Tag Archives: orphaned protagonists

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