Middle Grade Novel Study: Coraline

Coraline with cat

Coraline is a 2002 novel by Neil Gaiman. Strangely, it is called a novella, despite being the typical length of a middle grade novel (30,640 words). This is one of those ‘children’s books’ for a universal audience, drawing on fears we all had as children. Neil Gaiman has said that adults find Coraline more terrifying than children do.

In 2009 Coraline was adapted for film, rendering the character Coraline slightly more passive with the addition of a male sidekick.

Coraline is an example of the battle-free myth form, and in order to adapt to a feature length film it was necessary for the director to add quite a bit of material. This is in line with my theory that the big struggle-free myth form is naturally shorter than the traditional, masculine mythic form. (I think Inside Out would have been better a bit shorter, too.)

INFLUENCES ON CORALINE

Coraline is a changeling story, but instead of the child being swapped, it’s the mother. There is a long history of changeling stories, which feeds upon a fear that our loved-ones are not who we think they are, or perhaps we are not who we think we are.

Coraline is a great example of an uncanny story. It is also a great example of contemporary gothic children’s literature. Gothic literature is often all about surfaces — tropes and trappings rather than psychic depths. For more on that specific thing, see Eve Sedgwick. You can read that paper for free if you register with JStor. See also the work of Catherine Spooner.

The influence of Fairy Tale: Hansel and Gretel as ur-Story

In general, male villains are WYSIWG. Even when they’re tricksters, we know they’re tricksters. But the villainous trickster who infiltrates the family home, pretending to be nurturer when she is no such thing, is a gendered archetype. In fairytales we see this woman played out as the step-mother, which is something the Grimm brothers changed (from plain old evil mother) to make the tales more palatable for a child audience. (Evil mums are more scary than evil step-mums.)

In Coraline, The Other Mother is sneaky, cunning, clever, intimidating, and seeks power. Just like many of the maternal figures in Disney movies or in fables (including Hansel and Gretel), the Other Mother is ugly (underneath) and craves power. These are two traits which are apparently bad for any women to have, and so she must be destroyed.

Alice’s adventures In Wonderland and Other Classic Tales

When an author wants to write their first fantasy novel for children, they’ll sometimes fall back on the books they themselves loved as kids. If they were Alice in Wonderland fans they might go the route of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. If they were partial to The Wizard of Oz they could do as Salman Rushdie did when he wrote Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Betsy Bird

In a discussion about another book entirely, Betsy Bird  happens to point out that Coraline has been influenced by Alice In Wonderland, which has a mythic structure underneath but weird things happen which seem random and disconnected. A girl goes ‘down a rabbit hole’ (or through a small door) into a parallel universe, not so far from home at all. The story is populated by eccentrics who follow their own logic. For critics, it is very difficult to analyse Coraline as a real child. Coraline eludes the adult critic – like Freud’s “Dora” and Carroll’s Alice. She’s often quite opaque.

Thomas Byrne offers a much wider list of influences on Neil Gaiman’s work, noting that Gaiman is one of the contemporary authors who creates more nuanced characters than usual:

If we were to take a brief look at a collection of popular children’s books from the past featuring similar themes to Gaiman’s work – supernatural creatures, magic, witches, or other unexplainable phenomenon, we might be drawn to such classics as L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass, Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron, or C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. All of these books are widely considered to be classic tales from previous generations, and all have elements of the supernatural, from explicit witches and wizardry to the unseen resurrection of characters. All of these books have villains or evil characters, and Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West is one of the most prototypical of the entire genre. Yet, despite the proliferation of such ‘bad guys’ in these books, they do not seem to have the depth and realism of fright of contemporary works. These classic stories have clear designations to show that what is happening is make believe, which diminishes the realism and impact on their readers. Children who read these books can more easily convince themselves that what is happening is fictional, as the parallels to the main characters as they are going through such adventures are difficult to draw. In essence, most of these books are examples of mild escapist fiction, where the author provides a magical world for children to live in, but from which they can easily escape. This view is supported by fairy tale expert Jack Zipes in his essay “Are fairy tales still useful to Children?”: “…the very act of reading a fairy tale is an uncanny experience in that it separates the reader from the restrictions of reality from the onset…”.

Thomas Byrne
The Specific Influence Of Mrs Clifford

Neil Gaiman has said that he was influenced directly by a tale written by Mrs. (Lucy) Clifford in a collection called Anyhow Stories (1882). This creepy tale is called “The New Mother”. The protagonists are called by Mrs. Clifford’s own children’s nicknames, Turkey and Blue-Eyes.

Alison Lurie writes of “The New Mother”:

In “The New Mother” … the frightening thing is that inanimate matter has become real. This tale draws on the primitive fear of objects that survives just below the surface in most of us — the suspicion that our new tennis racket or our old Toyota is secretly hostile, that the politician speaking on television is really a plastic replica. It is also, of course, a classic tale of separation anxiety, made more terrifying because it does not take place “in a faraway land, but [in] England with typical village, post office, house-hold furnishings etc.”

The “strange wild-looking girl” whom the children in “The New Mother” find sitting by the wayside claims that she lives in their villages, but they have never seen her there before. She is sitting on a musical instrument called a peardrum, which, she tells them, she will play only for naughty children. This peardrum, in the accompanying illustration, is shaped very like a womb; so it is not surprising to hear the girl claim that when she plays it a little man and woman come out and dance together. “The little woman has heard a secret — she tells it while she dances.”

Naturally the children long to see this dance and learn this secret, so they go home and try hard to be naughty. Their mother, distressed, tells them that if they do not stop she will have to go away and leave them “and send home a new mother, with glass eyes and a wooden tail.” But the children keep on trying to be naughty, encouraged by the girl with the peardrum, who remarks to them that “the pleasure of goodness centres in itself; the pleasures of naughtiness are many and varied.”

Day after day the children become naughtier — but never quite naughty enough for a strange girl. They break furniture and crockery, throw the clock on the floor, and put out the fire. Finally they behave so badly that their mother leaves them — but even then they do not get their wish. The strange girl dances past their cottage, accompanied by an old man playing in a peculiar way on a flute and two dogs waltzing on their hind legs. “Oh, stop!” the children cry, “and show us the little man and woman now.”

But the strange girl passes on, calling back to them: “Your new mother is coming. She is already on her way; but she only walks slowly, for her tail is rather long… but she is coming, she is coming — coming — coming.” The procession disappears down the road, becoming “a dark misty object”.

The children return to their disordered and deserted cottage to wait for night, and for the arrival of the new mother: “Suddenly, while they were sitting by the fire, they heard a sound as of something heavy being dragged along the ground outside, and then there was a loud and terrible knocking.” Turkey and Blue-Eyes bolt the door, but the new mother breaks it open with her tail. The children escape into the cold, dark forest, where they wander about like the famous Babes in the Wood, lonely and miserable. At the end of the story they are still living there, longing to go home and see their real mother once again.

The figure of the new mother and the elemental terror aroused by her coming seem to belong to a more primitive world than that of the usual English folktale. They suggest the carved wooden images and superstitions of the voodoo cult, which Mrs. Clifford may have seen or heard of during her childhood in Barbados and recalled, perhaps not even consciously, many years later.

Readers of Henry James may feel a particular shiver of recognition as they read this story. Like “The Turn Of The Screw”, written sixteen years later, it is the tale of two innocent children in late Victorian England who encounter a strange, attractive young woman who may be either a devil or a damned soul.She tempts them to disobedience, promising to reveal ambiguously sexual secrets, gradually leads them further and further into evil, and then disappears abruptly. It would be interesting to know whether James, when he wrote his famous ghost story, remembered his friend Lucy Clifford’s strange and haunting tale for children.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s literature

TV Tropes lists the story building-blocks which Gaiman makes use of in Coraline.

SETTING OF CORALINE

House

This is a moving house story and begins the way many ghost stories begin — a child moves into a new house where everything is scary. This is the archetypal scary mansion, broken into parts where eccentric characters share the building. You get the sense this is a labyrinthine setting, with the house several storeys high, and the well leading far, far into the ground. This makes full use of the symbolism of altitude. Coraline finds the well before she finds the little door. The well therefore functions like Chekhov’s gun. If there’s one secret place in this arena, we expect others.

See also: Symbolism Of The Dream House

Weather

This seems to be a mild English summer, with a torrential downpour more reminiscent of the tropics than of England. The rain outside, followed by the fog, gives the sense that this is a world separate from the real world, with the weather functioning as a kind of veil. We could probably say all sorts of Freudian things about that veil, too — something like ‘the rain and fog is the membrane between Freud’s conscious and unconscious states. Whatever happens inside the house is connected to the unconscious, where all sorts of weird and wacky things are allowed to come to the fore. This reading is probably a bridge too far, but this is an example of what gives Coraline its Gothic feel.

STORY STRUCTURE OF CORALINE

PARATEXT

Coraline book cover

The day after they moved in, Coraline went exploring….

In Coraline’s family’s new flat are twenty-one windows and fourteen doors. Thirteen of the doors open and close.

The fourteenth is locked, and on the other side is only a brick wall, until the day Coraline unlocks the door to find a passage to another flat in another house just like her own.

Only it’s different.

At first, things seem marvelous in the other flat. The food is better. The toy box is filled with wind-up angels that flutter around the bedroom, books whose pictures writhe and crawl and shimmer, little dinosaur skulls that chatter their teeth. But there’s another mother, and another father, and they want Coraline to stay with them and be their little girl. They want to change her and never let her go.

Other children are trapped there as well, lost souls behind the mirrors. Coraline is their only hope of rescue. She will have to fight with all her wits and all the tools she can find if she is to save the lost children, her ordinary life, and herself.

Coraline marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

This story is an example of how an adult response might be different from a child’s response.

I see Coraline’s biggest shortcoming as her inability to amuse herself while her parents are busy working. Sure, kids do need attention and quite a lot of it, but kids also need to learn how to read a damn book if their work-from-home parents are on deadline. I doubt the child reader sees both sides. I expect the typical child reader will empathise fully with Coraline’s loneliness and judge her parents harshly for dismissing her like that. We are not shown all the times when Coraline’s parents do spend time with her. I assume there are many — a child reader is only shown the time when the parents are busy.

Coraline’s biggest problem is boredom, but this is the state of mind that makes her start noticing things she wouldn’t have, had she found some way to occupy her mind. The film adaptation emphasises Coraline’s boredom, whereas the book emphasises her natural curiosity, making her less of a passive character.

DESIRE

At a surface level, Coraline wants fun. She wants to eat dinners that are not too fancy and not too bland. She thinks other kids have better families. These hypothetical other families are all in her head, later symbolised by The Other Parents through the portal.

Under the surface, Coraline wants company, specifically her parents’ attention. It is the end of the summer holidays and she has just moved to a new house, so she is naturally starved of company.

OPPONENT

Coraline’s parents are her opponent. Coraline wants to spend time with them, they want (need) to spend time on their work.

The Other Parents are an example of false-ally opponents. At this point I feel this category of character should be broken into two groups:

  1. The audience knows right away that these false-ally opponents are false
  2. This fact is revealed later — a surprise to the audience as much as to the main character

In this case, the reader knows right away that the Other Parents are not on her side. They are too good to be true. The film adaptation has the benefit of visuals to underscore this point, but how does Gaiman do it in the book? Coraline’s Other Bedroom is painted in Coraline’s favourite colours, but the colours look garish somehow.

The cat is a creepy character partly because he is ambiguous in his alliances. In fact, he’s out for himself. He sometimes helps Coraline, sometimes thwarts her plans, such as by killing the rat who is helping her. Yet he does lead her to the mirror and shows her what happened to her parents.

PLAN

Motivated by curiosity, and by the singing mice, Coraline keeps looking behind the tiny door. Eventually it opens up into a corridor and she goes through the portal.

When she realises her parents have left her, possibly to never come back, she goes to Miss Spink and Miss Forcilble, because isn’t that what sensible children always do, unless there’s some good reason not to tell adults? The problem with telling adults is, the adults often have the power to either fix the big problem or to provide emotional comfort, but these old theatre ladies are completely self-absorbed. They do not even hear Coraline, wrapped up entirely in their own obsessions. Gaiman made sure to establish this earlier. These characters talk past each other, as if they are living in their own world — which is interesting, because Coraline, too, is living in her own world. Glamorising the past at the expense of living in the moment is another way to avoid reality.

Coraline takes a while to work out what’s going on. She goes along with her imprisonment in The Other House, but when she has her revelation, that getting what she wants won’t lead to happiness, then she realises she needs to chase the rat, who will help release the ghost children from the mirror, along with her real parents.

BIG STRUGGLE

Typically for a story starring a girl, the big struggle of this book takes place (literally) inside Coraline’s own mind, beginning with the sequence where the cat murders the rat. Coraline defeats the Other Mother by throwing the black cat at her. Coraline is an example of a big struggle-free myth form, using wits instead of brute strength to win.

ANAGNORISIS

When Coraline is given everything she ostensibly wants, she knows that this doesn’t mean much:

I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?

But these things aren’t what she really wanted at all. Coraline’s under-the-conscious desire still hasn’t been met.

NEW SITUATION

Chapter thirteen (the final chapter) explains that the parents never realised they had been trapped inside the snow globe. But like many horrors, this creature opponent is robotic — defeat it though you try, it only comes back. (The trope of the disembodied hand is also used The Iron Giant.) The indestructible villain is common to adult thrillers and horrors as well. Australian classic horror Dead Calm springs to mind.

The Film Adaptation Of Coraline

Coraline movie poster

As much as I love the style and spookiness of the film, it is absolutely depressing to see what the screenwriters did in order to make it acceptable for the wider, ‘more universal’ audience required of high budget film productions.

Wybie is such an annoying, useless character you could equally make the case that the existence of Wybie does nothing for boys. He does nothing for girls, either:

  • One major difference between the novel and the movie is Selick’s addition of Wybie Lovat to the screenplay.
  • With the introduction of Wybie, all of a sudden Coraline has a rescuer. She doesn’t need to be the brave, solitary heroine. She is no longer the independently motivated, fearless adventurer Gaiman depicted her as, because she has a companion.
  • The novel’s Coraline is independently motivated and curious. She does a lot of solitary exploring and doesn’t have any recognizable fears. However, in the film she is portrayed differently. It seems she simply wanders from her house out of boredom, not out of genuine curiosity. Outside she is alarmed by noises and runs down the hill, terrified, and is nearly run over by a boy on a bike. The boy looms over her. Immediately in that situation she is made to be the lesser, submissive character. The boy on the bike is Wybie. This first encounter presents Coraline as easily frightened and places Wybie in a more dominant position.
  • The trend of Wybie as a figure of masculine authority continues. For example, in the movie there is an old well that part of the plot. Coraline does not discover it on her own as she does in the book, Wybie is the one to tell her about it.

cheers to Violet Rebelo for listing them

In other ways, Neil Gaiman’s feminism is retained in the movie adaptation, which leads most people to conclude that the film is ultimately a feminist work:

  • The main character is a girl.
  • Initially, Coraline tries to enforce gender roles in her family. She wants a “perfect” family. She doesn’t like that her father is the one to do the cooking, and asks her mother why she doesn’t ever cook. (Is it really because her father’s ‘recipes’ are horrible? Either way, the man as hopeless cook is an overdone trope in its own right.) But she learns that ‘perfect’ family does not mean a mother who cooks wonderful food a la 1950s White suburban America/England. (Is the father really a hopeless cook, or is he a fantastic cook, while Coraline is simply a fussy eater? That’s up for interpretation.)

I’ll leave it to you to decide. In any case, it is great that Coraline exists in the world.

What a little girl does with her copy of Coraline, and Neil Gaiman’s response.

The Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

The Wolves In The Walls
The main child character has a naturalistic hand but basically dots for eyes. The wolf is depicted as an outline but has naturalistic wolf eyes. Lucy is an inverse of the wolf. Which parts of Lucy are wolflike and which parts of the wolf are Lucy?

Have you ever had something living in your walls or in your roof space, or cellar?

Apparently the story was inspired by his own daughter, who heard rats in the walls at night. (So do we — they’re actually mice…) Hearing rodents in the walls isn’t all that uncommon. And rodents are most active at night. It really is quite disturbing to hear two a.m. scrabbling right behind your head: You’re not quite sure they’re rodents, they’re so close to you, yet you can’t see them. And it’s not easy to do much about them, either. You have to wait for them to come out and eat the bait you’ve placed elsewhere.

A PICTUREBOOK FOR OLDER READERS

There are few picturebooks for older readers, and even fewer published today, with children encouraged to read chapter books earlier than ever before. This picture book is longer than your typical toddler-targeted picturebook and is aimed at readers who might otherwise be reading a chapter of a chapter book. Themes are commensurately dark, under the assumption that an older reader can cope, and isn’t necessarily going to wake up at midnight from nightmares.

There’s a good reason why this book is a bit longer: It’s an example of the horror genre in picture book format.

Am I the only one who thought this is a mishmash of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” and the classic wolf-riddled admonitory bedtime stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”?

Goodreads reviewer

Does Gaiman’s story have anything to do with Lovecraft’s The Rats In The Walls? That is a story set almost 100 years ago in a renovated castle. This is a modern, warm house with modern technology such as computer games, and a 1950s mother figure in the kitchen making jam. What could possibly go wrong? In Lovecraft’s story he gathers a posse of experts from England who know all about medieval stuff and they find a terrifying grotto below the basement which is the scene of a horrendous ancient civilisation in which creatures (including humans) were kept in cages to be eaten by an army of rats.

While I don’t think this picturebook has all that much in common with Lovecraft’s story, there are some tropes common in horror:

  • The hero hears strange goings-on but no one else in the house believes them.
  • The strange goings-on happen in the middle of the night.
  • Though Lucy lives in a modern, suburban house, the long shot of the house at midnight shows us it’s perched atop a bit of a hill and now it looks like a castle. We can well imagine that this house has a vast, labyrinthine basement full of terrors.
  • Lucy has a beloved pig puppet whereas the narrator of The Rats In The Walls has a beloved black cat. (The pig functions as a kind of ‘Companion Cube‘ — a trope in which the character uses an inanimate object as a security blanket — being too  close to an inanimate thing is a sign of madness in horror.)
  • There’s a grizzly scene — skeletons of unlikely creatures in Lovecraft; faux-grizzliness with wolves with jam around their mouths in Gaiman and McKean

But there are very big differences, given the target audience:

  • Lovecraft’s story is about descent into madness; the picture book is the active imagination of a little girl
  • Lovecraft’s conclusion is without hope; Wolves in the Walls is a circular story book — at the end we find out that the story will repeat itself, this time with elephants.
  • Lovecraft’s skeletons and chimeras are truly terrifying; the wolves in the picture book have very humanlike interests (playing video games and eating jam), and are just as scared of humans as the humans are of them.

See: What Is The Horror Genre For?

In horror, light and dark are especially important.

Light = good.

Dark = evil.

This dichotomy is expertly exploited by the illustrator.

WOLVES AND HORROR AND CHRISTIAN SYMBOLISM

We also have wolves, which Christian thought — upon which western horror is based — has turned into villains. Wolves lead you towards the devil. Traditionally, at least. There’s a recent turnaround, now that wolves are endangered and we know more about them. Spoiler alert: Healthy wolves don’t hunt people, which ruins the entire plot of White Fang. These days you get picture books in which the wolves are the goodies, for example The Three Little Wolves and the Big, Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury.

See also: Wolves In Children’s Literature

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION BY DAVE MCKEAN

wolves-in-the-walls-staircase

Some illustrators share their styles with many others. Not so with Dave McKean, whose dark, spooky, yet patchwork style is unique. How to describe the artwork? In bulletpoints, I guess, since it’s a tall order:

  • Scenes are a mixture of photorealistic images (perhaps parts cropped from photos), line drawings and off-kilter textures. In other words, the pictures form a ‘chimera’, mixing reality with fiction. But which part is fiction and which is true? That’s the freaky part.
  • The collage effect is achieved by making no attempt to ‘line edges up’ or position textures so that they match real life perspective. A boy lying on a rug has realistic hair, an illustrated body, and the rug he lies on is a texture which doesn’t come out the other side of the boy’s body where you would expect it to.
  • A palette knife tool is used to suggest movement and also that a character is an inextricable part of the setting. In the picture above we see the knife applied to the girl’s hair.
  • Digital artists working in a more photorealistic style often make use of the multiply blend mode in order to make a many-layered illustration look cohesive. Here we have what looks like a glaze or coloured-wash. The pattern of the aforementioned rug extends right across the carpet; what makes it look like a rug is that it is a circle of different toned wash.
  • Photorealistic objects (or, photos) are also distorted with a palette knife, or digital equivalent. An illustrator such as Lauren Child also makes use of (stock?) photos in her illustrations to completely different effect. (Her childlike representations of Charlie and Lola look even more naive by contrast.)
  • The eyes of McKean’s characters look super spooky. Eyes are always important in illustrations of people and animals. Although dots for eyes are very common in picturebooks, when dots are used for eyes on more realistic (generic tending towards naturalistic) looking characters with that photorealistic hair and those contoured faces, we are reminded of the button-eyes of Coraline, or of dead birds we found on the ground as children, since the eyes are first to rot.
  • While the human characters and scenery are drawn in semi-naturalistic style, the wolves look like drawings of yesteryear, with black, sketchy outlines only. The humans are a part of the child reader’s world whereas these wolves are creatures from an ancient folklore. We are encouraged to forget the fact that wolves would never be found inside a house.
  • The crumpled paper background and dirty texture overlays lets us know that this is a story from an earlier time and the crumpledness equals some sort of frantic gesture.

Wolves In The Walls Wolves

  • When colour is added, it’s not necessarily in sync with the ink outlines. For example, a wolf rendered in outlines has a yellow splodge of paint in the eye area, and a square of semi-transparent green overlaid on its body. The wolf is neither square nor green; why this artistic choice? The wolves are coming out of the walls in the same way the colour is coming out of its rightful place. Worlds are blurring together.

the wolves came out of the walls

Values

Here’s an interesting project, completed by someone at Deviant Art: re-creating a double-spread of a picturebook in black and white only (values). Doing this would no doubt leave you with a good sense of page layout, and I guess that was the aim of the task:

Wolves In The Walls Silhouette Only

Font Choice and Placement

Inside the house everything was quiet

The placement of the text suggests terror and unease, askew on the page. There is also a variety of fonts. The font on the front cover looks like the scrawl of one crazed individual, perhaps one possessed by werewolves. Dialogue is rendered in a typewriter, serif style. It all works well together. Note that both of the interior fonts are quite different. It’s no good picking two that are basically the same.

Colour Temperature

night wolf howling

Wolves In Walls blue colour scheme

This is by the by…

But on the front cover we see the creators credited very specifically: Written by Neil Gaiman and Illustrated by Dave McKean. If you are an illustrator (especially) you’re probably aware of the unfortunate tendency to credit the writers of picturebooks but not the illustrators, who bring as much (if not more) to a story than the writer. Some picturebook creators do not like the word ‘author’ in relation to picturebooks, because a picturebook is ‘authored’ by both the writer and illustrator. In short, perhaps this method of crediting a picturebook’s co-creators is about to catch on? I hope so.

RELATED

Extraordinary Navigators: An Examination of Three Heroines in Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Coraline, The Wolves in the Walls, and MirrorMask

Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti

One of the best ways to retell a familiar story is to add plenty of minor detail. The trick is to make this detail seem both unexpected and surprising. There are things I really like about Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel:

1. In earlier retellings, it is Hansel who has all the bright ideas. Hansel realises what the parents/step-mother has done to them — abandoned them in the woods. By comparison, Gretel seems naiive and even stupid. In this retelling, Gaiman offsets this interpretation by making Hansel — but not Gretel — privy to an overheard midnight conversation between the  mother and the father.

2. So often in fairytale retellings, it is a step-mother rather than a birth mother who is evil. It is generally thought that a story with an evil mother is too terrible for a young reader to contemplate. If there are unwritten rules in children’s literature (and indeed, there must be few these days, if we include young adult literature), it is that mothers must love their children unconditionally, even if they themselves are too screwed up to care for them properly. If you went looking for terrible mothers in children’s literature you’d be hard pressed to count the evil ones on one hand. But Neil Gaiman does not shy away from the reality that some women do indeed lack mothering instincts, just as many men lack fathering instincts.

3. Not only that, Neil Gaiman portrays gut-wrenching emotion in the father. Counterintuitively, this is what makes this story feminist — a story in which women are not put on a pedestal as mothers, where women have only one representation: self-sacrificing and emotional. In stories, men are often allowed to be just men, even when they have children. They are not judged so much on how effective they are as fathers. In this story, however, the father is the parent with the nurturing instinct, and is at the mercy of his wife’s terrible decisions rather than the other way around. We won’t have gender equality until we have as many bad mothers as there are bad fathers, I guess.

Food In Fairytales

Carolyn Daniel writes in Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature:

The woodcutter’s family is poor and they “did not have much food around the house, and when a great famine devastated the entire country, [the woodcutter] could no longer provide enough for his family’s daily meals”. At the suggestion of their stepmother, Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods. The hungry children come across a house made, in the Grimm version, of “bread” with “cake for a roof and pure sugar for windows”. Cane sugar was a very costly commodity and had been imported from India or Arabia since the eleventh century. It was used for making marzipan and other sweetmeats. Sugar would only have been available to rich nobles and not to woodcutters and their families. The house made of sweet food represents something exotic, very rich, and beyond the reach of the peasantry. When your diet is poor and monotonous, a story featuring plentiful, appetizing food is bound to have appeal, but I believe this fantasy goes beyond the desire to alleviate hunger: it also represents economic desire. The exoticism and richness of the sugary food in the fantasy represent not only the riches of the nobility but also their ability to avoid the hunger and drudgery of the peasants’ daily life. The Grimm version ends with the children filling apron and pockets with the pearls and jewels they have found in the witch’s house and taking them home to their father. “[In] the meantime” their stepmother has died and so “Now all their troubles were over, and they lived together in utmost joy”. Their future is secured by the wealth with which, like the nobility, they can now live in relative ease and luxury. Unlike the magic porridge pot that merely alleviated hunger, the jewels provide the woodcutter’s family with riches and instant freedom from their menial existence.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS IN HANSEL AND GRETEL

I knew before picking this book up that the illustrations were in black and white, but what I didn’t expect was that many of the illustrations would be — literally — black and white, with basically no greys, just #FFFFFF and #000000. There is a little green on the cover, but not within the pages. Mattotti does not always paint in black and white. In fact, a lot of his work has quite interesting use of colour. Note all the different colours in the shadow of the ping-pong table — the shadow is as alive as the foliage. The woman’s blonde hair turns to red as it blends into her dress. The green of the table reflects onto the yellow t-shirt. Colour or no colour, there’s something ‘creepy’ about Mattotti’s people. Here they have no faces, and their profiles are uncompromisingly angular, as are the elbows. Body proportion is slightly morphed, with an unusually long-waisted man.

Lorenzo Mattotti New Yorker Cover
Lorenzo Mattotti New Yorker Cover

For Hansel and Gretel, the choice was made to leave out any colour. It is extraordinarily difficult to paint detailed scenes using only the whitest white and the blackest black, unless you’re working with black outlines on white paper, of course, but these illustrations are filled in with blocks of black and we still know what the scenes are. This is quite a magic trick.

Hansel and Gretel Black and White
Hansel and Gretel House On The Plain

Other scenes are rendered with the addition of midtone grey:

Hansel and Gretel forest scene

Why the absence of colour?

Of course, whenever a picture book or app is published in black and white, there is a certain large segment of the buying public who do not consider it right for a young audience:

Goodreads Review of Hansel and Gretel
Goodreads Review of Hansel and Gretel

But when it comes to picture books, there is always a good reason for everything.

Of David Macaulay’s book Unbuilding, Perry Nodelman writes in Words About Pictures:

In black and white, [the drawings] achieve the tongue-in-cheek pseudoconviction of fairy tales, that characteristically matter-of-fact reporting of utterly nonfactual events.

Is that partly what’s going on here, too, when the publishers decided to employ an artist who would work in black and white? I suspect the ‘documentary realism’ is part of it; added to that is the universal fear of darkness, most dramatically rendered in black. Nodelman says that although some artists achieve a sense of reality by imitating and thus evoking our conventional expectations of conventionally realistic depictions/photographs and artists’ sketches

in other circumstances, black-and-white drawing is not necessarily a good medium for the representational depiction of the way the world looks. It shows us less of the visual world than our eyes do—shades, but no hues—and forces us to fill in what is not actually shown. Perhaps that explains why black-and-white documentary seems so truthful and serious—it demands our mental activity, so that we cannot just sit back and soak it in. But since black-and-white pictures are, in fact, less complete than those in colour, they actually reveal less of surfaces, of physical objects and facial characteristics.

Furthermore, colour, placed in between the lines that represent objects, fills in shapes and gives the objects solidity; so without colour, the lines become more obvious, and without the solidifying qualities of weightiness and bulk they can more forcefully depict motion. Generally speaking, and unlike the work of Van Allsburg and Macaulay, most of the black and white drawing in picture books is cartooning and caricature, and most of it emphasizes action over appearance-not how objects look but what they do.

This focus also explains why black-and-white illustrations seem so much more appropriate in longer books than in picture books. Picture books emphasise showing as much as telling, and their pictures often fill in the details of emotion and of setting that their words leave out and that color seems most suited to convey. But in longer books, words can convey at least some of those details, and pictures in color seem superfluous when they merely duplicate information the text itself communicates. On the other hand, good black-and-white pictures that emphasize line over shape can add energy to long books in which details of emotion and of setting might otherwise retard the action.

As examples, Nodelman offers the work of Garth Williams (Charlotte’s Web), Tenniel (Alice In Wonderland) and Shepherd (Winnie the Pooh). All three examples emphasize line over shape. Even the blackest of spaces retains evidence of crosshatching in small bits of un-inked white, but not in the work of Mattotti. Mattotti’s pictures are without cross-hatching or other traditional methods of rendering form.

STORY SPECS

At 54 pages, this is longer than a picturebook for preschoolers. This is more of an ‘illustrated short story’ for older children and adults.
 
Published October 28th 2014

This book was released in a ‘Standard Edition’ and in an ‘Oversized Deluxe Edition (A Toon Graphic)‘. In the deluxe edition the pages are larger (9.125″ x 12.625″), there is a die cut in the front cover, and some of the after matter is missing.  Due to the larger size, there is more white space around the text. This raises interesting questions about what a ‘deluxe’ version of a picture book should include over the standard version. There is also a collector’s edition, which is signed and includes a screen-printed box and artist print.

Juliet Blake has the rights to turn this version of Hansel and Gretel into a film. (See Juliet Blake at IMDb, in which we learn the film stars Josh Hutcherson and Elle Fanning.)

COMPARE WITH

For A Similar Art Style

Wanda Gag With Cat

Wanda Gag (1893-1946) illustrated the children’s book Millions of Cats (1928), and pioneered the double-page book spread, using both pages for one illustration that furthered the story. In Millions Of Cats there is use of bright colour, but a lot of her work is high-contrast black-and-white. This is achieved via lithography, whereas Mattotti uses a paint brush.

Wanda Gag Spinning Wheel
Wanda Gag Winter Garden
Wanda Gag Winter Garden, 1935

The billowing tree and off-kilter palings of the foreground fence remind me of similar techniques used by Mattotti in Hansel and Gretel. This way of drawing makes for a creepy vibe.

Wanda Gág, American, 1893 – 1946, Spring in the Garden (Spring II), 1927, lithograph
Wanda Gág, 1893 – 1946, Spring in the Garden (Spring II), 1927, lithograph

Perry Nodelman in Words About Pictures finds the curved forms comforting as much as creepy, and speaks of the comfort of a predictable, oft-told tale:

[Not all] artists in black and white focus on the energies of line. Some, like Wanda Gag, use black-and-white’s potential for heavy contrast to create more restfully decorative effects. Even though there’s must use of line to create shadow in Gag’s Millions of Cats, the heavy contrasts between light areas and dark ones orient the pictures toward pattern rather than toward action. In techniques like block printing, in which the ink is not laid down on the paper by the line of a pen, the blocks of black and white tend to operate more like colors, creating solid shapes rather than energetic lines. Furthermore, such a technique associates these pictures with the static conventions of folk art, which tends to be more oriented to pattern than to action. Not surprisingly, Gag’s story also focuses more on pattern than on movement, on repetition rather than on forward movement. While a lot happens in Millions of Cats, the story tends to offer more pleasure to those who have heard it before than to those who are hearing it for the first time. It is comfortingly predictable rather than threatening or even very exciting.

But if Millions of Cats is comfortingly secure, it is not just because it emphasizes shape over line, pattern over energy; it is also because the shapes happen to be primarily rounded and curved ones—the sort of shapes we associate with softness and yielding. Such associations have an obvious effect on our attitudes to pictures.

Nodelman then mentions the art of Tim Burton, which has been replicated by subsequent animators in films such as Paranorman.

I would also compare the art of Manttotti to that of Armin Greeder, who has illustrated The Great Bear and The Island in a style which you’re more likely to find in an unsettling art exhibition than a book for children:

Armin Greeder The Island pitchfork scene
Armin Greeder Illustration
Armin Greeder The Great Bear

When a fairytale is republished for the modern reader, the new story may function as several different things: Is it a comfort read, ideally suited to pre-bedtime reading? Or is the very familiarity of the tale a great bedrock upon which to branch out with unsettling art, creating something brand new?

For Another Re-visioned Classic Fairytale For Older Readers

Shameless plug: Compare with our own retelling of a classic fairytale, Lotta: Red Riding Hood. Of course, there are many other modern retellings of fairytales, and like ours, many of them are written for young adults and above, as were the original tales. (I mean pre-Grimm. The Grimm brothers needed to raise money, so published old tales as children’s stories, because children’s stories are what sold.)

WRITE YOUR OWN

Is there a classic tale from your childhood which feel to you like some parts are missing? Perhaps one character doesn’t get a fair deal. I often feel that way about female characters in fairytales when retold by Perrault and Grimm; in the Victorian era, women were ideally stupid and innocent. Around this time step-mothers started to become most vilified. Beautiful people are portrayed to be good; ugly people are bad.

What might an ameliorated, more socially just version of your tale look like? Like Gaiman’s Hansel and Gretel, it may be quite similar to the classic version, but with a few details altered.

SEE ALSO

Maria Popova of Brainpickings links to some videos of Gaiman talking about fairy tales.

American author Robert Coover wrote a short story called ‘The Gingerbread House’ and it can be found in his collection Pricksongs and Descants. It’s Angela Carter style, if you’re familiar with those.

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.

J.D. Salinger

SANCTIFIED MOTHERS AND EVIL STEP-MOTHERS

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.

John Gannam Thayer Stroller advertisement, 1951
John Gannam Thayer Stroller advertisement, 1951

In young adult 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.

John Rowe Townsend
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, John Rowe Townsend

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, John Rowe Townsend
Illustration by Martha Sawyers, for the book "Eighth Moon" mother daughter
Illustration by Martha Sawyers, for the book “Eighth Moon” mother daughter

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

THE FAIRY GODMOTHER

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

Fairy Godmother

MOTHERS AND PICTUREBOOKS

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.


THE ABSENT MOTHER AND THE STRANGELY PRESENT MOTHER

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

Linguists have noticed that when turned into verbs, ‘to mother’ means something very different from ‘to father’.

THE DEAD MOTHER

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, e.g. Double Act.

Mimi by John Newman is another example. 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.


WHY ALL THE DEAD MUMS?

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?


THE RULE THAT MOTHERS MUST LOVE THEIR CHILDREN

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.


THE TROPE OF WAITING FOR AN ABSENT MOTHER

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


TYPES OF MOTHERLY SACRIFICE

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.


TABOO TOPICS EVEN TODAY

Abortion is rarely postulated in young adult literature. But here is a Goodreads list of young adult 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.

Wolf-Children-Breastfeeding
from Wolf Children, the movie

MOTHERS AND FOOD

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.

RELATED

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

TOP TEN WORST PARENTS IN TWEEN LIT BY AMY ESTERSOHN

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