The Orphan Story and its Genre Variations

square in a row

“Having power is not nearly as important as what you choose to do with it.”

Roald Dahl

The Orphan Story

In all stories, we walk through or at least with the souls of others. Philosophically perhaps the orphan is both ‘Other’ and ‘Everyman’, for aren’t we all, to some degree, lost in a universe we don’t fully understand? And in this sense the orphan in the storm is a universal symbol of our precarious place in the world. With or without parents, the human experience means we are all ultimately our own navigator.

Loss of course is not something that is unique to orphans, sisters lose brothers and brothers lose sisters, and age does not limit you immunity to bereavement. Yet there’s still something about the lost child, the one who grieves so early in life, that so often captures our heart. And perhaps that’s why ‘orphans in the storm’ is still a powerful metaphor that sums up how many see life itself.  That said, there are many ways and many genres in which the story of the orphan is told.

“The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poet unlimited”

Polonius in William Shakespeares’ HAMLET

square orphan line 004

“We can point the finger at adults for the stupid decisions they make in life, but an orphaned child can never be blamed for the situation in which they find themselves.”

Kevin Ansbro

Children’s Books

Children’s literature is awash with orphans. An early example is the child heroine of LITTLE MISS GOODY TWO-SHOES (1765), published by John Newbery. The story even gave voice to an expression still used today for those with perhaps an overzealous aptitude for goodness. In the story, Margery Meanwell, an orphan girl who lives a virtuous life with only one shoe, is eventually given a complete pair and so tells everyone she has “two shoes”. When Margery is older she marries a rich widower and so virtue is rewarded, a popular story trope in children’s literature, as we have already seen.

goody two shoes

Orphans are ready-made outsiders, with built-in problems and conflicts that can lead easily into drama. Yet they can also be relatively passive characters whose primary nature of goodness is all that they require in life. Sometimes the orphan child is a short-hand for abandonment and neglect, but equally the lost child has a freedom not found in those brought up by a mother and father. Orphans then have many stories to tell. And as a result, the plots of orphan tales are very varied.

A few specifically worth mentioning are the investigating trio of inventor, researcher and eventual chef in Lemony Snicket’s A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS; Nobody, the young boy raised by  graveyard ghosts after his family are murdered, in Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK; Cosmo Hill in a futuristic world where he lives in an orphanage where children are used like lab rats in Eoin Colfer’s THE SUPERNATURALIST; the unnamed orphaned Jewish boy living in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II in Jerry Spinelli’s MILKWEED; Stuart Little and the human family he’s adopted into in E. B. White’s STUART LITTLE; Alex Rider’s spying adventures in Anthony Horowitz’s STORMBREAKER and other novels in the series; Ponyboy Curtis who lives on the wrong side of the tracks in S.E. Hinton’s THE OUTSIDERS; Nathaniel ‘Natty’ Bumppo, a child of white parents who grows up among Delaware Indians and becomes a fearless warrior in the Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper; the grieving lad in Patrick Ness’ A MONSTER CALLS and the ever popular and ever resourceful Jim Hawkins in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic TREASURE ISLAND.

“‘I clung with both hands till my nails ached, and I shut my eyes as if to cover up the peril. Gradually my mind came back again, my pulses quieted down to a more natural time, and I was once more in possession of myself.’”

Jim Hawkins in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic TREASURE ISLAND

square orphan line 006

“‘To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’”

Lady Bracknell, in Oscar Wilde’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

Playing with Genre and Story Tropes

CRUELLA (2021) is an orphan story, but like many other stories it isn’t strictly an orphan story at all. CRUELLA has many of the classic tropes of the orphan tale, for example, Estella when she runs away meets up with young rascals and takes up thieving, a plot line not that dissimilar to Dickens’ OLIVER. Later Estella (Emma Stone) finds herself working at the luxurious and very expensive department store of Liberty’s in London. Her dream job would have been to be a dress designer, but instead she finds herself cleaning floors and washing toilets. Elements of the Cinderella tale here. In a drunken night of revelry, Estella redesigns a Liberty’s shop window and, unexpectedly, this finds favour with a leading dress designer known as The Baroness, who immediately takes on Estella as her protégé. But The Baroness is demanding disciplinarian and could even be said to be almost a wicked step-mother figure. Anyway, in this part of the movie, the plot of CRUELLA then becomes more like that of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA.

After a series of revelations, Estella discovers that her mother (or at least the woman who she believes was her mother) once worked for The Baroness. While under her employment, Estella’s mother stole a ruby red pendant, which the mother took back to The Baroness when she was in need of financial help. All this was when Estella was a little girl. During the meeting of the mother with The Baroness, the mother fell from a cliff and died. At least that’s how Estella remembers it. As a result, Estella always blamed herself for her mother’s death – as children often do – but the real culprit it turns out was The Baroness who summed her Dalmatian dogs to push the mother over the wall to her watery grave. But of course before they did the wicked Baroness took back the pendant.

There then follows various schemes where Estella tries to regain the pendant, but in a further twist it is revealed that the exceptional Estella is in fact the daughter of The Baroness, who gave her away because she preferred the social life to nappies. Estella, who now renames herself Cruella, immediately becomes vent on vengeance.

In part CRUELLA involves the nature/nurture question for it is a tale involving a seeming orphan who ultimately isn’t what she seems. Does her good side come from nurture (her supposed mother) and her bad side from nature (the wicked Baroness)? And what of her exceptional design talent? Is it in her DNA via her wicked but talent birth mother? Or is it born of circumstances and innate imagination?

Stylistically the movie is an odd mix of Disney, Wes Anderson and black comedy. And folktales too, for there are typical ‘animal helper’ scenes, for example where dogs led and paw with the thieving and even somehow untie Estella from a chair when she is in danger in a fire. Is CRUELLA ultimately a dog’s dinner? Or it is a post-modern mash-up of the Cinderella tale? Answers of a postcard, please.

“Marry an orphan: you’ll never have to spend boring holidays with the in-laws (at most an occasional visit to the cemetery)”

George Carlin

square orphan line 001

“Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”

John F. Kennedy

The Vast Array of Orphan Genres

Orphan stories can come in many different genres, from fact based history (LES MISÉRABLES) and social realism (THE HAUNTED MAN, BLEAK HOUSE, OLIVER TWIST) to superhero comedy (DEADPOOL), spy adventures (STORMBREAKER) and even time travel (ALICE or AELLISEU). In recent years, perhaps as a result of the Harry Potter book series (1997-2007), the orphan in fantasy fiction has been the most popular. That said, there are those fantasy books – aside from THE HOBBIT, THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA and THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ – that pre-date Harry Potter and his world.

THE NEVERENDING STORY (in German Die Unendliche Geschichte) is a fantasy novel by the German writer Michael Ende, first published in 1979 and which then had its English translation, by Ralph Manheim, released in 1983. The novel centres on a boy, Bastian Balthaza Bux, who is neglected by his father after the death of his mother. While escaping from some bullies, Bastian discovers an old bookshop where he finds a tale called The Neverending Story, concerning a magical land named Fantastica. As Bastian reads the book, he becomes increasingly uneasy that somehow the characters in the story are aware that he is reading their adventures. Not only that but he comes to understand that this mysteriously enchanted world is in great danger, and he is the one who can save it. This now classic tale of a lonely boy has been adapted several times into movies.

Another Michael Ende orphan tale is MOMO, also known as THE GREY GENTLEMEN. MOMO, first published 1973, tells the story of Momo, a mysterious little girl who, when asked about her origin, simply says, “As far as I remember, I’ve always been around.” The novel is essentially a Time Tale revolving around Momo’s battle with the Men in Grey, who, it is eventually revealed, are a species of paranormal parasites who steal time from humans.

As said, post Harry Potter there have been many fantasy novels, notably ERAGON and MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN. ERAGON is the first book in The Inheritance Cycle by American fantasy writer Christopher Paolini and it was originally self-published in 2001. The series feature Eragaon, a farm boy aged fifteen who lives with his uncle and cousin after being left there by his mother Selena after his birth, who finds a mysterious dragon egg. Eragaon decides to raise the dragon – who he names Saphira – in secret and eventually Eragaon becomes a Dragon Rider.

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (2013) by Ransom Riggs is an extraordinary fantasy tale around an orphanage that involves a time loop, a shapeshifting Headmistress and numerous peculiar children, including a girl with an extra mouth at the back of her head, a boy with bees in his stomach and a girl who can levitate.

The Anime and Manga series have numerous orphan characters, including Misa Amane, Sasuke Uchiha, Shinn Askuka and Ruski Kuchiki. Naruto Uzumaki is the title protagonist in the manga NARUTO, created by Masashi Kishimoto. Naruto Uzumaki is introduced as a young orphan boy of twelve who, with the help of his teacher Iruka Umino, graduates as a ninja from Konohagakure. Naruto as a character combines a certain simpleness and naivety with a dark side that has resulted from his dark past. This combination makes Naruto one of the most interesting and fascinating characters in the Manga world.

A word here about Billy Batson and Captain Marvel – and that word is of course Shazam! For whenever the orphaned Billy Batson says ‘Shazam!’, he becomes the superhero Captain Marvel. Billy Batson/Captain Marvel first appeared in 1939 and was originally published by Fawcett Comics and is currently published by DC Comics. ‘Shazam’ it is explained is an acronym of the six immortal elders – Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury – and once transformed, Billy has the powers of superhuman strength, speed and flight. Petty cool for a twelve year old.  In 2019, the comic strip was adapted in to the movie SHAZAM! which was directed by David F. Sandberg from a screenplay by Henry Gayden and story by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke. As a movie, SHAZAM! was great fun, and had it all, including Santa Claus, but it never lost touch with Billy’s origins that had led him to become a child in foster care.

In the science fiction series STAR TREK there is a fascinating episode called All the Children Shall Lead about the discovery of five children who, though their parents have just died, show no concern or any sense of grief. It turns out the children had made contact with a glowing humanoid named Gorgan, an evil embodiment of space warriors, who advices the children using mental powers he gives them to take over the minds of the crew. Oddly enough, it is the unemotional Spock who plays back footage showing the children happy with their parents, who are then shown to be dead, which breaks the hold Gorgan has over the orphans. Most early STAR TREK stories are morality tales and the message here is simply that children need to grieve.

‘As Medical Officer I must warn you that unless the normal grief is tapped and released from these children, you are treading dangerously.’”

Doctor McCoy in All the Children Shall Lead written by Marvin J. Chomsky in the series STAR TREK created by Gene Roddenberry

square orphan line 002

OFFICER RAYMOND: Your mum is no longer there, Icare.
COURGETTE: My name is Courgette!
OFFICER RAYMOND: ‘Courgette’. Did your mum call you that? Hm. My name is Raymond.
COURGETTE Did your mum call you that?

From the movie MY LIFE AS A COURGETTE, adapted from the Gilles Paris’ 2002 novel Ma vie de Courgette

The Stop-Motion Animation Orphan

In the cinematic medium there is the animation form. The term animation form here refers to the method of production as opposed to the nature of story – or story genre – that is being told. The problem is when genre and form when talking about animation are often confused and sometimes even used interchangeable. This confusion arises partly because some people primarily think of animation as cinema that is aimed exclusively at children – if it’s an animation, then the movie will inevitable be a children’s film. But this is not the case. FELIX THE CAT and FRITZ THE CAT are both animations but very, very different genres. Indeed, the history of animation includes various companies such as Fleisher and Warner Brothers whose animation output was aimed mainly at grown-ups.

The point here is that if there is an animation featuring children or a story about children that does not necessarily mean that such an animation is aimed at children. That said, the animation form that is so closely associated with story genres made for children, watching a vibrant animation in primary colours which has and adult story with an adult sensibility can be somewhat disconcerting.

MY LIFE AS A COURGETTE (in French Ma vie de Courgette and  also titled My Life as a Zucchini) is a 2016 stop-motion animated film directed by Claude Barras and it is the second adaptation of Gilles Paris’ 2002 novel AUTOBIOGRAPHIE D’UNE COURGETTE. And it is the look and feel of the animation form combined with the seriousness of the tale itself that makes it so powerful a tale.

Set in Switzerland in the 2010s, the story features a young boy called Icare whose father abandoned his family and whose mother was driven to drink. When the mother returns home one day in an alcoholic rage, Icare accidentally pushes her down the stairs, and kills her. Later, in his statement to Police Officer Raymond, Icare says that he prefers now to be called ‘Courgette’, which was his mother’s nickname for him. And with no one now to look after him, Raymond takes Courgette to an orphanage.

As the new boy, Courgette at first has difficulty settling in, but eventually he makes friends with a lad called Simon, who tells Courgette of the various complex histories of the other children in the home. When a new girl called Camille arrives, Simon and Courgette together discover that she was witness to her father murdering her mother for cheating on him. Camille’s father then killed himself.

Courgette and Camille grow friendly. Courgette also becomes close with Police Officer Raymond, they even plan to have a holiday together, only Camille wants to go too and so stows herself away in Raymond’s car. Reluctantly, Raymond agrees to take both children on the outing and they all have lots of fun at an amusement park. Life though isn’t that great for Office Raymond and when Raymond returns home he reveals he has a son that never talks to him.

Camille’s aunt becomes involved in a custody battle for Camille, but when a secret recording made by Simon revealing the aunt’s true character is played in court, the aunt’s angry outburst in front of the judge destroys any chance of her bid for custody. The aunt it seems only ever wanted Camille for the money she would receive for her.

Officer Raymond then decides to take both Courgette and Camille in as foster children. Simon is initially angry, but he ultimately coaxes a reluctant Courgette to go with Raymond. Raymond takes some group photos of all the children before he leaves with Courgette and Camille. While living with Raymond, Courgette writes letters to the kids at the orphanage, saying that he, Camille and Raymond are people that still love them all. And the group photo of the kids is always there now on Courgette’s kite.

square orphan line 003

“She [Marina] buried her head in the pillow and saw everything, she rested her head and it was heavy as a rock, filled with memories, she pressed down on her pencil (How many pencils had she had? Thousands? Millions?) and even the pencil was a little envious, wishing she would use it to write all those things that Marina had already lived.”

Taken from the novel SUCH SMALL HANDS by Andrés Barba, translated by Lisa Dillman

Horror and the Orphan

Horror and orphans is rare, but not unknown. SUCH SMALL HANDS (or Las manos pequeñas) is the novel by the Spanish writer Andrés Barba. SUCH SMALL HANDS is a creepy tale set in an orphanage and features the even creepier Marina, a girl who lost both her parents in a car crash. Marina fails to fit in at the orphanage and the other girl bully and tease her and treat her like a ragdoll. But then Marina invents a menacing game where every night a girl at random is chosen to be ‘a doll’, with tragic results.

The movie ORPHAN is a psychological horror written by David Leslie Johnson from a story by Alex Mace. The plot concerns a couple who, after the death of their unborn child, take in the mysterious Esther, nine-year old Russian orphan.  The parents are warned by Sister Abigail, the head of the orphanage, that strange and tragic occurrences seem to happen around Esther. Passing on this information proves not to be that good for Sister Abigail, for Esther causes her car to crash and then bashes her head with a hammer. The twist is that Esther is not really a young girl at all but is in fact revealed by a doctor to be a thirty-three years old woman who has the rare condition of hypopituitarism, a hormonal disorder that stunted her physical growth, who has spent most of her violent and murderous life posing as a little girl. Not that that this revelation helps that much for Esther then goes on to kill her adoptive father does the doctor that much good for Esther quickly murders him as well. Is a girl orphan who isn’t really a girl but a woman a cheat? Perhaps, but it would be uncomfortable at least to consider the realities of a murdering child, for Esther , however old she is, is, shall we say, a long, long way from the tradition of Miss Goodie Two-Shoes.

“‘I’ll shoot mummy if you tell.’”

Esther whispering to her step-brother in ORPHAN

square orphan line 004

“Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”

John F. Kennedy

Social Realism – Historical and Modern?

There’s a degree of social realism in the work of Charles Dickens, of course. THE HAUNTED MAN, OLIVER TWIST, NICHOLAS NICKLEBY all have scenes with neglected orphans and even A CHRISTMAS CAROL features those poor wretched children Want and Ignorance under the robes of the Spirit of Christmas Present. However, Dickens has not been the only writer interested in social issues. Beyond Charlott’e Brontë’s Jane Eyre there has also been Thomas Hardy’s Jude Fawley.

THE LA RUOTAIA (THE LADY OF THE WHEEL) by Angelo F. Coniglio published in 2012 is a Sicilian historical fiction novel in the verismo style of author Giovanni Verga. The story features an infant girl, Rosa Esposto, who is abandoned by her mother and placed inside a ‘foundling wheel’ to be cared for in the foundling home, and her brother Salvatore ‘Totò’ Alessicarusu, a boy essentially sold to a mining company who becomes a virtual slave in a sulphur mine. The book is set in Racalmuto in the late 1800s and its themes are poverty and exploitation.

However, in recent years social realism orphan novels have been on the decline. Why? Well, fist it should be said that there were certainly more orphans in the Victorian era simply because more mothers died in childbirth. On top of that the social and legal position of the orphan in the nineteenth century was unsure because there was very little adoption legislation, which, from a story point of view, leads to a more dramatic and conflicting narrative. In a way, the orphan child is always an outsider in whatever family he or she finds themselves in. Just look at Heathcliff. But there’s something else too, modern tastes aren’t as favourable to what some critics have called the ‘poverty porn’ of the Victorian novel. A harsh term, but there’s an element of truth in it too.

Perhaps another reason is the prevalence of fantasy and magic realism in modern fiction, where the central character is so often an orphan. And it’s not just the Harry Potter franchise, for let’s not forget Philip Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS with Lyra Belacqua, who was raised believing that her parents had died in an airship crash, and Will Parry, who’s unable to remember his father and whose mother suffers from mental health issues and so is unable to care for him.

Another reason that perhaps the orphan story has declined in recent years is that for many children in the modern age the tough realism of their childhood was living through their parents’ divorce. The story of the ‘broken home’ is now the psychological and emotional tale that they wish to be told. Many wondered why the movie TITANIC was such a hit with Generation X. Well, perhaps it was at least in part because they witnesses for the first time, albeit it in a soapy melodrama, that love truely can indeed last a lifetime. And even beyond. For the generation whose children became caught up in an angry and messy divorce, with hurtful accusations flying around like wounding bullets, perhaps the romantic dream of TITANIC fulfilled a need to believe that love, albeit only in a movie, could be truly eternal.

But perhaps too we are looking at this the wrong way, for there are hundreds of modern orphan stories, it’s just that they’re not fictional or domestic but rather political and very real. Which is to say that modern orphan story is really the tale of the refugee.

Home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling.”

Cecelia Ahern

square orphan line 001

granny and william

Young Adult Reader Reviews

"One of the things that makes the book so original is the mixture of fantasy, sci-fi, adventure and comedy, so you never know what to expect next… I found the book exciting, entertaining and very, very funny and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to my friends." Year 10

"I loved reading the story. It was creative and different from any other books I’ve read… I could picture the events so clear. It was like I was watching a movie." Year 8

"I think that the storyline of the book was great and that there were some great characters… A brilliant book… I really enjoyed the book and would definitely read the rest in the series." Year 7

"I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book due to the amazing storyline, character, humour and general style of writing." Year 10

"I’d recommend it to my friends as I think they’d like the mystery and adventure but also find it funny." Year 9

Amazon Swidgers book cover Waterstones Swidgers book cover
WH Smiths Swidgers book cover Hive Swidgers book cover