When was the last time you saw a kids’ book reassuring them about Daddy leaving for work in the morning? That’s what I thought. But working mothers? That’s a whole other story, so to speak. A batch of recent picture books reveals publishers’ urgency to turn out books that console us for being working mothers and soothe our kids for having them – working mothers, that is. No longer content to teach sweet lessons about sharing or accepting a new sibling, picture books have now entered the realm of mommy-psych. Are we surprised that it’s almost always (and only) mothers who appear and disappear in these books? Not really. But given the attention generated by the “issue” of mothers working outside their homes, it’s surprising that there are so few good books for children featuring mothers who leave in the morning and come back home at night. Still, there are some we like. They reassure young children (and their moms) that being without one another for a while is not a bad thing.
One of the great things about “Don’t Forget I Love You,” by Miriam Moss with illustrations by Anna Currey, is that it doesn’t make a big fuss about Mama Bear working – but she does have to get there. Dallying so long getting ready for nursery school that he and his mom have to hit the streets running to make it in time, little Billy Bear drops his lunchbox on the way, its contents, including his precious stuffed rabbit, spilling all over the ground. When they finally get to school, Mama hurries off for work, neglecting to tell Billy Bear that she loves him. She dashes back just in time, though, holding Billy’s bunny and reminding him that love him she surely does
Bless its heart, Joanna Cole’s “When Mommy and Daddy Go To Work,” assumes that both parents share the responsibility not just of working but of depositing and picking up their children from daycare. Little Carly’s Daddy is a teacher; her Mommy sells cars, and while the little girl plays in the sand or paints pictures with her friends, she thinks about how “Mommy and Daddy are busy, too.” This isn’t a particularly artful or charming book, (the illustrations by Maxie Chambliss are attractively workmanlike), but it’s an affectionate look at a child who announces at the beginning that she and her stuffed horse are, with her Mommy and Daddy, “a family,” and who knows that “Mommy and Daddy always come back.”
Like the rest of the world, “Mama Always Comes Home,” by Karma Wilson, puts the onus back on mothers, and not just on human ones, either. Though the cover shows a human mom holding her small child, inside are mama birds and cats and chipmunks and dolphins and bears, all of whom leave their little ones – to find worms, to get milk, but always to return. The last two pages show a human mother cuddling her child, saying “I love you, cuddle bug, but now I have to go.” The next of Brooke Dyer’s illustrations shows Daddy and child looking out the window as Mom drives away, but she “will always come back.” At least Dad appears in this one, but where is Mom going? Shopping? Work? We never know, nor, presumably, does her child. If I were that child, I’d be reassured to know; if I were that Dad, I’d tell.
Written by Francesca Rusackas and illustrated by Priscilla Burris, “I Love You All Day Long,” is a book that really speaks to kids. Plump little piglet Owen is off to daycare or preschool for the first time. We don’t know where his mother will be, either, but the book does a nice turn on the separation-from-mom question, for the message here is that Mommy loves him “All Day Long,” whether he trips over his shoelaces or lets “a burp sneak out”; whether he shares his purple crayon or can’t get to the bathroom in time; whether they’re together or apart.
Each of the books mentioned so far has appeared during the last three years. But perhaps the sweetest of them all, the most comforting to a very small child, is Eileen Spinelli’s “When Mama Comes Home Tonight,” illustrated by Jane Dyer. Published in 1998, it looks as though it dates from the nineteen thirties or forties. It’s a board book small enough to be held by a two year old who would be welcomed by the colorful but soft-focused drawings and the gentle rhymes they accompany as Mama hugs, feeds, bathes, plays with and reads to her small child. We can’t tell whether this child is a boy or a girl, a nice touch, as Mama finds the teddy bear, sings a lullabye and tucks her “dear child” in.
It would be comforting to see more fathers in these books doing the cuddling and the bathing and the dropping off and coming back, but in spite of their absence, one or several of these little books might become a small child’s favorite.