Orphans on my bookshelf

I love books. When J and I first decided to adopt, I started buying some of the children’s classics. My kids are still too young for many of these books, but I’m looking forward to the day when books without pictures are acceptable. Some of these books are: Anne of Green Gables, The Little Princess, Tom Sawyer, The Secret Garden, Huckleberry Finn, and Heidi.

I began to notice a similarity among all these books, namely that they feature children who have lost one or both parents. Then I started noticing the same trend among some of BE’s picture books – Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and Snow White.  I also noticed it among some of my other favorite childhood books – The Wizard of Oz, The Boxcar Children, and Peter Pan. Of course there are many more, and it’s definitely not a thing of the past. Orphans show up in modern children’s books too, like the Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket series.

So I was wondering, why are there so many orphans as protganists in children’s literature? I found an article about it on the USA Today Web site. I don’t really like the title (“Orphans in Literature Empower Children”), but I did like the premise of the article. One of the quotes from the article says:

“The literary orphan dramatizes the difficulty of being a child,” says Kansas State University assistant English professor Philip Nel, who specializes in children’s literature. “That is, to be a child is to be subject to the forces of people more powerful than you are. Well, being an orphan makes the powerlessness of childhood that much more visible. At the same time, many literary orphans are resilient characters who, despite their relative lack of power, find the emotional resources to beat the odds and make their way in the world.”

Part of me likes this explanation, but the cynical part wants to attribute it to some type of displaced romanticism. Since both of my children’s parents are still alive, they are not really orphans, but as an adoptive parent, I still come across this attitude a lot. It’s most obvious when someone tells you what a terrific thing you’re doing for your kids and how lucky they are to have you. For some reason, people seem to attribute something virtuous to the act of adopting, and something equally virtuous to being an orphan – to having lost everything, yet persevering, and being redeemed in the end. Of course, reality is usually nothing like this.

What are your thoughts about this? Why are orphans such common book/movie characters?


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