Snow White as Illustrated by Burkert and Hyman

I’m sure any visitor to this blog has at least one version of Snow White on their childhood bookshelf. Which version did you have? When you think of Snow White, perhaps you think fondly of the Disney film, or perhaps, like me, you grew up with ‘Read It Yourself’ versions, as well as coming across it again in fairytale anthologies.

from a vintage Ladybird edition
from a vintage Ladybird edition
Snow White's body language in the Ladybird version reminds me of the Disney film — kind of on the verge of fainting. A 1940s ideal.
Snow White’s body language in the Ladybird version reminds me of the Disney film — kind of on the verge of fainting, hand framing her face because she knows she’s being looked at by an unseen viewer. A 1940s ideal.

Precisely because Snow White is such a widely anthologised and adapted fairy tale, it makes for an interesting case study into what to do and what not to do when faced with the joy of adapting — or re-visioning — a classic tale. You may have noticed that new versions of Snow White keep coming out, more and more each year, so it seems. But since none of us can own all of them, which versions are the very best? And which should you probably relegate to the bin?

I draw heavily from the writing of Jack Zipes and Perry Nodelman when coming up with best suggestions, and why.

A few things to know first:

  1. Zipes is careful to point out that there is no single Grimms version; there never is — the Grimm Brothers collected various versions of all the main fairytales. (They were primarily collectors of fairytales rather than children’s authors.) Nevertheless, American translations tended to reproduce the archaic British English language of the nineteenth century. (Not including Wanda Gag’s translations, who was a feminist and free-thinker and did her own thing.)
  2. In recent years, variations of well-known fairy tales have become something of a fad in publishing for children.
  3. Fairy tales were never written for children, because the concept of ‘child’ came after the fairytales/folktales themselves. Tales such as Snow White were first designed for children when the Grimm brothers wrote them down, hoping to make some money to live off by marketing the folklore they’d collected at children.

 

What can explain the enduring appeal of the Snow White fairytale? Jack Zipes summarises it in his book Sticks and Stones:

I should like to suggest that Snow White appeals to both children and adults because she embodies the embig struggled child, abandoned by her father, persecuted by a stepmother, used by male dwarfs, and revived from death by a prince. As a fictional figure, Snow White reflects and recalls how adults are engaged in determining the welfare and fate of children. It is a tale about hierarchical conflicts and the powerlessness of the child. Snow White must fend for herself, defined herself, but she is not in charge of her destiny. She needs a miracle, as most children continually need miracles in their daily lives to intercede on their behalf. Not that children are victims or are constantly victimized. But their lives are framed by adults who seek to play out their lives through children.

 

Nancy Ekholm Burkert and Trina Schart Hyman

SW Hyman cover

 

Note how unusual it is for an picture book to feature a close up of a character's face. Mid shots and long shots are far more common.
Note how unusual it is for an picture book to feature a close up of a character’s face. Mid shots and long shots are far more common.

Here’s the too-long-didn’t-read version, for those wondering which versions of Snow White to buy for a young reader:

Because styles speak so strongly of the values of those who originated them, illustrators who borrow them may even evoke ideas and attitudes of which they are not themselves consciously aware. While illustrating “Snow White”, neither Nancy Ekholm Burkert nor Trina Schart Hyman could have been conscious of the interpretation of the differences between traditional Dutch and Italian painting that Svetlana Alpers proposed many years after their work was finished; yet Human’s work, vaguely Italianate in style, certainly seems to express the values Alpers finds in the art of the Italian Renaissance, and Burkert’s pictures, more than vaguely similar to paintings in the Dutch style, are likely to evoke from sensitive viewers the same interpretations as those Alpers gives to Dutch art. Presumably, Hyman and Burkert consciously or unconsciously knew and wished to express what these styles signified, even if they would not have put it in the terms that Alpers’s insightful analysis provides.

Words About Pictures by Perry Nodelman

 

Burkert’s version makes it onto this Flavorwire list of ‘Most Beautiful Books Of All Time’.

WONDERFULNESS

To sum it up:

The Hyman and Burkert versions are the most successful picture books of this group, and not just because they happen to contain the most complex and satisfying pictures; they also both have the contrapuntal narrative rhythms that we expect both of good fairy tales and of good picture books. Hyman and Burkert have created authentic picture-book stories by distorting rather than duplicating the intentions of the original text. The directions of their distortions create highly distinct stories with clearly define styles, so that they have both done what all good storytellers do: they have told their own personal versions of familiar tales well enough to make them convincing. Such versions may well be the only “authentic” fairy tales.

– Perry Nodelman

Nodelman uses Snow White (the various versions) as an example when explaining the nature of irony between pictures and words in picture books:

In a sense, the words of picture books are like a voice-over narration in a film that tells us what to see in the pictures, how to interpret them. But since the pictures themselves tend to the objectivity of the theater, there is an ironic distance between the subjective focus of words and the objective wholeness of pictures; unlike film or theater, picture books can be both objective and subjective at the same time.

In fact, they almost always are. Words can tell us that Snow White’s mother pricked her finger and then looked at the snow and the window frame, but a picture that showed us just the pricked finger anda  window frame and snow would make no sense to us. All the illustrations I know of this scene also include one other object that makes sense of all the rest: Snow White’s mother. And that creates an irony: the words allow us to put ourseles in her place and follow her actions; the pictures demand that we stand back and look at her—observe her actions.

 

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS

What to look for when assessing how well a modern illustrator has illustrated a classic tale, or any tale, for that matter? It’s all about which moments they choose to depict. Nodelman calls the main plot points in a story ‘key moments’, and if take a stack of Snow White books out of the library, you’ll see the exact same key moments illustrated over and over again. But every now and then you’ll come across illustrators who decide to do something a bit different, and they will show you pictures not often seen in other adaptations. Sometimes they’ll show you a scene from a different point of view; other times they’ll take the moment just before or just after the ‘key moment’:

[T]he moments […] illustrators choose to depict and the rhythms that result from the combination of those moments with the words of a text are the qualities that most significantly give rise to the individual flavour and meaning of their versions. They are also the features that most specifically make use of the distinguishing ciharacterteristics of picture books as a medium of narrative communication. All kinds of pictures can convey visual information and create moods; all illustrations can amplify the meaning of a text. But it is the unique rhythm of pictures and words working together that distinguishes picture books from all other forms of both visual and verbal art.

– Perry Nodelman

 

snow white by Nancy Erkholm Burkert

 

SW in the forest

SW mountain scene

SW the witch

SW dead

 

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

SNOW WHITE IN EUROPE

A German illustration
A German illustration
another German illustration
another German illustration
Daniela Drescher is a German illustrator and has made this key scene more interesting with dramatic use of an unusual green.
Daniela Drescher is a German illustrator and has made this key scene more interesting with dramatic use of an unusual green.

Arthur Rackham

Arthur Rackham (19 September 1867 – 6 September 1939) was an English book illustrator.

Arthur Rackham SW faints
His dark, inky illustrations convey the sombre themes of the story, sans cuteness.

SNOW WHITE IN AMERICA

The following were big names in American fairytale illustration in the first 30 years of the 20th Century:

Millicent Sowerby

Millicent Sowerby 1909
Millicent Sowerby 1909

Louis John Rhead

Snow White Louis Rhead

Charles Santore

Charles Santore is an artist in Philadelphia who spends two years on each book he illustrates.

SW Charles Santore
Santore depicts the characters in photorealistic detail. Here, Snow White is a ‘particular’ girl rather than the ‘every girl’.
Most illustrators depict the Queen giving Snow White the poisoned apple, but sometimes we see the Queen privately preparing her evil plan.
Most illustrators depict the Queen giving Snow White the poisoned apple, but sometimes we see the Queen privately preparing her evil plan.

Wanda Gag

Tales from Grimm by Wanda Gag

 

In Sticks and Stones, Zipes talks about Gag’s role in bringing the tales of Grimm to an American audience in the 1930s and 1940s, ‘just at a point when anti-German sentiment was once again on the rise’. Fairytales had become very popular in America during the first 30 years of the 20th century.

See the entire book online.

Wanda Gag Snow White page 13

 

Wanda Gag spent the entire last 20 years of her life devoted to fairytales — she was concerned with preserving the spirit of the original German sensibility. (She herself was of German heritage, though American born and never set foot in Europe.) She didn’t appreciate that Grimms’ fairy tales were during her lifetime being commercialised and bowdlerized. Jack Zipes is not all that impressed by her illustrations, however:

Gag’s illustrations, mainly black and white ink line drawings, are for the most part a disappointment, even though they were non-traditional for her time. While pleasing to the eye, they do not add depth to the texts. In fact, they take away from her translations and even contradict them. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for example, Snow White is more like the seven- or eight-year-old Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz, and it is difficult to imagine her being attractive to any prince. Her stepmother is much more alluring than she is. Gag is at her best when she includes landscapes in her illustrations. Her ink drawings have a naive and almost childlike quality to them that makes them soothing but somewhat boring at the same time. There is no dramatic tension in her illustrations, or nothing that adds to our understanding of the possible psychological conflicts or social background of the stories. Gag never probed the tales; she re-created them in her own spirit. She made them into idyllic moments of pleasurable reading and seeing for her readers, children and adults alike. Her longing to recapture the Grimms’ tales was actually a utopian projection of possible happiness. The joyful simple figures point toward a simplification of life, a desire for “genuine” living, which was ironically one of the reasons that her work was somewhat pivotal in the debate about fairytales at that time.

Snow White In New York by Fiona French

Snow White In New York

 

 

French’s Snow White In New York describes how a poor orphan, mistreated by a wicket stepmother, finds herself alone on the dark, wild streets of the urban jungle, until she’s taken in by seven kindly jazzmen and then rescued by a handsome reporter for the Daily Mirror. {…} [This allows] readers the pleasure of using schemata. Readers can recognize a pattern they’re familiar with. Then, because they can do so, they can perceive and understand the significance of divergences from it. {…} readers can enjoy the clever commentary on modern life implied by the fact that the mirror and the wild forest of tradition have been replaced by a newspaper and a typical modern city street.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

Walt Disney

Disney DVD SW

Perhaps the single biggest influence in keeping Snow White alive for modern audiences is Walt Disney, who adapted Snow White for an American audience in 1937.

Disney had begun making black-and-white fairy-tale films that were to influence the book publishing industry. Very few critics have remarked on the fact that the “German” fairy tales became fully “contaminated” by American artists and writers during the 1930s, especially in the Disney studios. The features of Snow White and her Prince Charming represent the all-American “healthy” ideals of beauty, prefiguring the Barbie and Ken dolls by a good twenty-five years, and the language and jokes in the film are clearly tied to American idioms and customs. Disney’s success in creating his Snow White depended on his deep understanding of the dreams and aspirations of Middle America during the 1930s and how Americans received fairy tales. The introduction of music, sight gags, comic diversion, and Technicolor transformed the story of Snow White into a typical Broadway or Hollywood musical that had little to do with German folklore. Other American animators followed suit in the late 1930s and early 1940s. What had formally appeared in the collections of fairy tales by the Grimms, Perrault, and Andersen in book form were now mocked and turned into comic entertainment in America.

– Jack Zipes,m Sticks and Stones

The Walt Disney film has been so influential that it shapes readers’ expectations of what to expect from books. Here is one rather comical review from a Snow White adaptation on Amazon:

Amazon review of a version of Snow White

Yet until Disney came along, the dwarfs didn’t have names, because the story wasn’t about them. Nor were they miners. That was another Disney invention, though many young readers will tell you most definitely that the dwarfs must be miners by trade.

SW Disney book illustration
Disney produces book versions of its own films, of course, further influencing the book world.

SNOW WHITE IN ENGLAND

Nosy Crow

Disney and Pixar have been part of the trend towards the ‘babyfication’ of female characters, which is now emulated (probably subconsciously) by many illustrators. Here’s the large-eyed, beautiful Snow White depicted on Nosy Crow’s Snow White app icon:

Snow White app Nosy Crow
Compare with earlier depictions of Snow White, who usually, not suprisingly, conforms to the beauty standards of the day. Except in some of Burkert’s illustrations, in which she looks ‘real’.

 

Note also that Nosy Crow gave the dwarves their own alliterative names and included females, perhaps in response to the modern tendency to heavily sexualise Snow White, in which the story sounds mighty creepy.
Note also that Nosy Crow gave the dwarves their own alliterative names and included females, perhaps in response to the modern tendency to heavily sexualise Snow White, in which the story sounds mighty creepy.

 

 

Perry Nodelman summarises the main problems with some of the most popular publications of Snow White throughout the 80s and 90s to today:

Illustrators of “Snow White” often ignore many of the spinal moments in favour of a single-minded concentration on dwarfs. Kent, Svend Otto S., Fritz Wegner, and even Wanda Gag provide a sizeable number of pictures with no particular purpose other than to show how adorably cute their dwarfs are. The ultimate example of how this story has become refocused around the charm of little creatures and away from its original interest in passion and retribution is the Walt Disney film version. A picture book of this film published by Golden Press contains so many pictures of Snow White cavorting with both  forest animals and dwarfs that there is no space left for a depiction of the Queen’s demise or even of “Love’s First Kiss,” which is significantly featured in both the movie version and in the text of the picture book. Another Golden Press version that claims to represent Disney tells the story from the dwarfs’ point of view—it tells us how lonely they are, announces Snow White’s arrival—and then ends. The trouble with such stories is less their lack of authenticity than their inadequacy as stories in their own right.

– Perry Nodelman

Basically, too much of the emphasis is on the dwarves, who were never meant to be ‘cute’. Looking at this trend from a feminist point of view, the tendency for modern, super popular versions of fairytales to focus on the male characters seems to be an attempt not to ‘alienate’ young male viewers, since it’s thought that boys shouldn’t/wouldn’t be interested in a tale starring a female protagonist. (Think of the movie Tangled, with its plotline dwelling upon the task of the prince, rather than upon the complicated relationship between Rapunzel and her mother. In the case of Snow White, what once passed the Bechdel test (by focusing the relationship between a mother and her [step-]daughter), is now about how the manic pixie dream girl enters the lives of seven lonely men and makes their lives better:

Not surprisingly, a number of cheap editions of “Snow White” I found in a discount bookstore also focused on dwarfs. But in these poorly drawn versions, the pictures tend to illustrate the key spinal moments more often than not—or at least, those which are not threatening, for there are few depictions of the coffin shattering, and none of the Queen’s demise. Furthermore, there are usually few other pictures in these books; they do tend to move neatly through the sequence of moments we might expect. If anything, the spinal moments are overemphasized; in the Lady Bird “Read It Yourself” version, the Brimax “Now You Can Read” version, and the Award Classic version, there are entire sequences of pictures that depict three of the central episodes: first, the Queen at her mirror, then Snow White exploring the dwarfs’ house, then the dwarfs finding Snow White.

– Perry Nodelman

 

Nodelman explains that while all these versions focus on the act of seeing, they distort the emphasis of the original story, because readers are required to be interested in the wonderful things these characters see, not in how the characters respond to them.

These are “illustrations: in the most basic sense of the word: their purpose is to show what the objects described by words look like. Because they do little more than that, because they merely amplify the already amplified moments of the text, they do little to change the rhythm of the original story. In merely duplicating what we already have from the words, these pictures do not justify their own existence.

– Perry Nodelman

 

Snow White by Freya Littledale, illustrated by Susan Jeffers

Susan Jeffers Snow White

SW Susan Jeffers witch apple

This book is out of print and difficult to source these days, but Perry Nodelman picks it as an example of an adaptation in which the illustrations fail to sufficiently extend the story:

A glance at Susan Jeffers’s version of “Snow White” confirms that adherence to the rhythmic shape and focus of the original story may not be the best way to go about illustrating fairy tales. Of the versions of this story I have seen, this one comes closest to duplicating both the rhythm and focus of the the original. Jeffers depicts twelve of the key moments—all but the shattering of the coffin—and all the other pictures in the book add to the emphasis in these spinal pictures on looking and seeing. As in Human, almost every picture is in some way related to the idea of vision; people look at each other, or at objects, or out of the picture at us. But unlike in Hyman, and also unlike in the cheap versions, these pictures focus both on what is seen and how it affects the person who sees it. As well as seeing the Queen look in the mirror, we ourselves are drawn to look in admiration at the highly intricate pattern of her dress, and as well as looking at Snow White in the forest, we must look at all the interesting animals hidden in the foliage behind her. But despite this adherence to the patterns of the text, this “Snow White” is not one of Jeffers’s better books; it lacks a satisfying intensity because in merely duplicating the patterns and focus of the words, its pictures are more or less superfluous.

– Perry Nodelman

Nodelman compares Jeffers’ humdrum illustrations with those of Burkert, who does a much better job of extending the story and creating atmosphere in her illustrations of the same classic tale:

Paradoxically, Burkert’s Snow White is more intensely affecting exactly because the detachment and objectivity of these pictures are not balanced by involving emotions. Both Jeffers and Burkert show Snow White in the wood surrounded by animals hidden in foliage, but Jeffers’s Snow White stares at them in obvious anguish, so that the detachment required by our act of finding all the animals is diluted by the concern we are asked to feel for her—our involvement in her response to the situation. Burkert’s Snow White responds differently; she seems to notice none of the animals but an unthreatening deer, and the picture de-emphasizes her terror enough for us to remain detached observers as we look at it.

If Jeffers perfectly balances involvement and detachment in the fashion of the original story, and if Human’s pictures move the balance in favour of intensity, Burkert’s pictures move the pictures in the opposite direction. Like Hyman, she creates a new counterpoint. Burkert’s pictures show not a single one of the key moments. Some of them do get close: we do see Snow White’s mother at the window but before she has pricked her finger, for there is no drop of blood, and we do see the Princes look at Snow White in the coffin—but not as he first sees her, only after he has begun to carry off the coffin. In fact, all the pictures in this book depict moments between and around the significant episodes of the plot. We see Snow White after she is left alone in the forest. We see her doing housework for the dwarfs after she has found their house but before the Queen has found her. We see Snow White lying dead after being laced and the Queen in her workroom after the episodes of the laces and the comb but before delivering the apple. The final picture shows a moment after the Queen has died but before the Prince and Snow White are married. Considered separately from the text, these pictures actually tell an entirely different story from the text: they depict a series of ordinary moments in the life of people in the past instead of an exciting sequence of events.

Furthermore, these pictures display no exciting action and none of the intense emotion we find in Hyman. Snow White’s mother sits. Snow White calls the dwarfs to dinner or lies dead. Only the Queen seems to move with any speed, and she always does it with her back to us, so that we regard her action with emotional distance. In reading this book, we move from the fast thrusts forward of the text to lengthy pauses as we respond to pictures of people in repose that are detailed in a way that demands objective analysis, and then back to quick action again; the effect is strong dramatic tension. In fact, it is the interesting contrast between the very objective, detached, distant pictures and the fast action of the plot that makes the detachment acceptable, and it is the detachment that makes this a convincing story of dispassionate justice.

 

SW Hyman SW sees the house
The reader looks over Snow White shoulder. We see what she sees, and we also see the look on her face, and can respond to her emotions.

SW Hyman forest scene

SW Hyman looking out window
Notice that when this finger pricking scene is included in Snow White adaptations, the character is always looking right (at least in Western books). This leads the reader the correct way through the story. She looks forward through the book, not backwards. That would feel wrong.
SN Hyman tree dwarfs
The dust jacket illustration of the Hyman version of Snow White
Snow white lies in her coffin as the last leaves fall from a bare tree but then her prince appears when the same tree is lushly tree.
Snow white lies in her coffin as the last leaves fall from a bare tree but then her prince appears when the same tree is lushly tree. We’ve all been influenced by Garden of Eden stories, Wordsworth etc. We know what lush greenery symbolises.
Here's the double page spread.
Here’s the double page spread.

STORY SPECS

Burkert’s Snow White was first published 1972

Won Caldecott Honor in 1973

Published again by Square Fish in 1987

Hyman’s Snow White, written by Paul Heins, was published November 30th 1974 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

 

ILLUSTRATE YOUR OWN

If you were to add something to the corpus of illustrated tales out there, how would you adapt your favourite lesser-known fairytale? Which of the key scenes are the most frequently done? Which of the scenes in your own imagination has no one ever seen before?

RELATED LINKS

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

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.

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

 

 


 

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

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.

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.


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 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.

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

 

Watch out Snow White!

I do like to read shopping lists which have been left at the bottom of my shopping trolley. Who knew The Wicked Step-mother of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves liked lasagne?

beware-snow-white

crisp bold colourful stylised illustration for Snow White by Bess Livings

French poster illustration by B.Lancy for Snow White

RELATED (TO SNOW WHITE)

The Twisted History Of Snow White from Reading Today Online