Middle Grade Mondays: Why So Many Orphans and Dead Parents?

Okay, so it’s time to admit that my vacation is officially over and my blog needs some serious attention. Hello!

I want to thank the Kea’au Library, Kea’au Elementary, Kamehameha Elementary, and the Ballard Mother Daughter Book Club for having me as a guest in the last few weeks. What a pleasure!

Something I brought up at the Book Club was that I had recently looked back over the last several MG books I had read and noticed the preponderance of orphaned protags (or protags with at least one dead parent). This came up when a friend of mine had told me her daughter was glad that both of Brigitta’s parents were alive because she was tired of dead parents.

These are literally the last eight MG books I have read:

HERE LIES THE LIBRARIAN: orphaned protag
MOCKINGBIRD: deceased mother (and brother)
HOW TO DISAPPEAR COMPLETELY AND NEVER BE FOUND: deceased father
THE NIGHT FAIRY: orphaned protag
INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET: orphaned protag
MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY: orphaned protag
MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT: orphaned protag
SEARCH FOR WONDLA: orphaned protag

orphaned boy searches for lost sister

Off the top of my head, even more orphans come to mind. HARRY POTTER, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, WISE CHILD . . .  and I am currently reading NATION by Terry Pratchett (a fabulous YA read), which features, you guessed it, an orphaned protagonist.

There are some great books on that list. I’m not criticizing the books for having orphaned protags, I’m just noticing this phenomenon.

There are multiple reasons for this. It could force the character to grow up faster, give them more responsibility, leave them isolated and wounded and more vulnerable . . . or just get the parents out of the way so that the protag can have her adventure.

I think a bit of “isolation” is necessary for the protag as she or he comes of age. She needs to feel alone enough to have to DEAL with the dilemma of the story. The parents need to be out of the way if the protag is going to have an adventure, and that separation could be final, self-induced, or situational. In my case, Brigitta’s parents are alive, they’re just turned to stone for most of the book, so they’re not much help. lol.

(NOTE: Gabrielle Prendergast mentions in the comments that this is basically the definition of Coming of Age. We come to our own, who we are, separate from our parents)

I heard a publisher say that MG stories are about trying to “fit in” (as opposed to YA stories which are about standing out and making your mark). I think that’s where the struggle comes from, because at that age we’re figuring out who we are as individuals and feeling awkward about whether this new person will be accepted by others.

For those young readers like my friend’s daughter, I started thinking about  middle grade authors who had managed to keep both parents alive and cultivate that feeling of isolation the protag needed.

In Harriet the Spy the parents are alive, but wealthy and busy and leave Harriet in the care of her nanny.

In Habibi the protag is lifted out of her element in America and dropped into a foreign country, so she’s isolated by her fish-out-of-water status.

In The Phantom Tollbooth Milo takes off into an alternate reality where his parents don’t exist. But he’s also a latch-key kid and comes home to an empty house.

What other MG books can you think of in which BOTH parents are still alive, and married (i.e. no absent parents), and how does the author give them this sense of isolation or manage to send them on a quest without them?

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26 Comments

Filed under Middle Grade Mondays, on my bookshelf, writing life

26 responses to “Middle Grade Mondays: Why So Many Orphans and Dead Parents?

  1. I read Harriet the Spy as a girl and assumed Biarritz, (where her mother was supposed to be) was heaven.
    Thanks again for visiting our book group. You inspired us all.

  2. My daughter just read Phantom Tollbooth and didn’t like it. She’s 11 so maybe a little too old for her. Hugs :O)

  3. @slice – I had no idea what Biarritz was either when I read it as a child. lol. it was one of my favourite books, though. And thanks for having me! I get inspired myself when I meet young readers and writers. 🙂

    @diane – awww… PT is still one of my all time favourites. I’m not sure she’s too young for it, maybe the story just wasn’t for her or she couldn’t connect with Milo.

  4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – both Charlie’s parents are alive. This is certainly a phenomenon though. I talk about it with my students often. it’s more of a middle grade thing, although the absent mother is a common theme in YA too. I think the reasons are threefold. First, obviously, the adults need to be out of the way for the MC to have the adventure. Second, this psychic wound, of lost parents, makes the MC deeper and more vulnerable. Third, this age is the one characterized by a distancing from one’s parents. IN fact, this is what most MG books are really about. This is what we mean by “coming of age”. The absent parent just concretizes it.

  5. Ooh, good one Gabrielle. At the book group one young lady mentioned that the things her mother does now annoy her, even though she knows her mother’s behaviour hasn’t changed (and that’s pretty observant for a 13-year-old). She’s discovered her own separate interests, tastes, opinions.

  6. Great post, Danika! The parental issue is a discussion I’ve heard many MG authors discuss–as in, what do you DO with those parents anyway. I’m reading CHASING VERMEER right now, and both MCs have two parents. THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE is another great example.

  7. Interesting post, Danika. This is a question that writers and readers have been pondering for decades. (It also seems as if nearly every Disney movie ever made has a dead mother. Used to drive me nuts when my kids were young.) But yes, writers definitely need to isolate their protagonist from the parents in any way they can so the character is forced to deal with the problem and make his or her own choices.

    It’s actually difficult to think of books in which both parents are alive (and not divorced). One from last year: The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang. One from this year: May B. by Caroline Starr Rose. In May B., which takes place in the 1800s, the author sends her protag away from home to work, so she’s far away from her parents and has to survive on her own when something happens to the newlywed couple for whom she’s keeping house. And what about Millicent Min Girl Genius by Lisa Yee? Doesn’t she have both parents?

    I was actually going to mention Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy until I remembered that she lives with her father and stepmother!

    • Don’t get me started on Disney’s dead mothers! Pixar has a few, too (Finding Nemo, Up – okay that’s a wife, but, you know …). Maybe it’s because women really do hold the universe together and without us, life falls apart.

      I haven’t read either Lucy Wu or May B. Thanks for those.

  8. The book I just reviewed has both parents-Popular Clone by M.E. Castle. The mc is isolated at school and this carries over to home because his parents are not down with his solution-not going to school at all or applying to Stanford now (he’s only in grade seven but smart enough to make it in). So, the solution he comes up with removes them from the picture cause there is no way they’d approve. He clone’s himself.

    Also just read Billionaire’s Curse. The mc has both parents, but they are idiots who are more interested in themselves that their son.

    Vanished by Sheela Chari is a mystery adventure coming of age type-both parents are there and involved except for helping with tracking down a missing family heirloom because mc it is up to her to find it herself. (great book btw!)

    • Thanks for those, Deb.

      I wonder if there’s a MG book where the parents ARE involved in the mystery solving with the kid. Although, I’m not sure this would work because it flies in the face (as Gabrielle brought up) of the whole “coming of age” thing. Although . . . what about a book in the vein of the film The Incredibles? That was a whole super-hero family.

      Swiss Family Robinson?

  9. Matilda! by Roald Dahl. But those parents are a$$holes.

  10. I love the parents in Adam Selzer’s How To Get Suspended and Influence People, with their cookbook themed dinner nights. I think the sense of separation can be acchieved by the general disconnect that middle grade students are trying to effect between themselves and their parents. Selzer’s characters are so weird that the son wants little to do with them. That’s very true to life!

  11. Just watched Black Stallion with Sam but haven’t read the book for years, but that one felt interesting because it was the DAD who died, and he actually died “on stage,” i.e. not some offstage event before the start of the book. The other thing that puzzles me about Black Stallion is that it’s about a boy, but one friend scoffed when I got it for Sam, “But that’s a girl’s book!” I don’t know why. It was a truly beautiful movie, and the mother (Teri Garr, OMG is she great or what?) has to decide to let her son go do what he wants to do although it’s risky.

    • It’s interesting that there’s this perception that if a story is about a horse it’s a “girl’s book” when traditionally all the jobs involving horses were male jobs: cowboys, ranchers, rodeo riders, etc. And what about War Horse and Sea Biscuit and Phar Lap? I remember really enjoying reading Black Stallion as a kid and didn’t read lots of girly books. But who cares, right? A good story is a good story and I hate it when people think a boy or girl shouldn’t enjoy something because it’s meant for the other gender. Really?

      But you’re right – it’s far less often that the Dad is the one who dies. I mentioned How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found. WHEN YOU REACH ME also has an absent father – although he may just be absent, not dead.

  12. MNMcEvoy

    Disney’s dead mothers have their origins in the multitudinous dead mothers of classic fairy tales, which are, sadly, grounded in reality on this front. Life expectancies generally were lower due to illness and injury that we could treat medically now, but women faced the additional all-too-common threat of childbirth-related mortality–so, lots of dead mothers. (The wicked stepmothers come right out of history too. Once the first queen died, the second queen was more likely to have dynastic hopes for her own children and foster them through murderous plots against the first queen’s children than she was to be a warm and loving stepmother.)

    I don’t know if the Narnia Chronicles are considered Middle Grade books, but the setup there is that the children have been sent to the country to keep them safe during World War II–both parents still alive and well, but totally absent, replaced by the kindly Professor who provides only the barest (but essential) supervision and advice while the children roam his enormous house (and wardrobe, of course).

    I suspect that in books for this age group generally dead or otherwise fully absent parents are a fairly “easy” mechanism for getting the grown ups out of the way so that the protagonist can have an adventure . . . by contrast, I’m guessing there aren’t many books for young readers featuring helicopter parents! It does raise the question though, of whether we might be better off learning how to be present parents who also foster independence and adventures, both in life and in art.

    • Well said, Michelle! I didn’t even consider the very real history of lower life-expectancy and death during child-birth (also something that happens in Pratchett’s YA book NATION, which i am currently reading). I was just thinking “easy plot device.”

      In this day and age of high divorce rates and at least one absent parent, wouldn’t it be lovely to have a contemporary story of parents who foster independence? And, actually, come to think of it, in the YA Sci Fi I’m currently working on, the MC has both her parents, but they’ve given her TOO MUCH independence, to the point where she feels neglected. I’m going to really think about this in my rewrite.

      And Yes, Chronicles of Narnia are pretty much the quintessential MG stories and I’m embarrassed I didn’t think of them, but I think I had the impression they were orphaned as well.

      Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz books is also an orphan. That just came to mind.

  13. OOOH … NOBODY’S FAMILY IS GOING TO CHANGE – another one by Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy).

    About a middle class black family in NYC in the 70’s whose seven year old son Willie wants to be a dancer and Emma, his older sister, wants to be a lawyer.

    http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/951777.Nobody_s_Family_Is_Going_to_Change

  14. I read this to my daughter, the original fan of yours who was so pleased that Brigitta’s parents are still alive, and she suggested the Percy Jackson books (Are those too old for MG?). In these, Percy’s father is Poseidon and is busy with all his water-God duties, but still comes to visit the family.

    P.S. She also wonders when your next book will come out.

  15. Percy Jackson is indeed MG, but I didn’t count him because his father deserted him and he’s got that smelly step-father. But yes, his father is alive. I only read the first book, so I don’t know if they bond later in the books.

    My next book (The Ruins of Noe) comes out in April. I think the official date is May 1, but for anyone who pre-buys, they will be shipped as soon as they get back from the printers some time in April.

    Tell your daughter thanks for asking!

  16. Some ways in which the author creates the isolation without killing off either of the parents: Fablehaven by Brandon Mull – Both parents are alive, but one set of their grandparents have just died so the parents drop the kids off at their other grandparents’ house while they go off to the funeral.

    Bride to Terabithia – Both Jess’s parents are alive in this story, yet the family is somewhat dysfunctional and so Jess frequently is off on his own, playing in the woods near his home.

    Also, I think in the case of books like Narnia and other fantasy stories in which the characters go off on their adventures through a portal inside the house they are living in, or not too far away it doesn’t matter whether the parents are alive or not, because especially with Narnia the progression of time is so much quicker IN Narnia than it is out, that they are free to go on their adventure and come back and nobody misses them so it wouldn’t have made a difference whether they had still been living with their mom and dad or not.

  17. If the parent is absent/dead, the replacement is usually incompetent/evil…Harry Potter, Snow White (evil stepmother), so Narnia is an exception there, too (I couldn’t remember)…In Hansel and Gretel, is it bio mom who kicks them out because the family is starving, or is it a “stepmom” figure? It would be nice if there was a body of iterature where the replacement figure (speaking as a replacement figure myself) isn’t so horible.

    • I thought about that, too. Step-moms are usually evil. Granted, sometimes it’s just the perception of the child character who misses his/her mother.

      WHEN YOU REACH ME has a single mother in a relationship with a guy who is really nice and the protagonist (12 yr old girl) wants her to marry him. I won’t tell you what happens but I really loved the whole relationship set up. It was a positive one for a change. Both adults were supportive as a matter of fact. But she is isolated due to the very odd stuff that is happening around her that she can’t tell anyone about.

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