Monday, March 18, 2002

The Answer to a Question You Didn't Ask

I was reading one of the books in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket this weekend. Tragically, I haven't finished it yet. But the miserable, hopeless lives of the Baudelaire orphans who are the main characters in those wretched books did make me think of a question I've heard raised a few times in the past. And since I happen to know the answer--Voila! A blog posting is born!

Why are there so many orphans in late 19th and early 20th Century children's stories?

The Secret Garden, The Boxcar Children, and Understood Betsy come quickly to my mind. Tom Sawyer was an orphan, too. Makes you wonder how much children really enjoyed reading back in the good old days.

Well, there was a logical reason for the high parental death rate in those books. In order to focus the stories on kids, the authors had to get rid of the adults. Adult characters tend to take over a story, just as adults take over everything they can in real life. It's something children's authors have to guard against all the time. If you end up writing about the adult characters, you're no longer writing a children's book--you're writing an adult book. In addition, in our culture we expect parents to protect their children and keep them from doing dangerous things. A book with parents who let their kids live in boxcars and have dangerous adventures becomes somewhat grim because the parents can be viewed as neglectful. So in days of old authors used to just kill off the parents. It provided a big plot complication/conflict for the kid main characters to deal with and removed those interfering adults.

Nowadays authors have more options. The parents can be divorced, which will get one parent out of the house right away. And mothers can be sent to work, which gets them out of everyone's hair. I once sent a mother off to jury duty to get rid of her for a couple of days.

Now you know.

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