Mums in the mix and why they matter

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Mum and the poorly author

As a child in the Sixties I found Enid Blyton stories just as bizarrely divorced from my own life as an ancient myth with a monster in a labyrinth. What seemed to me even stranger and less plausible than the sleuthing and crime-thwarting exploits of the Famous Five or Secret Seven was the role of their parents. Absent both from the plot and the psyches of the children, they existed only to be absent – thus leaving the children to their own heroic devices. I was horrified by the idea of being separated from my own parents, and couldn’t understand why these children didn’t cry themselves to sleep. My mum and dad were such huge people in my life that a world without them seemed unimaginable.  So writing THINNER THAN WATER, I felt deeply for Fizzy and Kim – whose parents are not in fact theirs – hoping readers will empathise with their psychological turmoil.

Enid Blyton isn’t the only children’s author to write out Mum and Dad. But there’s an emotional price to offset against the freedoms it grants young characters. As an EB reader I felt nothing deeper than the excitement of a ride at a fair. How different from The Railway Children and The Secret Garden, where the emotional climaxes are so powerfully real that we remember them into adult life – because they grow out of love between a parent and child. Yet still the impact is achieved through separation. One of Michael Morpurgo’s many achievements is the way he characterises the adults just as fully as the children and often keeping them right there at the centre of the action and the feeling. I remember my exhilaration in Why The Whales Came, when it’s the mother whose moral courage saves the whale as she wades into the water through the club-wielding crowd. Morpurgo’s strong, passionate mothers aren’t there to disappear, or to make egg sandwiches. They’re key figures in the drama and in the worlds of the younger characters, adding depth, authenticity and complexity to the writing.

So when I wrote THE WATERHOUSE GIRL I aimed for real-world emotional connections between Daisy and her parents, remembering my own mum’s words: “If only I could swap and take your Alopecia from you.” Molly may be sad but she’s a rock, if a soft one, and when she tells the headmaster what she thinks of the idea that Daisy could be involved in a distressing incident of revenge with scissors, she’s magnificent. And while it’s fun to create a dizzily ineffectual mother in a fantasy like FRANK or HAIL, NEIL, I’m happiest when I believe in my teenagers’ relationships with parents, whether warmly supportive, scratchy or dysfunctional. I’ve enjoyed Shakespearian madness in a couple of historical mothers who’d failed their children and been broken by remorse. And in THE JUDAS DEER I’ve created a young mum whose failings and fragility make it easy for Jeth’s foster parents to judge her. But during her mysterious absence from the pages we glimpse her through Jeth’s eyes, in memory after loving, yearning memory – until we have no doubt how much he needs her, and at the same time distrust the cold ‘care’ of the wealthy, respectable stand-ins with so little of value to give. Love counts, and parents can’t be perfect.

I think it’s the same with parents in children’s fiction: they count, and they can’t be perfect. Happy Mothers’ Day.

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