Dear Authors, Please Stop Using Orphans as Metaphors: Slice of Life 18/31 #sol17

slice of life

I was in the library last week fishing for a new book to read aloud to my son. Sometimes I have a list, but often I let serendipity be my guide. I stand among the middle-grade fiction shelves and skim spines until something speaks to me—a title, a font, a color, maybe the sticker announcing that the book is NEW to my library’s collection. I pull out the book, read the cover, skim the first page, open the book at random in a few different places, trying to get a feel for it. Would the story interest my son? Are there too many long descriptive paragraphs where his attention will wander? Do the sentences sound right for reading aloud?

And then the question that not every mother has to ask: Does this book portray orphans or adoption insensitively?

Last week, I pulled out six books in a row that I had to reject. Six books. In a row. Because all six were fantasy novels featuring orphans. Six books in a row that I’d never heard of before, that were written by six different authors, set in six different worlds. All about orphans. With a random sample, that shouldn’t even be statistically possible.

But children’s literature is full of orphans, orphanages, abandoned babies, disappearing mothers, cruel guardians. And even in books where there are no orphans or orphanages, there are still jokes about orphans, orphanages, babies whose mothers don’t want them, kids thrown away by their families.

There are works of realistic fiction that sensitively and responsibly explore these issues, but far more typical is the orphan used as a trope. Orphans are a plot device, a metaphor.

But being orphaned is the lived experience of millions of children. It’s not a fantasy. It’s not a literary trope. It is actual lived experience.

I can’t think of any other kind of human pain that we use as fictional metaphors and themes in this way. Children’s book authors seem to be a sensitive bunch, very aware that books can have a profound influence on readers’ feelings, beliefs, values, self-concept.

So what happens when a child who was literally thrown away reads that as the punch line of a joke in story after story? What happens when a child whose mother abandoned her sees that used to insult a fictional child? What happens when a child who has lived in an orphanage sees orphanages used as plot devices? What happens when a child sees his lived experience treated as a metaphor?

It’s a kind of psychic violence that we wouldn’t find acceptable with any other kind of human pain.

And it saturates this literature.

Just yesterday, a Newbery book my son has been looking forward to reading arrived on the Hold shelf. I wasn’t even planning to preview this one before beginning our read aloud.

But I happened to flip through the book before I set it on our stack, and my eyes spotted the offending word. A chapter title: “Lucky as an Orphan.”

The chapter begins this way: “Folks like to feel sorry for orphans, but I think they’ve got it pretty good. Little Orphan Annie gets adopted by Daddy Warbucks, who’s a millionaire. That’s just about as lucky as it gets in my book.”

Dear children’s book authors, orphans aren’t only a fictional construct. There are millions of real ones, some of whom might just be reading your books.

If I read a passage like this aloud to my son, he would be immediately and violently jerked out of the story world into the world of his own trauma. We know and understand this about victims of other kinds of trauma. Try to imagine reading this passage with a different kind of suffering substituted for orphans. It would never be published. We don’t find it acceptable to make jokes about sexual violence. We don’t think it’s okay to use physical abuse as a metaphor. When those things happen in children’s books, they’re treated with the gravity and respect they deserve. It’s hard to imagine a more traumatic early childhood experience than losing your birth family, and yet we think nothing of cracking jokes about it and making it the origin story for every single character in fantasy literature.

So, children’s book authors, please try to imagine what it would be like for a child who was actually abandoned by her mother to read that joke about abandoned babies in Chapter 5. Please consider the specific challenges your fantasy story might present to readers for whom this particular family dynamic is not a fantasy. Sometimes that joke and that origin story will be necessary for your story. But sometimes, they will not. And you will only know the difference when you consider the real lived experiences of children reading your books.

And teachers, please think about these moments when you come across them in read-alouds. At home, I can choose to skip over paragraphs like the one I shared above. I can be intentional about the ways my son is confronted with his experiences through literature. But at school, my son would have no choice but to hear a line like “lucky as an orphan.” He would carry that line around with him all day. He would misbehave in your class, and you wouldn’t know why. He would come home and have a meltdown, and I wouldn’t know why. We live in a small town without much diversity, yet there are four other children in his class that I know of who are not living with their birth parents. His story is hardly unique.

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19 thoughts on “Dear Authors, Please Stop Using Orphans as Metaphors: Slice of Life 18/31 #sol17

  1. Hmmm … you have me thinking about this topic. There are so many books with this theme of being homeless, neglected or simply portrayed as being an orphan as an adventure. Thanks for opening my eyes to another perspective and raising an awareness and sensitivity to this subject.

  2. Never thought about it until reading your post. There are books that I have read that present situations that I really don’t think past what the author is saying. This post makes me think about the books my kids are reading, I wonder what messages they are getting that I would super uncomfortable with.

    • I never thought about it before adopting and seeing my son’s physical recoil every time orphans, orphanages, and adoption are mentioned! And then I started noticing how frequently this theme pops up. At least when kids are reading independently, they’re able to put down a book that doesn’t fit.

  3. I really appreciate this post. I book talk new titles frequently and often hear myself saying, “His Dad dies.” “She lost her Mom.” “She is grieving her Dad.” “He doesn’t have parents.” This theme – orphan child, dead parents, grieving deceased parents is in so many books. I wonder if it is over used as well because parent child relationships are hard to write. The books with living parents often have negative relationships. Healthy relationships are difficult to portray. Having no parents seems to be easier to write. No matter what the reason, it is certainly over done.

  4. I had not thought of this either. I appreciate your post, it has brought awareness to me. We all want sensitive, caring stories that allow children to identify themselves in a positive light.

  5. YES! There is nothing like adopting kids to make you realize how 90% of all kidlit seems to feature orphans. Plus the ever popular “You’re adopted” jokes. Nice.

  6. I hear you, Elisabeth. Both my children are adopted, and one point my daughter and I now work on is looking for those same “fun” books that do not portray orphans negatively for the granddaughters, who are not adopted, but know that she was. I won’t list all the books my children liked, but the series my daughter liked was all the connections and loving families in Madeline L’Engle’s various books. This was when she was younger than your son of course. If you like sci-fi and figuring out a new way of space living/adventure, look at Emerson’s Last Day on Mars.

  7. LUCKY AS AN ORPHAN??? Are you kidding me? Ugh, that’s awful. I think it’s different if something like that is mentioned/said by a character and then corrected or confronted by another character but to just have it like that is…yeah.

    Thanks so much for posting this.

  8. I had not thought about this either, but while reading I thought of more and more children’s books that feature orphans. I think there is appeal for young readers in a story where the children succeed or explore on their own, but there are plenty of ways to create that situation without the children being orphans. The Indian in the Cupboard is one that comes to mind.

  9. I clicked on your post because I was intrigued by your title. Then I read your post and I found it incredibly thought-provoking. Thank you for pushing my thinking–for making me confront something I’ve never considered. Strong writing–and strong points of view–enlighten readers. So, thank you for teaching me something new today.

  10. Pingback: Picking Favorites (mostly about reading and teaching) | The Englishist

  11. Your post makes me reflect on all the factors we need to consider as educators when choosing the books we read aloud to our students. We have to really know who are students are, and that is a big responsibility. Thank you for this important reminder.

  12. important post. like many who commented before me, you have brought an awareness to me and I thank you for it.

  13. Thanks for sharing Elisabeth. A powerful reminder of the power that books hold, both in positive and potentially negative ways. Thank you for sharing your post as another important factor to consider when reading and recommending children’s books.

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