Why are there so many stories about orphans?
Today, on World Book Day, our Writer and Story Gatherer Isobel Eaton wonders why storytellers are so keen to cast children separated from their parents as central characters.
Visit London’s Foundling Museum when it reopens in May, and you’ll see a striking list of fictional characters painted on the walls: Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist, Becky Sharp, Batman and Harry Potter are all there, and the connection? Every one of them is an orphan or a foundling or was fostered or adopted. The list is part of the poem, Superman was a Foundling by the writer Lemn Sissay. He grew up in care and wanted to highlight the gap between society’s admiration for these imaginary characters and its disregard for real children who are forced to grow up without the protection of a family.
“A story that begins with a child alone, is a story that will keep us reading to the end”
But why have storytellers always been so keen to cast children who have been separated from their parents as their central characters? I think the answer is clear: because a story that begins with a child alone, is a story that will keep us reading to the end. There is no more compelling opening to a tale than an abandoned baby. What other event in human experience offers such an immediate and genuine sense of jeopardy (the term may be a cliché but it’s still the key ingredient of any story worth the telling). Who is this baby? Why did their parents leave them? How will they survive? Who will help them? Absolutely anything could happen.
“In the real world though, growing up without a family to protect and guide you is anything but an exciting adventure.”
Another very practical reason that authors are so keen on orphans is that, especially in the world of children’s fiction, it’s a good idea to get rid of the grown-ups as quickly as you can. Neither writers nor readers want parents with all their sensible, solution-finding care and concern, putting a stop to the fun before it’s even begun. In the real world though, growing up without a family to protect and guide you is anything but an exciting adventure. For the 5.4 million or more children confined to orphanages and similar institutions around the world today, it’s a harrowing ordeal.
“Most children living in orphanages have at least one living parent or family member who could care for them, if they had the support they need.”
Orphanages do not protect children. They damage their development and threaten their life chances. And in the real world, there are far fewer true orphans than most people think. The majority—an estimated 80%—of the children who are confined to orphanages are not orphans at all. They have been separated from their families because of poverty, disability or discrimination. Most have at least one living parent or family member who could care for them, if they had the support they need.
Hope and Homes for Children exists to help children, whatever their needs, to leave institutions and live in safe and loving families. At the same time, we help to develop services that enable families to stay together and prevent children from entering institutions in the first place. My job—and it’s a privilege—is to tell the real-life stories of the children we support. I believe it’s the best way to show what’s wrong with orphanages and to encourage people to help us achieve our vision of a world in which children no longer suffer institutional care.
“Like their fictional counterparts, the children we support are all unique individuals and show extraordinary resilience and courage”
It’s true that many of the real-life stories that we tell have all the elements of a dark fairy tale. They too concern children who have been forced to face the world alone, who must endure brutal institutions, neglect and cruelty before they find the love and protection of a family. Like their fictional counterparts, the children we support are all unique individuals and show extraordinary resilience and courage to overcome the challenges they face. There are real-life grown-up heroes in our stories too; the social workers in our country teams who work tirelessly to find the right, alternative family-based care for every child who leaves an institution and the foster parents who welcome many of these children into their homes. You will see what I mean if you read Alemadina’s story.
We all love a happy ending. Sadly though, the impact of institutional care is often too profound for quick, easy solutions and simple outcomes for the children we support. We are here to help children, whatever their needs, find families to love and protect them so that a new chapter in their lives can begin.
Your support can help us to build new families through fostering for children like Alemadina, making it possible for them to leave orphanages and grow up in a loving family, where every child belongs.
Too often, the voices and stories of women, especially those involved in the care of children, is marginalised and hidden. Throughout March, we’ll be sharing stories that demonstrate how the empowerment of women also helps to ensure children grow up with the love of a family and the safety of home.