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K-State Today

May 2, 2012

For Mother's Day: Literature experts say many maternal characters in books display ideal values of motherhood

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

With Mother's Day coming up May 13, two Kansas State University experts say literary characters can inspire families as they celebrate the maternal figures in their lives.

The university's Anne Phillips and Naomi Wood, both associate professors of English, said there are several characters in literature that embody the ideal values of motherhood.

"The best mothers listen, support and intervene when necessary -- but almost always in admirable and constructive ways," Phillips said.

"Mothers have the tricky task of, on the one hand, nurturing children and, on the other hand, enabling children to mature and become independent," Wood said.

Both Phillips and Wood agree that the character Marmee in Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" is one of the most inspirational and well-rounded mothers in literature. Throughout the story, Marmee is honest, loving and caring with her daughters, but also lets them develop through their own experiences.

"There's a wonderful chapter in which Marmee allows her daughters to stop doing their chores," Phillips said. "After several days, they begin to see exactly why it's important to contribute a little bit every day to the upkeep of the family -- but they learn it for themselves, rather than simply being told to do it."

Characters can fulfill roles as surrogate mothers, too, and are often viewed very positively in literature.

"These characters, such as grandmothers, housekeepers and aunts, have enough distance from the child to allow the child to explore but are still nurturing and supportive when the child needs it," Wood said.

According to Phillips and Wood, most of what readers find inspirational in literature is based on their own mothers, and audiences often relate literary plots to their mothers' experiences and feelings.

"I think a lot depends on a reader's needs and wants," Wood said. "Basic feelings about the mother take root a lot sooner than reading about mothers does."

In addition to Marmee, other characters Wood and Phillips refer to as representing ideal values of motherhood in literature include:

* Ma from Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series. Although an often-criticized character, Ma saves her family in the later books of the series. When they have almost nothing to eat, Ma creates a feast with a few potatoes and a smidgen of fish, and when they have no kerosene left, she invents a button lamp from a small piece of fabric, a button, a saucer and some grease.

* Charlotte from E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web." Although a simple spider, Charlotte's maternal values are evident as she uses several tools and resources to save Wilbur's life.

* Nick's mother in Andrew Clements' "Frindle." Throughout the story, Nick's mother supports him even when his principal shows up on their doorstep. When a reporter wants to stir up a little controversy about Nick's ongoing battle with his teacher, his mother helps him maneuver his way safely through the reporter's questions.

* Hazel's mother in Rosemary Wells' "Hazel's Amazing Mother." In this book, Hazel's mother approaches two bullies who have hassled her daughter and makes them put everything right.

* Various characters in "A Chair for My Mother," the first book in Vera B. Williams' "Bread and Roses" trilogy of picture books. In this story, the child narrator and her family save their pennies until they can buy a very special chair big enough to hold mother, daughter and even grandmother.

* Mothers depicted in Kevin Henkes' picture books for children. In "Owen," when the protagonist is being hassled by the neighbor about being too old to carry around his beloved blanket, his mother creates handkerchiefs for him from the blanket so that he can always have a piece of it with him. In Henkes' "Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse," Lilly's mother writes a letter to the teacher to help smooth over Lilly's less than ideal behavior at school the previous day.