State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 60 Spring 1997


Representations of Mothers and Mothering in Contemporary Australian Children's Literature

‘Mother is the name of god in the lips and hearts of little children’
—William Thackeray, Vanity Fair
In this article, I want to look at some representations of mothers and mothering in selected contemporary Australian children's books, particularly comparing them with some early winners in the Children's Book Council of Australia Awards. Although my main focus will be on the last fifty years, brief mention will be made of two earlier texts. These — Brigid and the Cub by Ethel Turner, first published 1916 and an extract from the Victorian Readers Fourth Book — will be used to set things in context. The latter piece, although first published in 1930, continued to be used in Victorian schools until well into the 1950s.
Brigid and the Cub is rather like an early teenage romance novel as the relationship between Brigid and her young boyfriend (always known as the Cub) evolves. As one might expect, given the time at which the book was written, the images of women are very much ones of the servitor. One of these women also displays the clear class distinctions of that period — these even transcend mothering. Angelique, the housekeeper, is called away to care for her daughter-in-law and eight grandchildren after Angelique's son is killed. She is at first reluctant to go, because who will get Madame's dinner, she says, ‘wringing her hands, a serving woman before she dare entertain the instincts of a mother.’1 The morning after Angelique's departure, Brigid and the Cub are still in the flat, well chaperoned of course, and the Cub attempts to make breakfast. These attempts are risible, and we are meant to laugh with Brigid at the helpless male as she rescues him and takes over what is, after all, really her domain.
[She] cooked a large omelet in one pan, slices of bacon in another, and mushrooms in a third; all the time keeping a wary eye on the hot milk that was in a gourmet boiler and the coffee that was dripping through the percolator, and the toast that was on the bars of the toaster.’2
The Cub, perhaps not surprisingly, cannot believe his eyes and thinks she must have said some ‘witch's incantation’ before she started. But no, says Brigid, it is just that

Figure 6: ‘They stopped, and cooeed, and shouted’ From ‘Lost in the Bush’ in The Victorian Readers Fourth Book 1st ed. Illustrated by Tom V Carter

‘my darling hungers … let me give him to eat.’3 The words have an almost Biblical ring to them. While not yet a mother, the scene is being set for the sacrificial service so often the role of the mother in stories of the time.
One such story, although a little later, is from the Victorian Readers called ‘Lost in the Bush’ — the true story of the Duff children who were lost in the Victorian bush in the nineteenth-century. (Figure 6) One of them, Jane, makes a number of sacrifices to care for her younger brother. She carries him much of the way, and she takes off her dress to wrap him in each night. Her ‘motherly’ attention to him earns her a place, ‘as one of the world's noble girls'.4 The ‘maternal sacrifice paradigm’ is in evidence before the child has even become a mother.
Using selected texts, this article will consider whether things have changed with contemporary representations of mothers and mothering. Although in such a short space one cannot hope to be definitive, there are some points that should be considered. Are there, for example, characteristics that can be shown to denote a ‘good’ mother in children's books? Has the nurturing role of mother been transferred to other characters?
I'd like to consider first of all, two texts of the 1960s — The Family Conspiracy by Joan Phipson (1962) and The Min-Min by Mavis Thorpe Clark (1966) — and one from the 1970s — Eleanor Spence's The October Child (1916) — all of which were winners in the Children's Book Council of Australia's Book of the Year Awards, and all of which display what E.A. Kaplan in her Motherhood and Representation (1992) has called the ‘maternal sacrifice paradigm.’5
Both the 1960s books display many of the attitudes to women, mothers and mothering that were prevalent at the time. Mrs. Barker, the object of her family's conspiracy in Phipson's book, is the hard-working wife of a somewhat less than prosperous farmer. She fits very well into Kaplan's paradigm, as with ‘a family of six, the cooking, housework and washing alone could occupy all of every day, for she had no help and expected none.’6 In addition to this, she supervises the children's correspondence school lessons and manages to do all the extra work required if, as has happened at the beginning of the book, the family has a party. No wonder ‘she was thin and already grey and had a tired shadow around her eyes that never left them.’7 She becomes very ill, but after the doctor's visit the children are told not to worry because ‘Your mother will cook many a leg of mutton for you yet.’8

Figure 7: ‘He hid his head in his arms on the table’ From The Min-Min by Mavis Thorpe Clark, Illustrated by Genevieve Melrose. Reproduced with permission of the author

Despite her continuing ill health, Mrs. Barker refuses to use any of the family's, money on her much-needed operation, preferring to keep the hard-won savings for the children, both for their current education and their inheritance. (The ‘family conspiracy’ of the title refers to the children's well-meaning but often fruitless attempts to raise money to pay for their mother's operation. The book fits very much into the family-adventure genre of the time.) Even after spending a fortnight in bed because she is so ill, Mrs. Barker's motherly instincts drive her to continue to be self-sacrificing. On the day her son Edward is to go droving, she gets up before dawn
because, she says, ‘I didn't seem to be able to rest, thinking you mightn't have a proper breakfast.’9
Mavis Thorpe Clarke's The Min-Min is somewhat different, being an early ‘social realism’ book in which a drunken father's ill treatment of his daughter causes her to run away with her younger, delinquent brother. (Figure 7) Sylvie feels very much the need to talk to a ‘proper’ mother; her own is always ill, suffering badly from a sixth, unwanted pregnancy and unable to offer the emotional support Sylvie needs. As Kaplan argues, this situation leaves a girl vulnerable.10 Sylvie and Reg travel through very hostile country to a homestead some three days away. While there, Sylvie is able to talk to Mrs Tucker, a woman drawn in stark contrast to Sylvie's own mother. She is surrounded by well-cared for children; she manages to sew a dress for Sylvie almost overnight; she is full of motherly good advice; and she says she has found what she wanted out of life in her role — she is addressed by her husband almost always as Mum or Mother.
Being a good mother in these books is very much equated with being a good provider for one's husband and children, with the further aspect in The Min-Min of being able to ‘go along’ with a man in order to get what one wants in the long run. These devices do not in any way undermine the father's position as head of the household, something which is very firmly established in many texts of this period. This tradition is questioned in the later books of Simon French, Eleanor Spence and Robin Klein (discussed below), in which the fathers are ineffectual, although not necessarily counter-balanced with a strong mother.
Sylvie plays the role of mother to her family, looking after her own mother when she is ill, keeping house, doing the shopping. All this has been at the expense of her schooling. After the birth of her youngest sister, Sylvie's father begs her to overlook his failings as a parent and return home with him to care for the younger children, thus stopping them being institutionalised. She reluctantly does so, persuading her father to move to the town. As a result of this move, she is able to start dressmaking classes at night. This is a potential liberation for her, but in the short-term it means further sacrifice as she is placed in the position of many working women, combining all the responsibilities of house and family with her studies.11
After the total disruption caused by the birth of an autistic son, the mother in The October Child seems absent from the remainder of her family, at least emotionally, as all her energies are tied up with the autistic Carl. As her son Douglas remarks, ‘I'm tired of Carl. Nothing's the same since he came — and Mum's always busy or tired.’12 Her sacrifice is made perhaps through necessity, as she is unable to find
anyone, except Douglas, to help look after Carl. The whole family has to make a sacrifice too, as they leave their much-loved country existence to live in the city. Beth's spirit of sacrifice is shown too in her unwillingness to accept the seriousness of Carl's condition, and her apparent belief that constant and loving attention will help overcome it.
This book also displays a child as nurturer — this time Douglas (10 years old at the time of Carl's birth) — whose singing seems to be almost the only thing to which Carl will respond. His mother frequently calls on his support to feed, change and settle Carl, even asking Douglas to accompany them to the city when she takes Carl to a medical specialist.13
This characterisation of the child as mother/nurturer is also evident in two rather more contemporary texts: Simon French's Change the Locks (1991) and Robin Klein's Came Back to Show You I Could Fly (1989). (Plates 10-11) In both of these books the nurturing role is taken over by a male, child protagonist and the role of the birth mother is ambivalent. Although the nurturers are boys, mothering seems the appropriate term because they are substituting for the absentee mother, not the father.
In these books, as in the earlier The October Child and in Ted Ottley's books to be discussed below, the mother is largely absent. In French's book she is removed from the day-to-day household duties by her acute depression following the desertion of her de-facto husband; both characters in Came Back to Show You I Could Fly have problematic relationships with their mothers — Seymour, the 10-year-old boy, has been left with an elderly spinster friend of his mother's for the school holidays while she goes to work, and Angie, the 20-year-old drug addict who becomes the object of Seymour's devotion is estranged from her family by her addiction.
There is also a slightly sentimental and romantic view continuing in such texts as to what constitutes being a ‘good’ mother. This is often at odds with what the mother characters display, but it is what the child nurturers seem intent on providing. There is a subtext in a number of these books that the mothers would provide the ‘correct’ nurturing; indeed they want to do so, but some factor beyond their control prevents it. In the case of Steven's mother in Change the Locks, it is her depression which causes this. To give but one example, Steven arrives home from school to find his baby brother wet and crying in his cot.
Steven realises his mother has, as he says, ‘forgotten’ the baby ‘again', and so he changes the child and gets him up. Steven holds him for some time, but their mother makes no move to help and remains sitting at the kitchen table with a magazine:'… she wouldn't look at us. I wanted to grab that magazine and throw it across the room, but instead let Dylan take the feed bottle of juice with his chubby fingers.’14 Steven has, of course, prepared the bottle. By contrast, there is a day when Steven
comes home to a mother he describes as ‘normal'. She is smiling and cleaning the house, and the washing machine has ‘hummed back into life after a long silence’.15
The transition becomes apparently permanent when, at the end of the book, Steven's mother gains new strength after a trip back to the city where she is able to show Steven where they had first lived and to answer his questions about his father. French's novel thus requires the child to ‘mother’ not only his younger brother but also his mother until such time as she regains strength to take over her correct position. By the end of the novel, she is perhaps on the way to that stage (outlined by Kaplan) of motherhood being fulfilling in itself.16 Such a position is somewhat different from texts where motherhood was seen very much as a duty requiring sacrifice, although there were some rewarding moments. For some, like Sylvie's mother in The Min-Min, whose position is very different from that of Mrs. Tucker as discussed above, motherhood is not portrayed even as a matter of choice. Sylvie's mother does not welcome her sixth pregnancy; as she says, ‘five's too many already’. She has, in the process, also sacrificed her looks. Sylvie describes her mother as looking pretty in a photograph, but now with six children, ‘that's enough to make a woman stop looking pretty.’17
All this also sets up contradictory images of the child/adult relationship, especially in French's novel in which the role reversal of child and mother is most marked. (Plate 10) In Klein's novel too, the child is an ‘aged’ one, made old before his time by having the responsibilities and problems of an adult world foisted on him. Seymour is a lonely child, lacking a father figure as his father is denied access to him, and he is constantly reminded of the sacrifices that his mother has made in order to keep him and ‘protect’ him from his ‘shiftless’ father. Seymour does not altogether accept this view of his father, and he blames his mother to a large extent: ‘Underneath all the blustering, his dad was scared stiff. He'd been labelled a no-hoper for so long, and that was his mother's doing, with her sharp accusing tongue.’18 Seymour remembers his mother in the evenings ‘carping monotonously about the troublesome life she'd had to lead ever since she'd become entangled with his father, the sacrifices she'd made… how his father would never put himself out to get a proper job … she could have married anyone!’19 The portrait of the mother is no more sympathetic than that of the father.
His mother also has an opinion on the role of women: ‘Yes, she knew it was an old-fashioned viewpoint these days, but in her opinion women were happiest at full-
time home-making.’ She is, of course, prevented from achieving happiness and fulfilment by Seymour's father, who is further described as a ‘no-good wastrel’.20
Seymour, like Steven in Change the Locks, takes on the role of nurturer to an adult — as the 20-year-old Angie is to him. He takes care of her when she is ill, deals with her irate landlady who comes seeking overdue rent, and cleans her flat. He urges her to have correct medical treatment and, when he discovers her pregnancy, to stop smoking. He is portrayed as far more mature and sensible than Angie who lives in a fantasy world and keeps reality at bay with her drug addiction. And yet she too has something to give. Throughout the book, Seymour is searching for motherly warmth, comfort and affection and, despite her eccentricity, Angie provides him with that affection and genuine pleasure in his companionship.
A further aspect of mothers and mothering is that of a child as ‘mother/wife’. (This is not a new representation; Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit is just such a character.) The book that will be discussed in this context is Caroline Macdonald's Speaking to Miranda published in 1990. In this book, Ruby lives with her stepfather after her mother's death. Until she is eighteen, she forms his main female relationship, travelling all over Australia with him. A major thrust of the book is Ruby's search for her mother's true identity and, consequently, of her own.
A subtext in the book appears strongly when Ruby's stepfather wants to marry. Ruby's reaction to this is one of sexual jealousy as she sees the possibility of her role being displaced. The whole way the news of Rob's impending marriage is conveyed to Ruby is somewhat odd. She, against Rob's advice and wishes, has gone to New Zealand to continue to search for her mother. When she rings her stepfather at one stage, he announces:
“And I've got some good news of my own. I hope you'll be pleased.” He's speaking quickly, as if to get it out before I interrupt. … “You remember the gorgeous Evie? We're going to get married …”
Perhaps I'm imagining that his voice sounds cold and triumphant… I want to die.21
It is obviously significant that this decision has been taken while Ruby is away, and that Rob's intended bride is not much older than Ruby herself. It seems as if Rob couldn't face the likely hostility of Ruby; he seems to want a substitute for her. More importantly perhaps, she is embarrassed because he has always claimed he did not want anyone else after Ruby's mother died, as he could never love anyone as he'd loved her. Her death and displacement had been compensated to some extent by Rob's adoption of Ruby, but Ruby too seems to have defected.
Evie's sister Kate is with Ruby when she gets the news of Rob's engagement to Evie, and she comments astutely:
“You're jealous. That's what it is. You don't want Rob to be happy with anyone but you.”
“That's not true —”
“Oh, yes it is. You should just sit down and examine your feelings about Rob, Ruby. I think you want him for yourself.”
“That's grotesque!” I shout…22
The relationship between Rob and Ruby never reaches its logical outcome, but Rob does not marry Evie and, indeed, follows Ruby to New Zealand. He explains his change of mind (or heart) to her thus:
“What about the wedding, Rob?”…
“I got a bit distracted from that. I had this missing daughter to worry about…”23
Ruby clear-sightedly, but perhaps with some complacency, observes:
”…You've run out on her, haven't you?”
“It wouldn't have worked, would it?” [he answers] and I get the full blast of those blue eyes, full of innocent appeal.24
Incidentally, we also get something of the maternal sacrifice paradigm in this book. When Ruby finally tracks down her mother's family, she discovers that her mother, whose real name was Magda (not Emma as Rob had always believed), was a champion swimmer of Olympic potential. However, at the age of seventeen she became pregnant and married. Her husband, whom Ruby also unearthed in her search, told Ruby, ‘She never made it to Auckland.’25 The starkness of this statement strikes Ruby very strongly: ‘An Olympic ambition dismissed in that simple sentence’. And for Ruby's mother, it is a sentence in more ways than one. When asked how Magda felt about this thwarted ambition, her widower replies: ‘She had the baby to think about, didn't she.” He shrugged. “We were starting our family. That was what was important to her.'”26
Finally, I want to look at two books, very different to the ones discussed above. These are Ted Ottley's Code of Deception (1993) and its sequel Roadies (1995), both of which follow in the tradition of boy's adventure stories. (They have been described by one reviewer as rather like Christopher Pike meeting James Bond.)27 They are not in the award-winning class of books discussed above; they are written with the declared intention of snaring the male, teenage reader. The mother in Code of Deception has abandoned her family and gone to live in England: ‘When things
had gotten tough, Jasmine had simply packed her bags and left. Intent on rejuvenating a less than brilliant acting career, she made contact on Jake's birthday and most Chnstmasses.28 Jasmine is never mentioned between Jake and his father. (One wonders if her move would have been seen as more acceptable if her acting career had been ‘brilliant'.)
Jake's grandmother fills the maternal gap to some extent, coming to the house to clean and commenting that it is not surprising that the house is untidy because there is no woman in it.29 She brings ‘motherly’ comforts such as casseroles and contrasts these with the ‘showy’ food Jake's mother used to cook. But Jake (a computer whizz-kid) continues to live alone with his father until the advent of Nicole who is approved of by Jake because ‘Unlike his mother, she made Jake feel as if the things he said mattered. And she didn't interrupt him all the time and demand attention’.30 Jake actually hopes she will stay around permanently. We seem still to be receiving messages as to what constitutes ‘good’ mothering as well as the message that the family is really only complete when the mother figure is re-inserted. (In this latter regard Code of Deception parallels a number of contemporary American films such as My Girl.) Interestingly, in Ottley's books the one woman who shows real efficiency and ruthlessness in business is described as grotesquely ugly.31
To conclude then, it is acknowledged that there have been changes in Australian children's literature, a wider range of roles being allowed for female characters. The 1995 judges for the CBCA Children's Book of the Year Awards commented that they
were impressed by the emergence of powerful female characters portrayed in books throughout all categories and applaud the fact that children's books have moved beyond self-conscious counter-sexist literature to works which present a gender balance in a natural and non-didactic way.32
The discourse of nurturer remains, but the traditional position of the mother within this discourse is being challenged.


  • ‘Children's Book Council of Australia Judges’ Report 1995’ in: Reading Time v.39 no.3, 1995.

  • Clark, Mavis Thorpe. The Min-Min (Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1967).

  • French, Simon. Change the Locks (Sydney: Ashton Scholastic, 1991).

  • Hillel, Margot and Anne Hanzl. Celebrate! The Colour and Splendour of Australian Children's Literature Over Half a Century (Melbourne: Viking, 1996).

  • 107
  • Kaplan, E. Ann. Motherhood and Representation: the Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama (London: Routledge, 1992).

  • Klein, Robin. Came Back to Show you I Could Fly (Melbourne: Viking, 1989).

  • Macdonald, Caroline. Speaking to Miranda (Melbourne: Viking, 1990).

  • McKnight, Natalie. Suffering Mothers in Mid-Victorian Novels (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1997).

  • Ottley, Ted. Code of Deception (Sydney: Random House, 1993).

  • Ottley, Ted. Roadies (Sydney: Random House, 1995).

  • Phipson, Joan. The Family Conspiracy (London: Constable Young Books; Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1963).

  • Reading Time v.39. May 1995.

  • Saxby, H. Maurice. Proof of the Puddin’ (Sydney: Ashton-Scholastic, 1993).

  • Spence, Eleanor. The October Child (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1976).

  • Turner, Ethel. Brigid and the Cub (London: Ward Lock, 1920).

  • Victorian Readers Fourth Book (Melbourne: Victorian Government Printer).


Ethel Turner, Brigid and the Cub (London: Ward Lock, 1920), p.29.


Ibid. pp.31-2.


Ibid. p. 32.


Victorian Readers Fourth Book (Melbourne; Victorian Government Printer), p.69


E. Ann Kaplan, Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama (London: Routledge, 1992). See especially chapter 5.


Joan Phipson, The Family Conspiracy (London: Constable Young Books; Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1963), p.12.


Ibid. p. 12.


Ibid. p. 14.


Ibid p. 126.


Kaplan, p.81.


Mavis Thorpe Clark, The Min-Min (Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1967). See final two chapters.


Eleanor Spence, The October Child (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1984), p.60.


Ibid. Incidents of this sort occur throughout the novel.


Simon French, Change the Locks (Sydney: Ashton Scholastic, 1991), p.19.


Ibid., pp.45-6.


Kaplan, pp.194-201.


Clark, p.108.


Robin Klein, Came Back to Show You I Could Fly (Melbourne: Viking, 1989), p. 10.


Ibid. pp. 14-15.


Ibid. p.15.


Caroline Macdonald, Speaking to Miranda (Melbourne: Viking, 1990), p.117.


Ibid. p.126.


Ibid. p.184.




ibid p.157.




Reading Time v.39. May 1995.


Ted Ottley, Code of Deception (Sydney: Random House, 1993), p.22.


Ibid. p.39.


Ted Ottley, Roadies (Sydney: Random House, 1995), p.57.


Ibid. p.24.


‘Children's Book Council of Australia Judges’ Report 1995’ in: Reading Time v.39 no.3,1995, p.4.