Depending on one’s point of view, this book—falling into the same camp as Robert Munsch’s syrupy-sweet Love You Forever—is either reassuring, depicting the steadfastness of a mother’s love, or straight-up creepy, with a suffocating stalker of a mother who makes no bones about possessing the child. The book’s tendency to create such polarizing opinions (and its resulting popularity) is reflected in the New Yorker cartoon Harry Bliss once created, depicting (in part) the mother saying something along the lines of: Meh. I changed my mind. Go ahead and run away.
Sam McBratney gave many adoring parents the phrase “I love you right up to the moon” in the bestselling Guess How Much I Love You, illustrated by Anita Jeram. The mother figure of a tree in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree—perhaps the most polarizing picture book in children’s literature—is also ever-present, not to mention ever-sacrificing. Every year we see a new crop of such picture books. There’s no doubt it’s hard to pull these books off. There’s a fine line between smothering and sweet, asphyxiating and affectionate.
One of 2011’s first additions to the love-you-forever canon gets it right, Ann Stott’s I’ll Be There (Candlewick), illustrated by Matt Phelan. It’s a gentle, restrained story, and Phelan was the perfect choice for illustrator. He renders beautifully such tales-of-quiet.
A young boy navigates a narrow stone wall, while his mother walks beside him. He asks her about the ways in which she cared for him in years past. “When you were a baby, I did lots of things for you. Now you can do them on your own.” His response is unequivocal: “I know.” After rattling off examples—for one, he can pick out his own clothes, even if this involves the sartorial scramble that is a Santa hat, oven mitts and swim fins—his mother acknowledges that he is growing up. It is then that he stops, looks at her with concern, and momentarily loses the faith in himself he had but seconds ago. “Will you still take care of me when I’m big?” he asks, to which she responds that he can do some things on his own—and it’s here that he leaps from the wall, while the mother looks on with both the pride and concern that come, part and parcel, with parenthood—but “I am your mom, and that will never change.” Even when he’s big, she adds, she’ll be there.
“But not when she dies” was my own 5-year-old’s brutally frank (as children are wont to be) response. However, the beauty of Stott’s writing, never cloying, is that “I’ll be there” is open to more than one interpretation.
One aspect of Phelan’s work I’ve always appreciated is his truthfulness in depicting both the joys and challenges of motherhood. In last year’s illustrations for Jeanne Birdsall’s Flora’s Very Windy Day, I was struck by the hardworking, droopy-eyed, coffee-drinking mother of two on the book’s first spread. Sending her kids outside so that she can perhaps get caught up on work, yet greeting them later with chocolate chip cookies, she represents many of us who daily experience the boot camp of early motherhood. (Also noteworthy to me is that these women have some hips to them, as is the case after bringing life into this world. The supercheery, size-two celebrity supermoms of magazines don’t factor in Phelan’s worlds, oh amen and hallelujah.) The mother in I’ll Be There is hardly haggard, but once again Phelan masterfully depicts—with a squiggle here and a dot there—the honest mixture of delight, inherent anxiety and pride on the face of parenthood.
Readers may dispute whether The Runaway Bunny is stifling or sweet, but with this title, I venture to say the same argument’s hardly up for debate. No sugar-coating here. No stalking. This mother will let the boy run on the narrow stone wall, but she’ll simply be there to catch him if he falls.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books. When forced to count, she thinks it's more like between 400 to 500 features of book creators over the past five years. Julie received her Master's in Information Sciences at UT, with a focus on children's librarianship. She is currently writing about the untold tales of children's literature, along with Elizabeth Bird and Peter D. Sieruta. Tentatively titled Wild Things!: The True, Untold Stories Behind the Most Beloved Children’s Books and Their Creators, it will be published by Candlewick Press in 2012.