Saturday, August 27, 2011

Motherless Children Having Adventures

The trope of motherless children is well-known in fairy tales but it persists in modern-day children's books as well.  Picking up The Saturdays, the first in the Melendy Quartet by Elizabeth Enright, a classic I missed reading as a child, I groaned when I discovered that the Melendy children's mother was dead, a fact introduced within the first few pages.  But, I must admit, I also felt a delicious anticipation.  After all,  books about Motherless Children Having Adventures are usually good, if they meet the following criteria:

They feature several siblings (usually more than 2) who are, of course, motherless but have a mother figure, often the oldest sibling and/or a housekeeper with a cute nickname, their father is well-meaning but bumbling and inept when it comes to childcare, rendering them quite independent, they live in an old rambling house (which often has a cute name as well), often with a garden and, of course, they have all sorts of adventures. 

I always think of these books as being British, although they often are not - The Saturdays and another example of the genre, The The Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall, were both written by Americans and set here.  But both have characters with British sounding names such as Cuffy (the housekeeper in The Saturdays) and Churchie (the housekeeper in The Penderwicks, not to mention youngest sister Batty and the name Penderwick itself).   The Shoes books by Noel Streatfeild, which actually are British, come close to falling in this category too.  And in the Cobble Street cousins series by Cynthia Rylant, the main characters are cousins instead of siblings and their parents are merely conveniently absent rather than dead.  Of course, there are the only-child orphans, like in The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, which to my mind are in a different class of book entirely. 

Wracking my brain, I was only able to come up with one classic character of children's literature who has two parents who figure prominently in the book: Ramona.  Betsy, Tacy, and Tib all have both parents as does Betsy in the B is for Betsy series but the parents don't play a major role.  They are perhaps slightly more prominent in the Riverside Kids series.  In Laurel Snyder's Penny Dreadful, the protagonist's father's unemployment is the catalyst for all that follows, but unlike when Ramona's father loses his job in Ramona and Her Father, her parents' trials and tribulations seem more a way to provide Penny with the independence to have all sorts of adventures, rather than an issue in and of themselves.  I'm sure middle grade and YA literature feature parents more prominently as the main character's relationship with his or her parents can be an important theme at that age (I can think of Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me as well as most if not all of the books by Judy Blume and that's just off the top of my head), but authors of books for younger children seem to enjoy killing the mothers off.

It's easy to see why.  In The Saturdays the children pool their allowance and each takes a turn at having a special adventure in New York.  Alone.  No mother would allow that!  But it certainly is a handy plot device.  For another take on The Saturdays, head over to Storied Cities.

I remember reading lots of books about Motherless Children Having Adventures as a kid but I'm having trouble retrieving all their names now.  Any ideas?  And what about books for younger readers from the other end of the spectrum, which feature one or both parents of the main character prominently?


  1. Sara Crewe is motherless; she also gets stuck in a boarding school but her relationship to her dad is very close. I think the Bastables are motherless.

    Sammy Keyes lives with her grandmother; her absentee mother is frequently mentioned and the grandmother is a big part of most of the books, so that's a counterexample. Pippi Longstocking is motherless.

  2. Thanks, Beth. I don't know the Bastables (although I know other Nesbit books) or Sammy Keyes at all, so I'll check those out.

    I thought of Pippi but she just seemed sui generis to me... she doesn't have ANY adult influences, right?

  3. When I read books as as kid I never really thought about how in almost all books the parents are absent (even when they do exist) during the main action of the story. But now, reading them as an adult, I see that this makes perfect sense. What child wants to read about the adventures of parents?? And usually reading is such an independent activity that reading about independent children, I suppose, enhances that sense of self. Right now I am reading Mary Poppins to my son. The parents are alive, but not a main part of the action (so far, we haven't finished). Mary may be an adult, but it's significant that she is not a parent. Who wants to have that kind of adventure with one's MOM?

  4. What an excellent, thorough post! Here's our brief middle-grade list of "Orphans having adventures" from Annie and Aunt:

    The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner
    A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
    Mistress Masham's Repose, by T.H. White
    Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren

    Yep, it's been striking to me, too.

  5. Oh, and The Secret Garden, too. Burnett loves her motherless children.