Monday, March 29, 2010

The Oft Maligned Orphan

And no, I’m not talking about this blog, although I certainly could be. I always forget the sheer number of tasks I have to catch up on once I cross a deadline—so much of my real life gets put on hold while I meet it.

But I have been thinking about orphans in kid lit for a couple of weeks now, puzzled by how strongly some adult reviewers react to that archetype, calling it a trope or stereotype, bemoaning yet another orphan in childrens’ literature, weak storytelling, etc. Frankly, I am puzzled by this. (And I’m not so much talking about my own books here, or even solely as a writer of kids books, but more as a reader.)

Wild and exciting adventures simply do not usually happen to kids with two loving, responsible parents. They just don’t. Furthermore, orphaned heroes are not all Harry Potter wannabes—people trying to hop on that road to bestsellerdom. The tradition of orphans in kid lit goes back much farther than that. Two of my most favorite books in the world when I was a child, The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, involved orphaned girls, and they were written a hundred years ago, well before Harry Potter.

From a logistical standpoint, just as some claim there are only three or seven or twenty one plots in the entire world, so too are there only a certain number of ways to deal with parents in kids books:

1) Kill them off.
2) Get them off screen in another way—business trip, illness, long hours at the office
3) Have them present in the story unaware of what’s going on
4) Have them present in the story involved in what’s going on
5) Have them be part of the story problem itself

While children’s books are not a genre per se, they are, like many genre books, written with a particular reader in mind—kids. And as such, authors need to speak to those readers needs’, not the adults around them. Sure, some kids will get tired about reading about kids with no parents, and yes, there may be a higher number of them in certain genres of kids books, fantasy say. But they are truly not the only books out there. And just as westerns are expected to feature The West, or romance a happy ending, kids books need to feature kids front and center, making choices, operating in big theaters, acting independently, solving their own problems. Loving, responsible parents get in the way of all that.

I wonder sometimes if adult readers have forgotten that operating in the world without parents is both a child’s greatest fear and greatest longing, usually at the same time. As a kid, we are terrified of losing our parents. What will happen to us if we do? Who will take care of us? And yet, we are fascinated by that possibility as well, especially if they have recently punished us unjustly or curtailed desired activities in some way. ☺ That worry and fascination is even stronger if we have a more complicated, unhappy relationship with our parents, as so many children do.

Childhood is about moving toward independence. Even as young kids, on some deep level, we know we are traveling toward a state of being that will not involve living with our parents, where we will have to operate in the world without them by our side. What safer way to try that on than through books? What better place to see that our lives will still be filled with richness and adventure, in addition to that horrible aloneness we all fear? Throughout the ages, stories and myths have codified behavior, values, and societal expectations; taught us how to be, provided a framework for our lives. Does it not make sense, then, that a large number of books for kids would deal with this enormous step kids are moving towards?

As any parent knows, part of our job as good parents is to ensure our kids will not need us anymore, to help them to grow to independence, to assure them that they can and will live in a world that will not include us by their side—and they will thrive. It seems to me that kids books featuring orphans are simply helping to codify and reassure kids about this basic truth.

I’d be curious to know what you all think. Are orphaned kids like nails on a chalkboard to you? A treasured convention? How do you feel about them?


Jinnyd said...

It does seem like as if only kids without parents get all of the cool adventures (I also loved the Secret Garden and A Little Princess!), because my experience has told me that parents would NEVER let a kid just go out and about on their own.

Another one of my favorite series has a heroine who has a mother, but lives with her not-very-controlling-but-still-cares-about-her grandmother. Have you ever read Sammy Keyes? The books are GREAT! Anyway, Sammy's grandmother usually lets her go around the city by herself or with her friends, and that's how all of her adventures start.

But I also think that these orphan stories could be a little discouraging to kids with two wonderful, loving parents. They might start feeling like as if they can't have any "exciting" adventures just because they don't have as much freedom as their favorite orphaned characters do.

Icarus said...

I agree that the orphan motif is a long tradition because it WORKS, and I love it, for all of those reasons you said.

Anyone who thinks that is "new" hasn't been paying attention. I would add Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer from American lit, several Dickens novels, many fairy tales, the picareque novel from European lit.

Orphans abound in popular culture as well. Movies tha I loved as a kid would be, the Jungle Book, Witch Mountain, Peter Pan, Homeward Bound (okay they are animals, but isn't it the same thing?), Star Wars, Superman, Spiderman. One of my favorite series of books as a kid was The Boxcar Children, who were a whole family of orphans. James of the Giant Peach fame. The kids in the Narnia books were "part-time" orphans. Even the Hardy Boys and Nancy Clue were orphan-ish with deceased mothers and mostly absent fathers.

Vonna said...

In one of my manuscripts, my MCs' loving parents are lulled into a false sense of security by the family friendly atmosphere at their vacation resort. The kids are left to have dangerous adventures on their own. When my son read this, he got very excited and asked if we went to such a place would he be allowed to run wild like that.

Of course not. That's why we have books.

R.L. LaFevers said...

Jinnyd, I adore the Sammy Keyes books, although I have not read all of them. I think you bring up an EXCELLENT point though, about kids with parents feeling like they can't have exciting adventures.

Wow Icarus, you have so many great additional examples of orphans in kid lit! I should have consulted with your first. :-)

LOL Vonna, at your son's enthusiasm for a similar vacation. I think that enthusiasm does a good job of validating the exact point Jinnyd made.

Jennifer Darlington said...

I've been meaning to tell you this for awhile now, if you ever wrote a book on writing I would be first in line to get a copy! I love your easy way of writing and am so happy I found your blog!

Ms. Yingling said...

I don't mind orphan characters, but it seems more realistic to have children with absent parents because I don't think I've ever met an orphan. The clueless parent is also a good one-- Theodosia certainly gets into enough trouble and adventures, and it's somehow more fun that her parents just don't get it!

Katy Cooper said...

What Artsymommachic Said.

I've been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of Robin's wisdom for a long time, and I can't even begin to tell you how much I've learned from her. This is why I have her blog bookmarked at home and at the day gig.

Robin L said...

Well thank you, artsymommachic and Katy! If I ever DO write a book a writing, you'll be two of the first to know!

Mrs. Yingling, you make an excellent point! I don't think I know any orphans either!