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.