As you know from yesterday’s blog entry, I had a childhood fixation on orphanages and boarding schools. I once wrote a "novel" in a spiral-bound notebook in which a child went to boarding school and there was assigned an orphan to take care of and teach. I constantly  wanted to play orphanage and/or boarding school, and forced my hapless little sister and brother to play with me. Mom and I were reminiscing about this quirk in my character one day when she, a  light tone of hurt in her voice, asked, "Yeah…why did you always want to get away from your Dad and me?"

Sorry, Mom! I hadn’t thought of my childhood games in that way. Mom and I have always had a good relationship. Dad and I too, though he was the focus of the minor teen drama I did have. It was a good childhood, focused on family. I HADN’T wanted to get away from them at all! The thought never crossed my mind. Ever, To be fair, Mom realized that, and the tone of her voice when she asked her question was more curious than hurt. But, yeah. Where did my desire to play such games come from?

Fast forward a few years when my daughter, Leah (she hates when I just call her my daughter…"I have a name, Mom!"),  had grown up and I was homeschooling her. Then I realized where my childish obsession with orphans and boarding school came from. We began reading books like:

Anne of Green Gables.
Tom Sawyer
The Secret Garden
The Little Princess
Caddie Woodlawn
Jungle Book
Boxcar Children

See a pattern here? Yep. Orphans. And I haven’t even touched on books that focus on children separated from parents, or any fairy tales. Children’s literature is rife with orphans, and I was, and still am, a voracious reader.

They’re independent, plucky, intelligent, courageous, funny. They have major adventures. Who wouldn’t want to be an orphan?

                        [And an orphanage is similar to a boarding school…students live there and attend school
                        there. I read a LOT of Madeleine L’Engle growing up, and she used her real life boarding 
                        school experiences as fodder for many of her books. I suspect I liked the idea of living 
                        independently, but actually disliked the idea of being without my family. That’s how I 
                        explain my boarding school thing.]

Of course, this is not reality with orphans. I guess that’s why they make such good stories. It’s the same reason it makes news when someone returns a wallet full of money…it’s not usual reality, therefore it makes a good story.

Thinking of it purely from the storytelling perspective, weak-willed, stupid characters who have no adventures are boring characters. Even if they aren’t orphans, we want to read about plucky, intelligent, courageous, funny, adventurous characters. When the author makes them orphans or forcibly separates their character from their family into a boarding school, he or she is emphasizing those qualities. The nature of their dire situation makes their character strengths stand out even more.

Plot-wise, it’s good for an author to have the children away from the parents to force the characters to think and problem-solve for themselves. If a parent (or other adult) swoops in to solve their problems and save them from a crisis, the story is going to be boring, especially to young readers. It would be a form of deux-ex-machina, meaning "god from a machine," in which a god would literally arrive via a crane into a Greek or Roman drama, to resolve the problems of the play. Major let-down.

So, what think you? 

What are your favorite children’s literature orphan or boarding school stories?

What reasons do you see for the prevalance of orphans and children separated from parents in children’s literature?

Click on "please comment" and let me know!