Orphan protagonists in children's literature are as common as mold spores in August. So common that one might assume that in order for a child to have any type of adventure at all, they must first become orphaned. Harry Potter is certainly the most popular orphan hero at present but orphaned children have an extensive literary history. Tom Saywer lived with his long-suffering Aunt Polly, Anne of Green Gables was an orphan, as were Heidi, Oliver Twist, Pollyanna, Dorothy Gale, and Mary Lennox of the Secret Garden. Well of course there were more ways to loose one's parents back then, cholera, typhoid, the plague, twisters; so maybe adventurous orphans were easier to come by, but the present day has plenty of parentless protagonists as well: James and the Giant Peach, the Lemony Snicket crew, the kids in the 39 Clues, the Boxcar Children, the Mysterious Benedict's Society, Hugo Cabret. Heck even Frodo Baggins is an orphan. I expect they'll go into his upbringing in depth in the upcoming sure-to-be-bloated three-part movie adaptation of The Hobbit.
Then you've got your kids who aren't orphans per say but might as well be since either they've got absentee parents (Pippi Longstocking) or such miserable parents they'd be better off as orphans (Matilda, Huckleberry Finn, those kids in Flowers in the Attic)
We assume that the reason kids are drawn to orphaned heros and heroines - or that authors are drawn to them - is that it does in fact free kids up for adventure. I mean really, how can you save the world from the Dark Lord if your mom's reminding you to grab a sweatshirt on the way out the door because, "it's going to cool off later on."
But actually, the reason authors write about kids who've lost their parents is that kids are obsessed with death. I know this because my kids are obsessed with death. My twins at least.
And whose death are they obsessed with?
Well - not me exactly but they've killed off their "other mom"and their "other dad" in a million assorted ways.
S & N have had an "other mom" for a while now. You see, instead of imaginary friends, the twins have imaginary parents.
For well over six months they've discussed their other mom, who she is (sometimes she's a stranger, sometimes she's a family friend, once they said singer Bill Harley was their "other dad"), where she lives (sometimes near their grandparent's house, sometimes in Maine), and how she behaves (sometimes she eats candy all day). I'm okay with them having an "other mom," except I'm afraid that the preschool teachers might think Ken and I have divorced and remarried.
Lately though their other moms and dads have been facing up to their own mortality. This might have happened about the same time they announced that George Washington was their other dad (that's right folks; he's not just the father of our country…). They said this and then asked if George Washing was still alive. Went they found out he wasn't they started in on talking about how they used to have an other mom but she died. Sometimes they go through two or three other moms and dads in a single car ride to town. Sometimes they killed of their other parents in comedic fashion, "my other dad slipped on a piece of pizza then he fell in the toilet and got flushed and died." Sometimes it's frighteningly real, "my other mom was at college and a bad guy was there and shot her and she died." Sometimes it seems like there's some real parenticide oneupmanship going on in the back seat.
And while its a little unnerving to have my kids bopping off moms and dads nonchalantly and then, after killing off one easily getting another one, "I had to get a new mom, 'cause my other mom died." "I used to have two moms but one of them died…" I can partly see where it's coming from.
First I think it's common for five year olds or in our case almost five year olds to suddenly latch on to the vague idea of death and to develop, if you can pardon my pun, at the very least a morbid curiosity about it.
As to their penchant for dead parents. It could just be that from what they see there are a glut of mothers and fathers to dispatch with, big whoop if we knock few off. Go to the library, there are moms all over the place. Preschool pick up? Moms and dads galore. The playground? Ditto. Moms and dads are a dime a dozen. Naturally it stands to reason that if one set died you could easily get yourself a new pair.
And if you couldn't at least you could be guaranteed a starring role in an upcoming children's novel.
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