permeated with the idea that families are not perfect but they are still your family. Children’s literature promotes very strong attachment to a child’s family that makes it almost impossible for any young reader to be presented with stories about pure family hatred. This is probably why children’s books very often use other figures to stand in for real family members, to allow that expression of hatred to exist in fiction. [Stepmothers.]

Take any book, for example a Mr Men book by Roger Hargreaves, and you’ll often find the same type of cultural characteristics: Simply drawn houses that look like country houses, people who wear a bowler hat/tie, women who are called ‘Little Miss’ and not ‘Mrs’. The hegemonic ideology of the Mr Men books is very Western, very middle-class.

The male characters seem to be grown-ups. The Little Miss characters seem not to be, in general.

Secondly look at the way positive and negative characteristics are constructed. Some are common, so you have Little Miss Chatterbox as well as Mr Chatterbox, and Little Miss Greedy as well as Mr Greedy.

You have Little Miss Bossy, Little Miss Fickle, Little Miss Brainy, Little Miss Contrary, Little Miss Dotty, Little Miss Giggles, Little Miss Princess, etc etc. These are quite gender specific.  There’s no Mr Brainy, but there is Mr Clever. Note the difference.

Thirdly, some of the Mr Men embody *activity* -Mr Bump, Mr Tickle. They *do* things, and what they do defines them for the purpose of the book. There are few female equivalents — almost all are abstract personality factors.

Stereotypes and Children’s Books, at FTB

Somebody has written reviews on Amazon for the Mr Men series as if these simple-minded picturebooks were high literature. They’re brilliant.

See also: Mr Messy, the original video

[I am no fan of the Mr Men franchise, and although I’ve kept most of my own childhood books to pass onto and read to my daughter, I did hiff those ones out.]


Picture books can exist purely for fun, but can never exist without either a socializing or educational intention, ‘or else without a specific orientation towards the reality constructed by the society that produces them.’

As all texts contain ideologies, so do all pictures, since we ‘read’ those too.

A lot of picture books have a story which is told by an unseen narrator. This unseen narrator has an air of authority, precisely because they are unseen. Implicit authorial control is a characteristic marker of the discourse of children’s fiction.

Pictures do offer the reader at least a representation of what is being described. The audience uses both text and pictures to create a story, and has no scope to find a dissenting opinion when the text lines up with the picture.


Some writers are aware of their own views and create children’s books deliberately in contrast to those views.

The key, perhaps, is a certain detachment: Tan’s books are political but not polemical, and the reader never feels lectured. “I’m quite fond of illustrating stories with an ideology I don’t agree with, or illustrating parts of history that offend me slightly — and doing that almost impassively, without adding judgment,” he says. “I try to divest my work of those attachments.” With The Arrival, for example, he approached the charged issue of immigration by focusing on the human detail. “The path I chose was just to tell a story of settlement. It’s quite an intimate book — I was interested in the problems of getting something to eat, getting a job, these sorts of things.” The fantasy followed from that premise: “We need to be confused and perplexed, and we need things to look like things we know but be very different — like animals and trees and systems for getting a bus ticket and so on.”

from an article on the work of Shaun Tan in the Financial Times

Does Shaun Tan succeed in his impassivity? That’s another question. I suggest it’s slightly easier to be impassive when creating simple works of fantasy — harder when writing realistic contemporary fiction, in which case it’s impossible not to come down on one side or another.


When the reader already believes something because it’s part of their own society, then we say that the ideology is ‘transparent’ or ‘invisible’. In other words, the readers don’t even notice that it’s there.

If there are certain people who will argue that ‘This Is The Way It Is’, then this is the very definition of hegemonic ideology: Girls like pink because this is the way it is.

Take Harry Potter as an example of transparent ideology. Because this series is so very popular, thinkers and academics have looked hard at its ideologies. Harry Potter is no more ideological than anything else, but take the following from Toby Young writing for The Spectator. Young does a good job of summing up the politics of J.K. Rowling — politics which are transparent/invisible to most readers, and certainly to most young readers:

On the face of it, there is nothing complicated about the politics of Harry Potter, who made his first appearance in The Philosopher’s Stone 20 years ago. Like his creator J.K. Rowling, who once gave £1 million to the Labour party, he is a left-wing paternalist in the Bloomsbury tradition — the love child of John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf. He feels a protective duty towards the common man (‘muggles’ in the lexicon of the novels) and a loathing for suburban, lower-middle-class Tories like the Dursleys, his Daily Mail-reading foster parents. The arch-villain of the saga is Voldemort, a charismatic Übermensch who believes in purity and strength and in the final novel promotes his own version of the Nuremberg Laws through the Ministry of Magic. Indeed, the books are shot through with the mythology of the second world war and its aftermath, linking the struggle against fascism to the emergence of a socialist New Jerusalem.

But look more closely and something stranger hoves into view. What is Hogwarts, after all, but an idealised version of an English public school, with its houses, quadrangles and eccentric schoolteachers? As George Orwell points out in ‘Boys’ Weeklies’, his 1940 essay in which he tries to understand why millions of children find stories set in boarding schools so spellbinding, the ‘snob appeal’ of this milieu is ‘absolutely shameless’. ‘The heroic characters all have to talk BBC,’ he observes, something that is equally true of the Potter novels.

The Spectator


1. The dominant ideology

How to tell if an ideology is dominant (or hegemonic)? It’s unquestioned. We don’t notice that it’s there. We would question it if it wasn’t there. But when it’s there, we don’t notice it. This is a ‘transparent’ kind of ideology.

Since the 1960s (in particular) some effort has been made in Britain and the USA to publish children’s books which would have us assume the world is white, male and middle class. Other assumptions have yet to be much challenged: That the world is heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, monoamorous, amatonormative, cis-gender and so on. And progress has not been a straight line, either; books on African American themes have been decreasing since the early 1970s in the USA as a total proportion of the the book market. Other countries aren’t doing much better.

Examples of dominant ideology:

A dominant ideology can look invisible, but is more obvious to modern readers when opening a classic book from yesteryear. One way a book can sound patronising to certain subcultures is by rendering non-standard English in dialogue, especially when reverting to standard English from the unseen narrator. This implies that there is a correct way of speaking versus the characters’ way of speaking. But when a book is written entirely in, say, Black English, this tells the readers that Black English is a legitimate form of communication. Books for children of yesteryear quite often rendered non-standard dialects within speech marks, but reverted to a certain, hi-falutin kind of English for the rest of the story. This is no longer common. Today, ‘voice’ is important when writers seek publication, and voice can sound more unique if other voices are employed as part of the narration.

2. The alternative, subversive ideology

My favourite line from the movie Whip It
My favourite line from the movie Whip It

Sometimes an alternative ideology is deployed within a story with a dominant ideology, managing to subvert reader expectations.

Examples of subversive ideologies [from me]:

Definitions of  ‘subversive’ will vary enormously according to era and culture. A subversive story in America may seem very mainstream in France and vice versa. These are completely subjective because they depend so much on what’s considered dominant.


This categorisation comes from a paper by Peter Hollindale, 1988: Ideology And The Children’s Book.

When an author hasn’t consciously conveyed a particular ideology, then theirs is a passive ideology. Almost no attention has been paid to this aspect of children’s literature. JS speculates that this is because it overlaps with the issue of ‘the implied reader’, and we’ve all been more concerned about that.

The work of Enid Blyton is infused with the author’s own assumptions about white, middle-class English children. Blyton’s ideologies were almost certainly passive. Passive ideologies are characterized by ‘this is how it is’. It’s worth noting that children’s literature is characterised as being overwhelmingly conservative. Kidlit tends to replicate the conditions of its creation. British publishing tends to be conservative in values. [As is the American publishing industry, especially around sex. 50 Shades of Gray was picked up first by an Australian small press, presumably because the author couldn’t find an American one who would touch it.]

When an author actively attempts to subvert and transgress conventional, dominant ideologies, then this is an active ideology. C.S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia with the intention of transmitting a Christian ideology to his readers. [Likewise, Philip Pullman wrote His Dark Materials trilogy with the intention of undoing what C.S. Lewis had started.]


The ideology of a children’s book acculturates the child reader, no matter whether its ideologies are passive, active, alternative or hegemonic. Because of that, the child will be influenced. There is a stark imbalance between the creator and the addressee of a children’s book. The adult creator, with a longer experience of processing and of being exposed to various ideologies, is in a position of authority.

If you’re a writer you’ll be familiar with the different types of point of view: first person, unreliable first person, (close) third-person, omniscient etc. There’s another way of breaking down point of view when discussing ideology:

Perceptual Point Of ViewWho sees? Phenomena such as objects/events/people/landscape etc. within the world of the story are focalized by some perceiving agent (the focalizer). There can be a lot of switching between narrator focalization and character focalization, and between various characters. But in children’s literature it is unusual to find narratives extensively focalized by more than a narrator plus, say, one main character. (Stephens uses the word ‘focalization’, but I have also heard ‘close third person’. In this subset of third-person narration, the audience is encouraged to identify closely with the character we know the most about.)

Conceptual Point Of ViewWho interprets what is seen? Conceptual point of view comprises all intratextual acts of interpretation of all kinds. This works a bit differently in novels than in picture books, though the overall effect is the same. Sometimes in children’s literature, if you look closely, you’ll see adult words coming out of the mouths and minds of young characters. Sometimes, a conceptual point of view even comes through in the inquit-tags (also called speech tags or dialogue tags) such as ‘he said,’ ‘she demanded’. For example, the inquit-tag ‘declared’ almost invariably has a pejorative association in children’s books, marking an utterance as opinionated or wrong.


A feminist book such as Babette Cole’s Princess Smartypants tries to promote a counter-hegemonic reading of marriage and being a girl. [As does Frozen, the wildly popular Pixar movie.] For more examples from the wider culture and cinema, many people don’t realise that princesses and pink are not actually an intrinsic part of girlhood — that little girls have been acculturated into identifying with these things.

[For more on Babette Cole’s so-called feminist book, see: inversion is not the same as subversion.]


A number of books have been banned by various organisations because of the ideas they transmit. Often these books are banned because they have been completely misread, not because they’re introducing subversive ideology at all.

According to many critics, who do actually understand the banned books, it is not books that promote certain ways of life/beliefs/values that are dangerous. The most dangerous books are those that normalise certain ways of life without encouraging readers to question.

By the way, subject matter has nothing to do with ideology. There are a lot of books which people call ‘sooo radical’ which are nothing of the sort. The reason they seem radical is because of sexual/violent/drug content. In fact, the inclusion of ‘edgy content’ does not necessarily subvert any hegemonic ideology. For example, a book which contains drugs in young adult literature will most often convey the idea that Drugs Are Very Bad, No Question, which is actually not a subversion of dominant thinking at all.

You’ll find a number of children’s books that feature rainbow parenting — an actively ideological sort of story — will nevertheless rely on hegemonic ideologies about relationships in general. For example, the homosexual parents will be monogamous, not too far removed from the nuclear family of the 1950s. [This is probably to do with the fact that cultural change happens one step at a time, and the publisher wants to sell some copies.]

Likewise, you can have an incredibly radical story in something that is at first glance very mainstream.


Children’s books are often used to comfort a child, or to make an event in their lives more understandable. It’s impossible to have a truly radical book which gets rid of all norms. Norms are what you anchor your reflection in. If you had a text which had a completely new ideology, new values, new social order, you’re actually going to be alienated from the story altogether. The most effective books strike a balance between the normativity of hegemonic ideals and the new ideas presented within the text.


A society which has book awards is a society that chooses which ideas it wants to promote via texts. A book award is a strong ideological decision because it validates certain reinforcements of The Ideology. Shaun Tan won the Astrid Lindgren award, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for children’s literature. Shaun Tan writes about experiences of immigration and integration. He has a steampunk take on the world, with a strong political comment on the world. We see in his work something we want to see in society. The branch of children’s literature which is involved in dishing out the awards tends to be quite left wing in values, though the popular commercial fiction is more on the right-wing side.

On the other hand, Waterstones (with its strong financial motivations) finances the Children’s Laureate, rewards authors such as Julia Donaldson, whose work is very mainstream, very successful financially and less challenging to children. Empirical studies show that children tend to prefer more sophisticated pieces of work (like Tan’s), just like adults do, so Waterstones is an interesting study in contrast.


Best-selling books for children tend to conform to a capitalist, consumerist, liberal, democratic, humanist ideology, seen as benign and benevolent, but at the same time, is not transgressive. Julia Donaldson has no political message, and conforms to dominant ideas about parenting and teaching etc. Her books can therefore become best sellers. However, they certainly contain ideologies.

Take Zog, widely hailed as a feminist triumph, as it stars a girl who saves a boy. This is an excellent example of inversion without subversion.

The following summary of Zog describes exactly how ‘girl heroes saving boys’ is Female Maturity Formula rebranded:

Zog is an accident prone dragon failing in his training but he gets by with help from a mysterious girl. When he has to take on the hardest task at Dragon School — capturing a princess — she’s on hand to save the day again.

The Gender Agenda: A First-Hand Account of How Girls and Boys Are Treated Differently by James Millar and Ros Ball

Even in their own summary of the book, the authors of The Gender Agenda failed to even notice that the girl is not the star of the story. She is the hero and saviour, but also the more mature and sensible helper. She is a traveling angel trope , coming to the rescue whenever Zog  injures himself in his quest to become a fearsome dragon. The story is a spoof on the classic ‘girl princess saved by a knight from the scary dragon’ story which is why, at first glance, it looks like a feminist triumph. However, a closer look positions the girl character in the same old, same old sexist stereotype of mature little arbitrator. The scene in which Princess Pearl stands between the dragon and the knight, breaking up their fight, is staged as a female character between two warring male characters, telling them off for fighting. Not only are girls good little nurses (to male characters) but they’re also useful when it comes to breaking up fights (between male characters).

Zog ends with a monologue by Princess Pearl — she doesn’t want to be a princess, ‘prancing around in a silly, frilly dress’. (Femme girls are stupid, after all.) She wants to ‘be a doctor and travel here and there’ (because a girl can’t be a doctor without eschewing traditional expressions of womanhood). The ending is inverted, with Pearl running off with the dragon as mode of transport and the knight who she has inspired to join her in her pursuit to practice medicine. Notice how the knight and the dragon have had the character arc? Princess Pearl has not. Don’t mistake ‘change of plan’ for ‘change in character’. At first glance Pearl appears to change because her nursing skills have lead her to the conclusion that she’d make a good doctor. But she started the story as a caring, mature character and ended exactly the same way. The knight was an archetypal warrior who learned to care after the little mother’s speech. Zog’s was a coming-of-age story.  Zog is therefore an excellent case study of how inversion does not equal subversion . This picture book appears at first glance to challenge gender stereotyping, but reestablishes girls as caring, mature (good little mothers) and natural arbitrators in the concerns of males, who are central.


The Trouble With Normal: Trans youth and the desire for normalcy as reflected in young adult literature, a paper by Robert Bittner

All writing is political. To assert that it’s not is political. If your politics is mainstream, it’s invisible. If it’s on the fringe and based on what you referred to earlier as the politics of difference, then it’s ‘visible’ and suddenly political, and ‘aesthetics’ – which are also political! – can suddenly be compromised.”

Selina Tusitala Marsh (speaking to Witi Ihimaera)