Writers are always reading, and usually on more than one level. I still remember the shock I felt the first time I saw a typo in a published book. Even as a child, I noticed that child protagonists are disproportionately orphans. Once I noticed, it didn’t take long to figure out why. Parents protect their children. Safety precludes adventure. If you want your protagonist to have adventures, you’ve got to get the parents out of the way, and the easiest way is to knock them off.
Once upon a time, there was an orphan named….
Done. On with the story. Now, you could do like Roald Dahl in Matilda and make the parents stupid and useless, or in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, make them so overworked that they are unavailable, but even Roald Dahl fell back on the orphan plot device. (Children with only the mother dead are another standby storyline, but I’ll save that for another post.)
Orphan Plot Device 2 Minute Thought Exercise
James & the Giant Peach
Little Orphan Annie
Penny in the Rescuers
Arthur in the Sword & the Stone
Taran in the Chronicles of Prydain
The little girl in All Dogs Go to Heaven
Mary in the Secret Garden
Orphans are everywhere in literature and film, and often that aspect of stories goes right over my daughter’s head. Just like her lactose intolerance, it only starts to be a problem when the exposure is frequent, intense, or unexpected. Laura Ingalls’ domestic adventures take place in the context of a loving family. But her best friend in Little Town on the Prairie says things like, “I have to work extra hard because I’m only an adopted child.” Whoa, heavy cream!
Our most recent encounter is Anne of Green Gables. I loved these books growing up, and when we inherited a complete set we immediately began reading a chapter each night at bedtime. I remembered that Anne was an orphan, but somehow the premise just wasn’t quite as cute as I remembered.
Excuse me waiter, I ordered a boy. Take this little redheaded girl back. She’s not a useful farmworker. Oh, well, I guess we’ll keep her, since she is so sweet.
Terrifying. Since then, we have experienced bouts of extreme moodiness with no apparent cause, sleepwalking, nightmares, fear of the dark, many conversations about “how you picked me,” and tearful afternoons poring over the foster care photo album. For children who have actually been orphans, there is nothing adventurous or picturesque about it.
I have always been secretly chagrined that you can’t bake with nuts or dairy or gluten for school parties anymore because someone in the building might be allergic. When I was a kid, my family brought our own treats for my brother with severe allergies. We didn’t expect a host to make something different for us, and would never have even conceived the idea that the other kids should eat according to my brother’s restrictions.
So you know that I do not say this lightly.
Dear Children’s Authors,
I respect your freedom of expression, and I despise censorship. But for your next story, would you please consider whether the child really has to be an orphan? Is there another way that your character can land in an adventure without sacrificing their family? If dead parents are inherently important to your story, then by all means, kill them off. But if a business trip would work as well, please don’t use a tragic car accident. Find out what happens if the parents come back at the end. Or, gasp, try a story where parents encourage adventure. See, like this:
Dylan’s parents were naturally concerned, but after extracting promises that she would always wear her life vest, they agreed to let her use her birthday money to buy a raft. She could explore the Amazon – as long the dog went with her to keep an eye on things.
Don’t you think there’s more scope for imagination when the parents are alive?
Oh, children’s authors, please understand that I really don’t want to be the literary policemom. But the orphan device is lazy storytelling. It may just be a convenience for you, but for a segment of your audience, it’s really fucking scary. I know you can do better.