By Ashly Moore Sheldon • May 03, 2022
It's no surprise that maternal characters loom large in kid lit. In our recent survey about childhood reading experiences, we asked people to identify the best and worst moms from the stories they enjoyed as kids. With Mother's Day coming up, we thought we'd reflect on some of the standouts from each category.
The archetypal evil mother (or stepmother) is a staple of the fairytale realm which is where a few of these villainesses come from. Typically, the bad mothers in children's literature are cruel replacements for the "real" mother, but not always.
The Evil Queen from Grimms' Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
The narcissistic mother figure in the classic fairy tale takes vanity to a new level. When her magic mirror reports that her young stepdaughter has become more beautiful, the queen arranges her murder.
Petunia Dursley from Harry Potter
The sour, resentful sister of Henry's mother Lily received lots of votes for being a bad mum. She is certainly brutal toward her nephew, but one could also argue that she does a disservice to her own son Dudley, coddling him as she does throughout J. K. Rowling's series.
Lady Tremaine from Disney's Cinderella
Cruel and cold, the wicked stepmother from the age-old folk tale is certainly awful, but at least she's trying to act on behalf of her own daughters. We especially love Angelica Huston's portrayal of the haughty character in this 1998 film.
The Other Mother from Coraline
Neglected by her real parents, Neil Gaiman's Coraline is lured into a parallel universe where she meets the Other Mother, a murderous, shape-shifting demon with a history of luring children into her alternate dimension and snatching their souls.
Mrs. Wormwood from Matilda
Here's our outlier! In this tale, it's Matilda's real mom who mistreats and disregards her, contending that her "brainy-ness" is an unappealing trait. But Roald Dahl's brilliant protagonist finds a nurturing surrogate in her teacher Miss Honey.
These are the literary moms who stood out for all the right reasons. They represent different walks of life, yet they are all generous, patient, brave, and strong. And they'll do anything for their children.
Ma from Little House on the Prairie
The real-life figure of Caroline Quiner Ingalls consistently modeled gentle strength and compassionate wisdom. In hard times, Laura Ingalls Wilder's Ma was the glue that held her family together. She created a harmonious home filled with love and learning.
Molly Weasley from Harry Potter
A mother of seven (and surrogate mum to Harry), Mrs. Weasley is both a nurturing caretaker and a powerful witch. J. K. Rowling's maternal ideal is a fierce protector of those she loves and an endlessly generous provider of food, comfort, and kindness.
Marmee from Little Women
Despite their differences, sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy all look to their wise and thoughtful matriarch as a model for how to be in the world. Intelligent and progressive, the high-minded Marmee is said to be based on Louisa May Alcott's own mother.
Dr. Kate Murry from A Wrinkle in Time
Brilliant, beautiful, and strong, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist mother from Madeleine L’Engle's fantasy novel steps up to raise her four very different children when her husband disappears. Ever calm in the face of unknown danger, she is a port in the storm.
Mrs. Quimby from the Ramona Quimby series
Let's face it. Ramona isn't the easiest child in the world! And her ever-loving mother, Dorothy Quimby, sometimes gets exasperated with her youngest daughter. Beverly Cleary's clear-eyed portrayal of real motherhood is deeply appreciated.
Whether reading about murderous stepmothers or beacons of maternal warmth, it helps us appreciate the positive mom figures in our own lives. Motherhood can often be a thankless pursuit. So to all the mothers out there, we salute you!