We were reading Pippi Longstocking. The child then about 4 asked: But what happened to Pippi’s Mommy. Me: She is dead. Child: Ah ok, at least Pippi has a horse and a monkey. Yes, indeed, dear child of mine, she does have that. At that age, the fact that mothers were quite often dead and fathers were mostly absent did not bother the kid. That came later, once her own mother nearly succumbed to pneumonia, the possibility of a parent dying became something tangible and for a long time, she avoided narratives with dead mothers like the plague. And let me tell you: finding stories with parents around and healthy is quite difficult.
Now, I understand why parents in children’s books are often dead or away: It makes it easier to explain how the kid can take such tremendous risks, go on adventures without anyone shouting “bedtime” or “brush your teeth”. It is just simpler and more straightforward if there are no parents. A lot less explaining to do.
And the whole dead and absent parent thing is not new at all. Look at the Little Princess. Heidi moves in with Grandpa after her aunt takes a job in Frankfurt, both her parents are dead. Before that, the brother’s Grimm collected folk stories and a lot of them speak of absent, dead or cruel parents, which you may argue reflected reality for a lot of children then.
When I was little, I preferred stories of whole families, because I did not have one. The dead/absent parent thing was not something I needed to explore, nor did I need to explore the cruel parent thing. I wanted to be Annika rather than Pippi with a mother who tucks the kids at night and a father who leaves to go to work each morning. I wanted to be the Nesthaekchen, adored by a large family even though she was a lot naughtier than I would have ever been. As much as we seek reading material that reflect our lives, we also want to explore what life could be like. If you have healthy parents, exploring how to overcome hardship after your parents die will be fascinating. It teaches empathy and the “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. It also teaches you about independence, consequences of decisions without the parental safety net. You can also explore how it would be to be brave or ask yourself what you would do yourself in certain situations, this being something I still often ask myself as an adult reader.
I admit that at times, I groan when there is another story of “mother is dead and father is away”, but I truly understand the doors it opens for storytelling. I am not quite ready to say “The mother is dead, long live the mother”, but I feel we need to accept that this aspect of storytelling will stay with us for good and for valid reasons.