THE ORPHAN QUESTION by Wendy McClure
Why are there so many children’s stories about orphans? Everyone who works in the world of children’s books gets asked the orphan question at least once. I get it a lot.
I work, after all, as an editor on the beloved Boxcar Children books, a mystery series featuring the Alden siblings—Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny—four of the most famous parentless protagonists in children’s literature. And as it happens, my own books are about orphans, too—orphans on a turn-of-the-century orphan train, no less. So I suppose I really do know my orphans, from Anne of Green Gables to the Baudelaire kids to Harry Potter, but I’ve never been able to come up with a completely satisfactory answer to the Orphan Question.
Are orphans in literature a holdover from the past? Are they part of a classical tradition like Dickens, the Brontes, and other classics? Or are they a sort of a genre convention, based on the notion that some children’s stories just work better when the parents are out of the picture? It’s true that whenever I edit novels for young readers, I always keep an eye out for excessive descriptions of parents. I take my pen and strike out lines like My dad’s jokes are all so hilarious! or Mom’s been working in corporate real estate for five years now and finds it deeply fulfilling! “Enough about the parents already!” I’ll scrawl in the margins. “The book isn’t about them!”
But when I started writing for kids myself, I found I often had to fight the impulse to give my characters adult chaperones. I’m beginning to realize this is something all children’s writers struggle with: it’s hard not to want to write versions of ourselves into our stories, or else use what we think is common sense—those kids can’t be outside by themselves after dark!—and dutifully add extra information to make it clear that there’s a safety net.“I’ll pick you up in half an hour,” said Dad. “And you’ve got your phone if you need anything.” But of course these little additions tend to speak more to other concerned adults than to the kids reading.
So I try to remember Gertrude Chandler Warner’s response to librarians of decades ago who thought the Aldens in The Boxcar Children were having “too good of a time” without parental supervision. “That is exactly why children like it!” Warner said.
It took me a long time to fully realize it, but this reason is also exactly why children like reading books. And not just books about orphans—all books.
Inside books, after all, are realms where kids can be out after dark, take long, epic journeys, or live by themselves in the woods. Reading is a delightfully solitary activity, and as kids we all loved it, not just because of the escape books offered—portals to adventures and other lands—but because we were on our own, sometimes more than we’d ever been in our lives otherwise. We became orphans, just for a little while, or at least we left our families behind in order to enter the world of a book.
Is it any wonder that the most exciting people we found in those worlds usually happened to be protagonists who were also on their own? Anne Shirley was one of my favorite fellow travelers, as was Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden. But then so was Laura Ingalls, who often left her loving Ma and Pa back in the sod dugout as she ventured out alone to the prairie to explore. We’d while away the afternoon together, she wading in a Minnesota creek in 1875, me curled up in a lawn chair in an Illinois backyard in 1979. Neither of us were really orphans, of course, but there was an understanding that she had to solve her own problems, be they runaway cows or Nellie Oleson, and I had to keep reading.
I don’t mean to dismiss parents in all this talk of imaginary orphanhood. It’s just that they can’t always fix things. When you’re a kid, learning this is part of the process of becoming yourself, and books are safe places for this to play out. Your parents can’t bring Charlotte the spider back to life, or keep Edmund Pevensie from trying the Turkish Delight, or help Stanley Yelnats dig holes. It’s up to you, you realize, to bear witness and see these stories through to the end.
I still don’t know how to completely answer the Orphan Question, except to suggest that maybe the only way to answer it for ourselves is to go back and read. Read all the orphan stories, or course, but also stories that we remember we loved as kids, the ones where we first found ourselves far away from home, completely on our own.
Wendy McClure is an author, a columnist, and a children’s book editor. Her work in children’s books includes her historical fiction series, Wanderville, and she has edited over fifty novels and picture books for children as a senior editor at Albert Whitman & Company. She was born in Oak Park, Illinois, and now lives in Chicago with her husband, Chris, in a neighborhood near the river. You can find her online at http://www.wendymcclure.net and on Twitter as @Wendy_Mc.