Over the past few months I have begun researching stories about orphans, abandoned children, and care leavers. My childhood was full of these characters. I totally believed in the worlds created by the authors. At 8 years old, after reading Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konigsburg (1967), where Elizabeth has to eat raw eggs, onions and other concoctions in order to become a witch; I too began drinking raw egg in milk. A slimy concoction that felt like I was swallowing a toad. I believed I could fly and spent many happy hours above the garden on my magic broomstick. I loved the Famous Five, Secret Seven, and Mallory Towers books by Enid Blyton, all about abandoned children left to have adventures. I remember spending hours reading in a dusty corner of my local library. Books were my medicine and they saved my sanity.
I decided to put my research to good use and list my top ten books about orphans, abandoned children and care leavers. I’ve included a mixture of children’s books, fiction and non-fiction. I wanted to share these now as a way to celebrate #diverseauthorday which is happening Thursday Sep 24th, see more here. Orphans and Care Leavers are usually seen as ‘other’ – not part of society or the nuclear family. In the same way, disabled characters, characters of colour or LGBTQ characters are often missing from mainstream publishing. I will be tweeting this Thursday about #diverse orphans and care leavers.
Island by Jane Rogers – Mainstream Publishing 2000
This is one of my all time favourite books. Nikki Black (her third name) is a bastard who has been shunted from various foster and children’s homes. And now she has decided to murder her mother. At this point Nikki is stereotypical of an adult with a care background (often portrayed as bad, mad, or sad in crime dramas). Rogers takes this stereotype and turns it on its head. This book has everything I love; magic, fairy stories, myths, legends, bad – rude characters, love, detecting and a sort of happy ending.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou – Random House 1969
Maya, the younger version of Angelou and the book’s central character, has been called “a symbolic character for every black girl growing up in America”. I first met Maya when I was 16 and had not long left care. I remember reading this book almost overnight as I could not put it down. Here was a child and then young girl, whom I identified with. Not just because of the abuse she had suffered but because of her indomitable spirit. In order to write, Angelou had to place herself back in the time she is writing about, even during traumatic experiences like her rape in Caged Bird, to “tell the human truth” about her life. Maya goes from being a victim of racism with an inferiority complex to a self-aware individual who responds to racism with dignity and a strong sense of her own identity. A key text in my life, I’m so proud to have this book in my history.
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis – Geoffrey Bles 1950
A childhood favourite of mine. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are sent away from home. And so they are included in my list because they were temporarily abandoned. They are sent to live with a mad, old professor in a wonderful house with a magical wardrobe through which the children enter into a wintery world. I have an old Puffin edition of this book with the illustration of the two girls draping flowers over Aslan, Lord of the Wood. I found the story so moving and powerful and at the time didn’t understand why. It wasn’t until I went to university, that I discovered that the story was an allegory of the death of Christ. A truly magical narrative that took me from dreary old London into a world of magical beasts and scary witches.
The Secret Garden by F Hodgson Burnett – William Heinemann 1911
No orphan list would be complete without The Secret Garden. I knew this story was for me from the very first sentence, ‘When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.’ I was an ugly child, disagreeable, and like Mary cross, very, very cross with the world and everybody in it and especially social workers. Having a character I could identify with was very important, I inhabited fictional worlds as a way to escape the madness all around me.
White Oleander by Janet Fitch – Virago Press 1999
Astrid was brought up in children’s homes, foster homes and remand centres. She had a mad poet for a mother. The language reflects this and is beautifully written. Astrid’s mother, murders her lover. When she is imprisoned for life, Astrid’s life turns to shit. The novel has a dreamlike quality so that the reader seems to float above the narrative only falling with the protagonist when the bad stuff happens. A coming of age story, Astrid’s journey illustrates that the US care system is just as awful as the British one.
Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce – Oxford University Press 1958
Another childhood favourite. Tom is not an orphan but he is sent away at the beginning of the summer holidays because his brother has measles. He goes to stay with his aunt and uncle who don’t have a garden. This book was possibly inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four, (George Orwell 1949) as in the hallway there is an old clock that strikes thirteen. Tom like Mary in The Secret Garden, is bad tempered and rude. And of course for me it had all my favourite ingredients: nasty children who were really rather lovely inside, magical places, best friends and even time travel.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – Smith, Elder and Co 1847
This is a classic orphan story, a Cinderella tale set against the backdrop of the wild yorkshire moors. For some reason I always thought that children born at the turn of the century behaved themselves. So when I read of Jane being dragged away kicking and screaming to be locked in the haunted red room, I was transfixed. Here was not a docile child, but one who spoke her mind and when at last cannot stand to be bullied one more time, fought with her fists. Jane is an orphan, living with a cruel aunt who tells her she is less than a servant because she does nothing for her keep. After a temper tantrum, Jane is sent to a boarding school. She gains an education which allows her to become governess to Adèle Varens, the secret love child of the ‘dark and sardonic’ Mr Rochester. Love, passion, disappointment (not in that order), Jane Eyre is one of the best-loved British novels of all time.
The Looked After Kid by Paolo Hewitt – Mainstream Publishing 2003
This book is not a novel but reads like a story and because it is so well written it found a place on my ‘favourites’ shelf. I’ve done a lot of research over the years about children in care and I’ve read a lot of misery lit, memoirs about awful lives. But this book is different, there is not one iota of Hewitt feeling sorry for himself. His mother whilst married gave birth to another man’s child – Paolo, in a Mental Hospital, and that is only the start of his story. As soon as you begin reading this book, you feel safe, in the hands of a seasoned writer who knows how to use language and create an authentic atmosphere.
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson – Pandora Press 1985
This autobiographical novel is filled with God and doing things we’re not (according to some parents) supposed to do. As a child I attended Sunday school and church. After lunch, we were forced to read the bible all afternoon. I spent the first part of Sunday mornings with nuns who passed their belief of hell, purgatory and sin, onto me before running to our Lady of Muswell church and communion. Communion was always hell in its own way, especially if I hadn’t been to confession: I hate so and so; I stole this or that; I was rude; I was bad; I swore and so on. The added of sin of communion without confession would be a bad start to any week. Winterson was adopted by an evangelical mother and father, her dead-pan Northern humour brings the book to hilarious life and yet at the same time there is a sadness from a child who loves her mother and just wants to be loved in return. It is a book filled with knowledge and wisdom of how it feels to be different.
Brixton Rock By Alex Wheatle – Fourth Estate 2002
My final top ten book is a book I read recently. Brenton Brown is a 16-year old mixed race care leaver. He has never met his mother and is haunted by her loss. When Brenton is reunited with his mother, Cynthia, he falls in love with his beautiful half-sister, Juliet. At the same time, Brenton meets his Nemesis in the shape of Terry Flynn, a South London gangster who scars him for life. Brenton vows to seek revenge leads to an explosive climax, set against the music, humour and Caribbean rhythms of life that survive within the troubled South London landscape of 1980’s Brixton. Rhythmical and raw, with the language of the reggae 80s, this exciting book bubbles with simmering violence and climatic explosions.