Orphans in modern literature evolved from orphans of folk and fairytales.

There are a lot of orphans in American and British children’s literature, but also around the world. Some communities have always been set up with strong social networks, so that even if parents die, there are no true orphans. Yet these stories of abandonment seem to be a universal necessity. As Francis Spufford writes:

There are no orphans in traditional Hopi society. It would be culturally impossible for a child to fall right through their densely failsafe weave of family, no matter who died. If there was no father or mother, there would be an aunt; if there were no aunts or uncles, there would be a cousin; if there were no cousins, there would still be someone. But even for Hopis, the situation of abandonment seems to be a necessary one to imagine, to hug to oneself in the form of a story. It focuses a self-pity that everyone wants to feel sometimes, and that perhaps helps a child or an adolescent to think through their fundamental separateness. The situation expresses the solitude humans discover as we grow up no matter how well our kinship systems work.

— The Child That Books Built

Modern children’s stories are full of compromised parents (most often busy, sometimes stupid, sometimes neglectful or drug addled) and so modern child characters are ‘functional’ orphans:

We live in a culture that refers constantly to helicopter parents, yet there are many young adult books with self-absorbed, negligent parents who can’t be bothered to attend to their children’s needs. In children’s literature you need a certain degree of parental incompetence and absence to enable the child’s “triumphant rise.” An earlier age depicted cruel, abusive parents or simply killed off the biological mother and father, but in a very different genre–fairy tales and fantasy. Is the parent problem in YA fiction symptomatic of a new hands-off attitude among parents today?

Maria Tatar


Please Sir May I Have Some More? Oliver Twist orphan

Please Sir May I Have Some More?

Examples of Classic Books About Orphans

American kidlit has a particularly strong tradition of orphaned — or ‘virtually’ orphaned — child protagonists.

  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
  • Little Lord Fauntleroy
  • Tarzan of the Apes
  • The Prince and the Pauper
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  • Little Women
  • Toby Tyler
  • Hans Brinker
  • The Secret Garden
  • Pollyanna

Alison Lurie has noticed that authors of classic children’s literature may have been disproportionately orphaned themselves:

The classic makers of children’s literature are not usually men and women who had consistnelty happy childhoods — or consistently unhappy ones. Rather they are those whose early happiness ended suddenly and often disastrously. Characteristically, they lost one or both parents early. They were abruptly shunted from one home to another, like Louisa May Alcott, Kenneth Grahame, and Mark Twain — or even, like Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and J.R.R. Tolkien, from one continent to another. L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll were sent away to harsh and bullying schools; Rudyard Kipling was taken from India to England by his affectionate but ill-advised parents and left in the care of stupid and brutal strangers. Cheated of their full share of childhood, these men and women later re-created, and transfigured, their lost worlds. Though she was primarily an artist rather than a writer, Kate Greenaway belongs in this category.

— Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s literature

In Audacious Kids, Jerry Griswold puts the large numbers of orphans in children’s literature down (partly) to intertextuality — in other words, authors were borrowing from each other, and this led to a whole bunch of orphans.

Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer (1876), for example, clearly inspired the story of Rebecca Sawyer when Kate Douglas Wiggin decided to write about a tomboy in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903). In the same way, the subplot of Laurie and his grandfather in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) seems to me to have been enlarged and become the story of Cedric and his grandfather in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885) —  a novel that served, in turn, as the basis for Eleanor Porter’s Pollyanna (1913).

Writing about American children’s literature, Griswold explains what turns up again and again in the ‘basic plot’, or the ‘ur-story’:

  • A child is born to parents who married despite the objections of others.
  • For a time, the family is well-to-do, members of the nobility or otherwise happy and prosperous.
  • Then the child’s parents die/The child is separated from its parents and effectively orphaned.
  • Without their protection, the child suffers from poverty and neglect and (if nobly born) dispossessed.
  • The hero/ine makes a journey to another place and is adopted into a second family.
  • In these new circumstances the child is treated harshly by an adult guardian of the same sex but sometimes has help from an adult of the opposite sex.
  • Eventually, however, the child triumphs over its antagonist and is acknowledged.
  • Finally, some accommodation is reached between the two discordant phases of the child’s past: life in the original or biological family and life in the second or adoptive family.

Maria Nikolajeva has also outlined these points and attributes it to the fairytale Cinderella.


Maria Nikolajeva writes of the orphans in The Secret Garden and shows that death of the parents is sometimes just a plot device rather than something that leads to psychological growth:

A great number of fairy tales begin with the death of one or both parents, which sets in motion all the further events and complications of the plot. […] Just as we do not feel sorry for the death of the fairy-tale hero’s parents, because it is an indispensable part of the plot, we do not feel sorry for the death of Mary [Lennox’s] parents or Colin’s mother (especially since we do not feel much empathy with either of the children on the whole). Neither do the children grieve their dead, for different reasons. Colin has never met his mother, and the servants are forbidden to speak of her (ritual taboo!). […] while death certainly has a ritual function in the novel, it is not the kind of death that brings about the characters’ insight about their own mortality. On the contraty, the most important part of Colin’s development implies the change from his firm belief that he will soon die to an equally firm belief that he will not die at all, from “No one believes I shall live to grow up to “I shall live forever and ever and ever!”

From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

The Secret Garden Inga Moore orphan

There are a LOT of children without parents in children’s literature, whether the parents be temporarily or permanently gone:

  • Anne of Green Gables
  • Max of the Wild Things
  • Peter Rabbit
  • Tom from Tom’s Midnight Garden
  • Stuart Little
  • Weetzie Bat
  • Harry Potter
  • Lyra and Will from Pullman’s Northern Lights
  • Bud (not Buddy)
  • Dorothy who went to see The Wizard Of Oz
  • Kira of Gathering Blue
  • Mowgli of Kipling’s Jungle Book
  • Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island
  • The children of Swallows and Amazons
  • Brian from Hatchet
  • Jerry Renault from The Chocolate War
  • Crow in Lauren Wolk’s Beyond The Bright Sea wants to find out who she really is, especially in relation to where she comes from. The ideology behind such stories is that you can’t possibly find out where you’re going until you find out where you’ve come from. But in the end she realises that her real family is her found family.
  • etc

The prevalence of orphans in children’s fiction seems to relate to a central concern adults have with children’s independence and security. Orphans are of necessity independent, free to have adventures without the constraints of protective adults. At the same time, they automatically are faced with the danger and discomfort of lack of parental love. Childhood is usually understood as that time of life when one needs parental love and control. As a result, it seems, adults tend to believe that the possibility of being orphaned–of having the independence one wants and yet having to do without the love one needs–is an exciting and disturbing idea for children who are not in fact orphans, and a matter of immediate interest for those who are. In depicting orphans, writers can focus on children’s desire for independence, or on their fear of loss of security. In some cases, they offer interesting combinations of the two, as in Wolff’s Make Lemonade: one young girl teachers another independence by offering comfort and security. In doing so, she herself must learn, first, to compromise her own desire for independence and then, eventually, to give up the comfort of the relationship and become independent again.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Reimer and Nodelman




Traditional orphan stories often borrow the linear ‘Cinderella structure’ in which the hero loses his/her home, becomes a nobody, suffers trials and is helped out of a bad situation at just the right moment by a ‘helper’ archetype. In these stories, the true specialness of the hero is finally made apparent to everyone in the story world, and they live happily ever after.

A modern orphan story tends to dispense with so many of those Cinderella story beats. An example is The Great Gilly Hopkins, which has an open ending by contrast. For modern orphans, there is not necessarily a ‘happy ever after’.

The Great Gilly Hopkins orphan

There are some basic guidelines to crafting modern stories for children: One is that you must not be overtly didactic; another is that you must have the children solve any problems for themselves. That means, in short, that the teachers and parents need to stay right out of it. This is the kidlit version of deus ex machina, in which ‘god’ descends from the sky to resolve the problem for the hero. Let’s call it ‘parentis ex machina’.

What sort of setting is often used for keeping adults at bay?

1. Boarding schools: Harry Potter, Mallory Towers etc

2. Fantasy portals into adult-free realms: Narnia etc

3. Tragic real-world circumstances, in which parents have died or been posted abroad etc.

Are there other reasons for absent mothers, in particular? At Invisible Ink blog, another reason is given:

So, why do so many mothers die in fairytales and other stories? I could be wrong, but I have pondered it, and had even before I was asked the question.

If stories are told and re-told because they contain survival information, as I and others have argued, then why so many stories with deceased moms?

Because, I think, for most of human history this was not an uncommon occurrence. Mothers did die, often in childbirth. But children need to know that life goes on and that they can survive even this ordeal. In BrunoBettelheim’s* book on the subject of fairytales, The Uses of Enchantment, he points out that often there is fairy godmother or some such figure that is a kind of ghost of the mother looking after her child even after death.

Why Don’t People Ask Why?

*Bettelheim was an asshole who set psychology back a couple of decades. Look up his theories on the causes of autism. (tl;dr: Refrigerator Mothers)


The child who angrily wishes his mother to drop dead for not having gratified his needs will be traumatized greatly by the actual death of his mother — even if this event is not linked closely in time with his destructive wishes. He will always take part or the whole blame for the loss of his mother. He will always say to himself — rarely to others — “I did it, I am responsible, I was bad, therefore Mommy left me.” It is well to remember that the child will react in the same manner if he loses a parent by divorce, separation, or desertion. Death is often seen by a child as an impermanent thing and has therefore little distinction from a divorce in which he may have an opportunity to see a parent again.

— from On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Harriet The Spy

Harriet The Spy orphans

One pleasant result of the disappearance of old assumptions about the infallibility of parents and the duty of children to toe the line has been the arrival of a number of highly-individual child characters — usually girls — whose personalities have been allowed by their authors to develop without too much regard for what constitutes a proper example. Harriet, in Harriet the Spy (1964) by Louise Fizhugh (1928-74), lives in Manhattan, is eleven, and intends to be Harriet M. Welsch the famous writer when she grows up.

— John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children


From The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Mixed up files

…another heroine who is her own child and nobody else’s. Claudia has decided, coolly, to run away from home, returning only when everyone has learned a lesson in Claudia-appreciation. Since she believes in beauty, education, and comfort, and lives within commuting distance of New York City, where better to run away to than the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

— John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children

In picture books, the artist can help ‘orphan’ the child character but also offer the reassuring presence of parents by cutting off the parent’s head.

functional orphan in a picture book

Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary by Beverly Donofrio & Barbara McClintock (2007)


List of Orphan related tropes from TV Tropes

Best Books About Orphans, a Goodreads list, in which you’ll see that the list is heavily populated with children’s literature

In this moving talk, British playwright and poet Lemn Sissay opens up about his experience of being a fostered child and child in care in the 1960s and 70s in the UK. This talk is of interest for kidlit fans not just because Sissay has written for children (“The Emperor’s Watchmaker”), but also because he references lots of cared-for, fostered and orphaned children in children’s literature at the start of his talk.

— from Playing By The Book