The Top Ten Worst Parents in All of Children’s Literature
Parents. They are stumbling blocks in children’s books. Authors that kill off parents kill off impediments. It’s hard for your main character to get anything done when they have attentive guardians hovering over their shoulders every minute of the day. But what’s even better than a dead parent in a book for kids? An evil one!
Today, after conducting a couple haphazard online polls, I bring to you a plethora of some of the vilest, worst, most disreputable parents in the whole of the genre. And I have to warn you now, some of these choice may strike you as controversial.
For the record, I was very pleased to see that while it is easy to lay all blame on moms in kids’ books, the suggestions I received did a fairly nice split of other parents as well.
And now, counting down to the #1 worst parents of all time (with space left for Honorable Mentions), we begin with . . . .
#10 – Hansel and Gretel’s parents
To be fair, a lot of fairytale parents are the pits (Cinderella’s dad, various stepmothers including Rapunzel’s, and I don’t even wanna TALK about the king in Donkey Skin), but there’s a special room in my heart for this particular story. If you’ve seen watered down versions then you’ll often find the mother in the book has been turned into your typical evil stepmother, her husband a terrible dupe willing to abandon his starving children in the woods to save his own skin. The real story, however, features the children’s original mom and dad. And yes, often it’s the mom who figures that the only way to survive is to have the children be left to starve to death in the woods, but dad is the one who doesn’t lift a finger to stop this plan from coming to fruition. So while they don’t beat or directly murder their kids, for downright deplorable behavior they make it on this list.
#9 – The mom in Love You Forever by Robert Munsch
I told you we were going to get controversial.
You may be the world’s biggest fan of Munsch’s best-known picture book (remember when Joey read it in its entirety on Friends?) but for every LYF fan there is someone who would cast it into a deep dark pit and not blink an eye. Few books inspire quite as poisonous a reaction as this one does, and it all comes down to the mom. For those of you who have somehow missed this book over the years, the plot is quite simple. A mother loves her little boy and rocks him every night while singing the titular song. And when he grows up? That’s when she hikes an extension ladder onto the car’s roof (an image that I always found a bit Hitchcockian), goes to his home, and crawls into his upstairs window to keep rocking him. He, in turn, rocks her when she gets to be too old to be hauling self-supporting portable ladders, which marks the point at which some people cry. Then he goes into his daughter’s room and rocks her with the song, which may be viewed as either a continuation of selfless love between a parent and child or a vicious cycle that will continue unabated, extension ladders and all. Personally, I am not a fan of this book as I find it to appeals primarily to adults more than children, an essential flaw in any picture book.
[I should note that we did also get at least one suggestion to include the tree from The Giving Tree on this list, but I am not interested in arboreal parental substitutes today]
#8 – Mayzie in Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss
This one would not have actually occurred to me had someone not mentioned it, but it seems to fit. Mayzie is the quintessential deadbeat mom. She wants to have her babymoon but after she’s already laid her egg. Her crimes then are not that she wants to have a good time. Fun is not a bad thing. The problem is that she tricks Horton into doing her work by lying to him and then, when the project has essentially come to fruition, she wants to reap the rewards. She’s like the antithesis of The Little Red Hen. Her punishment, then, comes in a rather fascinating manner. One could argue that since what hatches is an elephant bird, half of its parentage would still be Mayzie. Even so, the book ends before she can claim any parental rights.
For the record, I opted for this particular image of Mayzie, rather than the one in the original Seuss, if only because I’m fascinated by the odd moment at the beginning of the Merrie Melodies short when she and Horton seem to share a weeeeeeird flirtation. You can see the whole film here if you’re curious.
#7 – Mary Lennox’s parents in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
To be fair, they don’t get a lot of time on the page. Mary Lennox, living in colonial India, has parents that ignore her completely. So much so that when they die of cholera (I still can vividly remember their excruciating deaths in what might be the worst filmed version of the book of all time) their only daughter doesn’t even give them half a thought. Only in more contemporary versions will filmmakers attempt to endow Mary with some kind of affection for the two. The same goes for modernized graphic novels and middle grade novels. Apparently it’s not cool for kids to completely forget that they ever had parents in the first place anymore. Regardless, as representatives of colonial India and poster children of what is essentially child neglect, whether you like or loathe the book you have to admit that these two might not have deserved their deaths, but no one’s crying over them once they’re gone.
#6 – The Man in the Yellow Hat from Curious George by Margret & H.A. Rey
And speaking of colonization…
When making this list I had to define what was meant as “parents”. Would grandparents count? Aunts or uncles? What about adoptive parents? In the end, the parent or guardian has to feel like a parent to make it on this list. And I suppose The Man in the Yellow Hat (I refuse to call him “Ted” as the movies would have me do) certainly applies. His list of crimes is extensive. After kidnapping a wild chimpanzee from “Africa” (we never get more specific than that), The Man ultimately sells George to the zoo. When that doesn’t work and the little guy breaks his leg, The Man unofficially adopts him, but not before selling his life story to Hollywood (I’m not making this up). Then he’s sending the little guy up into space at a time when sometimes those animals didn’t come back down alive (and indeed George does almost die during that adventure). I could go on, but The Man seems in those original adventures to see George more as a means to an end rather than anything else.
For those of you that dislike this fellow, allow me to recommend the truly wonderful Furious George Goes Bananas. It’s a parody of all the original Curious George books where The Man truly gets his due.
#5 – The Thornblossoms in Leeva at Last by Sara Pennypacker, ill. Matthew Cordell
This one surprised me. I didn’t think I’d have any titles as recent as 2023 when I sent out the call for terrible parents, but lo and behold, the book Leeva at Last (which I just finished the other day and enjoyed thoroughly) presents us with parents of a particularly vile variety. Mrs. Thornblossom is obsessed with fame. Mr. Thornblossom, with money. And since their only child, Leeva, can provide them with neither of these things, they disregard her entirely. With its relatively new appearance in the world, I can’t quite justify putting these specimens much higher on the list today, but believe me when I say that they are just loathsome individuals.
#4 – The mom in Starfish by Lisa Fipps
Allow me to preface this by pointing out that the dad in Starfish isn’t any too great a shakes either. Sure, he eventually supports his daughter, but that’s after he’s enabled her mom and also her terrible brother for years, including buying him a whole freakin’ car. Mom, with her perpetual tendency to tear down her daughter with an obsessive focus on her weight, is the pits but that dude married her and takes his own sweet sweet time in rectifying any of that. I will tell you that the number of people who brought her up was incredibly high, and for good reason. She is all too realistic. You may know her, and not even know it. Beware!
#3 – Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
What is Worse: Finding out that your mom severs souls away from children on a regular basis, or finding out that your dad just killed your best friend as part of an experiment? Why not have both! In a world of terrible parents, it is difficult to top the awfulness that begat Lyra, heroine of the His Dark Materials series. This is one of those cases where a child discovers their secret parentage and literally nothing good comes of it. That golden monkey is gonna haunt my dreams until I die too, I just know it…
#2 – The mom from The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Many of the parents featured on today’s list are awful in cartoonish ways, and for good reason. Truly terrible parents are terrifying creatures. To that end, I place in the penultimate position on this list a woman of infinite cruelty, a calculating brain, and zero moral compunctions who is also all too frighteningly real. But she’s also like a British WWII variation on Thenardier from Les Miserables. Published in 2015, The War That Saved My Life became a massive surprise hit in part because author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley reached deep down into a pit of despair somewhere and conjured up Mam. Verbally and physically abusive, she’s so despicable that she drives much of the emotional heft of the plot with her villainy.
But, of course, was there ever any double as to who would take the top slot on this list?
#1 – Harry Zinnia Wormwood from Matilda by Roald Dahl
Which version of the Wormwoods do you like most? The quintessential version typified by Danny Devito and Rhea Perlman? Or do you go more for the Broadway production version (which allowed Mrs. Wormwood to be a ballroom dancer)? Perhaps the latest filmed version of the musical was more to your taste. For me, it’s Danny and Rita forever. They perfectly Americanized what are, at heart, British baddies. Still, whichever version you prefer, these parents sort of set the standard for bad parenting. They’re incredibly stupid but convinced of their own superiority and, worst of all, rip up a library book. The horror . . . the horror . . .
Other parents that got us down:
Eloise’s mom from Eloise by Kay Thompson – You think Mary Lennox had it bad? At least she got to see the woman once in a while. But for Eloise at the Plaza, even a single glimpse of mama is too much to expect.
The dad in One Jar of Magic by Corey Ann Haydu – If I could reach through my headphones to strangle another person, I would have done so when listening to the audiobook of this title. Just thinking about that narcissist makes me mad to this day. OOO!!! Would that he could have had a proper comeuppance.
Mr. Mallard from Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey – He’s essentially the male equivalent of Mayzie from Horton Hatches the Egg, except in his case he figured out how to get someone else to do all the work and not blame him afterwards. Mayzie could learn a thing or two from this guy.
The dad in The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt – The only things worse than a negligent parent is a completely self-satisfied arrogant one. And Mr. Hoodhood provided all of that and more.
The Dursleys from the Harry Potter series – We got a lot of call for these folks, but I didn’t put them on the list if only because technically they were guardians for Harry Potter, and not parents. Doesn’t make ’em any nicer, of course.
And finally, I was a little disturbed by how many people mentioned Flowers in the Attic. Y’all know that wasn’t actually written for kids, right? Right?
Who are some folks I missed that if you had your druthers you’d add to this list?
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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