Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Missing Moms and Deleted Dads : Newbery's Orphans

Psst, want a quick tip on how to win the Newbery Medal?

Kill the parents.

It's the surest way to get your book that seal of gold.

Don't believe me?

Well, just take a look at a list of all ninety Newbery winners from 1922 to 2011. You've got enough parentless protagonists there to fill up an orphanage, plus a couple foster homes.

Before citing specific examples, I guess we need to exclude certain genres from our list. Let's start by removing nonfiction and biographical titles. Some of the subjects of these biographies were indeed orphans in real life, but the authors really had no choice in the matter; they had to work with the known facts. So we're getting rid of:

1922: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon
1934: Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs
1940: Daniel Boone by James Daugherty
1951: Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates
1956: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham
1966: I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino
1988: Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman

Next we need to cut folklore, short stories, and poetry from the list. So we'll say goodbye to:

1925: Tales from Silver Lands by Charles Finger
1926: Shen of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman
1938: The White Stag by Kate Seredy
1982: A Visit to William Blake's Inn by Nancy Willard
1989: Joyful Noise by Paul Fleischman

Animal and doll stories should also be excluded since only a few of these books mention the family backgrounds of their characters:

1927: Smoky, the Cowhorse by Will James
1928: Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji
1930: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field
1931: The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth
1945: Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson
1947: Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey
1949: King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry
1972: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien
2004: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

The final genre we can omit are "ensemble novels" -- narratives in which a large number of characters play fairly equal roles. Some of these characters may come from two-parent families while others are missing a parent:

1948: The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois
1955: The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong
1979: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
1997: The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg
2006: Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins
2008: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz

This leaves us with a total of 63 novels, certainly a large enough number to provide an adequte statistical sampling.

Would you believe the 34 of these 63 novels feature protagonists who are either missing a mother, a father, or both?

It's true.

Here's the list of books in which the mother is either dead or permanently "out of the picture":

1941: Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry
1943: Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray
1961: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
1967: Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt
1971: Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars
1973: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
1980: A Gathering of Days by Joan W. Blos
1985: The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
1986: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
1995: Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
1998: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
2011: Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Here are the books where Dad is dead or gone:

1924: The Dark Frigate by Charles Hawes
1933: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Lewis
1935: Dobry by Monica Shannon
1962: The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare
1974: The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox
1983: Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voigt
2010: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

And the largest category: orphans, or kids whose parents (like Lucinda's in ROLLER SKATES) may be alive but do not appear in the story:

1937: Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer
1944: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
1953: Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark
1959: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
1962: The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare
1969: The High King by Lloyd Alexander
1987: The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
1991: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
1993: Missing May by Cynthia Rylant
1996: The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman
2000: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
2002: A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
2003: Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
2007: The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron
2009: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

That leaves us with only 29 titles in ninety years in which the protagonists has both parents:

1923: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
1929: The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly
1932: Waterless Mountain by Laura Adams Armer
1936: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink
1939: Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright
1942: The Matchlock Gun by Walter Edmonds
1946: Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski
1950: The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli
1952: Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes
1954: ...And Now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold
1957: Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen
1958: Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith
1960: Onion John by Joseph Krumgold
1963: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
1964: It's Like This, Cat by Emily Neville
1968: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
1970: Sounder by William H. Armstrong
1975: M. C. Higgins, the Great by Virginia Hamilton
1976: The Grey King by Susan Cooper
1977: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
1978: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
1981: Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson
1984: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
1990: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
1992: Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
1994: The Giver by Lois Lowry
1999: Holes by Louis Sachar
2001: A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck
2005: Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

But that number is cut even further when you consider how many of the protagonists on that list may have both parents, but spend most of the book separated from them (such as Tommy Stebbins off voyaging with Doctor Dolittle -- not to mention the young people in RIFLES FOR WATIE A WRINKLE IN TIME, FROM THE MIXED UP FILES..., THE GREY KING, HOLES, and A YEAR DOWN YONDER.) Then there are those who have both parents, but are not with both of them, including the heroes of DEAR MR. HENSHAW and SOUNDER who are separated from their fathers.)

Of course there is a reason for all of this.

Creating a protagonist who is missing one or both parents establishes immediate conflict and gives the young character an emotional edge.

It also gives this character the independence and autonomy to have adventures without those stuffy old adults getting their noses into the act.

Can you imagine Mrs. Kincaid hanging out with Claudia and Jamie at the Met, telling them to stay out of that dirty fountain water and keep their hands off those coins -- stealing is wrong?

Or Mr. Yelnats shadowing Stanley at Camp Green Lake, threatening to sue the warden for mistreating his kid?

Wouldn't work.

Still, it's quite amazing to think -- when all is said and done -- that less than twenty of the ninety Newbery winning books feature intact families who stick together from first to last page.

Considering these statistics, the next Newbery winner is likely to be Avi's latest, CITY OF ORPHANS.


Laura Canon said...

I've often wondered about the dead-parent things, particularly in modern settings. Kids today are far more likely to have a divorced parent than a dead one, and yet divorce is relatively uncommon, especially in middle-grade books. Of course it does give the book an emotional heft, and a coming-to-terms theme, but surely divorce could serve the same purpose? And wouldn't kids identify with it more?

Anonymous said...

Ha! Then a book with an orphaned girl AND an orphaned dog should be a shoo-in, don't you think? Maggie and Oliver, or A Bone of One's Own by Valerie Hobbs.

KateCoombs said...

There was a great article about this awhile back in the Horn Book Magazine called something like "Why Mom's a Buzzkill." If you just look at fairy tales, the mother is almost always dead or missing.

Anonymous said...

But of course, when the fairy tales were written down, there often were dead mothers and stepmothers. Go to any old cemetery and look at the gravestones--you'll be amazed by how many women died between the ages of 15 and 30. Childbirth was dangerous.

I think the orphan thing is a natural hook, because it plays on childhood's great terror: "What if I had no parents to look after me?" as well as childhood's riskiest fantasy, "What I could do if I didn't have parents to stop me!" Though divorce is something that many children experience, it doesn't touch the depths of terror; a child with divorced parents is not wholly abandoned. Nor is that child free to do as s/he likes.

Also, to most children, divorce is scary because it's real; it's all around us, like cancer. Being an orphan (especially when a book is set in bygone or futuristic times) is a more mythic fear and therefore manageable. Stories about vampires and dragons don't really scare me, though if they're good they give me a little frisson; stories about cancer scare me way past the point of pleasure.

lin said...

I always remember in "Mitch and Amy," when Amy and her friend are playing Laura Ingalls Wilder/Little House together, their first task is to get the Ma and Pa Ingalls out of the picture. Even in Beverly Cleary's lesser works, she had a great nose for how children's minds work. You really can't have any kind of adventure if your parents are around.