10 literary orphans who aren’t Harry Potter

I wrote a fantasy novel about an orphan who resides in a boarding school. Inevitably, there are going to be some Harry Potter comparisons, which I don’t necessarily object to on any kind of literary grounds. I like love the Harry Potter series. I love the world, love the characters, love the messages. And I don’t think very many self-published novelists can pretend they wouldn’t love just a fraction of the series’ success. I’m not making any of those claims.

But, I would like to point out that there are literary orphans who don’t wear broken glasses and carry an 11-inch wand made of holly with a phoenix feather at its core. In fact, my beloved protagonist, Emily Nevin Cann Bell was inspired by a literary orphan. And there is a lengthy tradition of mad, brilliant, beautiful orphans finding their way into mad, brilliant, beautiful books. In their honor, I’ve compiled a list of 10 literary orphans who aren’t Harry Potter, but whose acquaintance you should make as soon reasonably possible.

1. Anne-with-an-E Shirley. This one’s so obvious I almost forgot to include her in the list. But what would a g11e3840000000000002da62b720869700d43e77ccef1cb392e014652a6catalog of literary orphans be without the fiery-tempered redhead with gray eyes and a penchant for youthfully soulful observations and proclamations? And the beauty of the Anne of Green Gables series is the fact that it doesn’t end after just one book, but continues on, granting the reader the incredible privilege of watching Anne mature.

2. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire. If I’m being completely honest (and I might as well be seeing as how I think two people read this blog and one of them is my cat), I didn’t really love Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. I wanted to. I loved it in theory. But 1356541132_series of unfortunate 1somehow the story failed to trigger any kind of significant emotional response. And if you’re not kicking me in the emotional solar plexus, well, what the hell are you doing? But that doesn’t change the fact that it features a trio of orphan badasses. Violet is an inventor, which is a wonderful thing to be at any age; Klaus is a great reader, which is an even better thing to be; and Sunny has four sharp teeth with which to bite things, which is probably the most you can expect from a baby.

3. Peter Lake. The protagonist of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale begins the story with parents, but when they 200px-MarkHelprin_WintersTaleare denied admission at Ellis Island, they set him adrift in the New York harbor in a model ship called City of Justice. What follows is the truest definition of epic, one of the only love stories worth telling written by a man whose vocabulary exceeds that of every person I know combined.

4. Cosette. I hesitate to include her in a list of orphans seeing as how she’s mostly spoiled and cosseted, but I use her as an example of how one orphan can spoil what was an otherwise good story. In case it’s not clear, I loathe Cosette. Her mother, Fantine, is an 38incredible figure who makes an incredibly tragic point about the limited options available to the poverty-stricken, and especially to women. Without Cosette, Fantine would have lived. She wouldn’t have had to turn to prostitution. And it’s true that Cosette is badly treated at the hands of the Thénardiers while they are her guardians, but that is brief and more than made up for by Jean Valjean. More than the hardship she presents to her mother, I despise Cosette for ruining Eponine’s happiness. Feisty, passionate Eponine who proves that having parents is no guarantee of an easy, happy life. Cosette steals Eponine’s happy ending, and for that–and Fantine’s alternate universe redemption–I despise her.

5. Every Dickens character. There. I just knocked out a long list in three words. You can’t talk about orphans 9780486424538_custom-9ef2f1578c506cbb96df0df58668b66edb4f826f-s6-c30without Dickens getting some mention, even if you’re having a hard time finding something original or interesting to say on the point.

6. Bruce Wayne. Yes, I’m counting comic books because, frankly, I think they’ve made an important contribution to literature and, more generally, stories. And everyone knows you can’t be a superhero without ditching the parents somewhere along the way. I think it Bruce_Wayne_004probably has something to do with the fact that it would be tough to run around late at night in a cape with your parents hanging over your shoulder asking questions all the time. Buffy Summers barely pulled it off, and she just had one (really terrible) parent to contend with.

7. Heathcliff. Emily Bronte’s brooding dreamboat from Wuthering Heights. As wuthering-heightsWikipedia calls him: “The archetype of the tortured romantic hero whose all-consuming passions destroy both himself and those around him.” Bam.

8. Voldemort. What? I said I wouldn’t talk about Harry Potter, the character. I think people tend to fixate on Harry Potter’s status as an orphan and forget that his antagonist was an orphan as well; his mother dies soon after his birth and he is abandoned by his father, and Unknownleft to do the best he can in an orphanage. While I’m not justifying the killing sprees or sickening theories about “mudbloods” and muggles, I just think, y’know, we have to take his background into account. And honestly, you couldn’t have the series without the big, bad meanie-head warlock.

9. You didn’t think I was going to write a list about orphans in books without schwellenbach-scourge-2-396p.inddincluding my own beloved Emily, did you? My own literary orphan has three last names and no idea which is properly her own. She’s got hair the color of sodium chloride over an open flame (I’ll leave it to you to figure out what that means), and a mad crush on Miles, another student at the school. Which makes my sweet Emily a lesbian. Why? Because I’ve read and loved a number of teen heroines in novels. They’ve had blonde hair, brown hair, red hair. They’ve been tomboys and shy and quiet and poetic. They’ve been everything but gay. And frankly, I thought it was time.

10.  Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte’s eponymous heroine, who I love so dearly that I chose her instead of the protagonist of my own novel to round out this list. This is a first-person story that begins in the voice of 10-year-old Jane, whose parents are dead from typhus. Many 10-year-olds would not prove janeeyre-thumb-323x500-9866capable of carrying a novel, but Jane has an almost unnatural self-awareness, and the kind of rich interior life that would guarantee a good story even if she spent the entire novel locked cruelly in the red room by her abusive Aunt Reed. Fortunately, Jane escapes her cruel relatives, and heads out into the world to seek a home that suits her. She will not be bound or confined, nor will she betray her values. This is a woman who states: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.” More importantly, she states it to the man she loves. And she follows this incredible statement of independence by actually leaving him.



  1. How could I have forgotten Heathcliffe, the Baudelaires and Cosette? Well, at least there’s only one I need to check out: Peter Lake.

  2. I’m the other person who reads this blog.

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