Why are orphanages such ghastly places?

Holly and I have just started reading a new book – the fifth one in her selection for her summer reading challenge. It is Ruby Holler by award-winning author Sharon Creech.


Image courtesy of misterrob.co.uk

We’re five chapters in and have been introduced to Florida and Dallas, twin orphans who have lived at the Boxton Creek Home longer than any of the other children who have come through its doors. The two are desperate to break away from the regimental routine of the home, run by the authoritarian and cruel married couple, the Trepids.

As I read through these early chapters, Holly suddenly asked: ‘Why are orphanages and care homes always nasty places in children’s books?’

I asked her what other examples she was thinking about and she had no trouble recalling:

Molly Moon’s Incredible Book of Hypnotism, by Georgia Byng


Image courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

… where Molly Moon lives in a rather miserable orphanage and endures nasty food and nasty punishments (we will be reviewing this sometime soon)

Anne of Green Gables, by LM Montgomery


Image courtesy of amazon.co.uk

… in which Anne is desperate to leave her orphanage and live in a proper house with a garden.

In response to Holly’s question, I replied, ‘Perhaps because it gives children an excuse to want to run away and have adventures,’ avoiding getting into the discussion about how fiction needs conflict and this seems to be an easy way for authors to get a story off the ground. And I don’t mean this in any way disrespectfully to authors: most of us use some sort of stereotype, either in character or setting, to help create tension and plot. If Boxton Creek Home were a lovely place to live in then something else would have to happen to create a the necessary spark for something to happen.

But it got me thinking.

‘What about Tracy Beaker?’ I asked Holly, as she loves watching the series on CBBC, though she has never read the books by Jacqueline Wilson.


Image courtesy of http://www.jacquelinewilson.co.uk

‘It seems OK,’ Holly admitted. ‘They have their own rooms and they can paint them whatever colour they want and everything. But they still want a home.’

I started wondering if there is a place for a story about a good orphanage, one where the children don’t want to leave. Where being an orphan is preferable to finding an adoptive family. Or does that break some rule of children’s literature which states it’s better to have some sort of family, even if it’s not your own, than to live by yourself?

This then led me to think about the wonderful Pippi Longstocking, who defies the conventions of what adults think children need.

The Best of Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren


Image courtesy of http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk

The whole book is constructed around Pippi’s return to conventional town life after years of sailing around the world on her father’s ship. Her father has gone missing at sea so Pippi has decided to settle down for a while and takes up residence in a small house with her horse and monkey in tow.

While she seems to adapt to her new circumstances reasonably well, the townspeople are riled by her bohemian lifestyle. Thus begins a series of attempts to mould her into what is expected of children. In one hilarious incident, two policemen come to take Pippi away to live in a children’s home. Because she is only a young child, the townsfolk have declared that she is not capable of living on her own without adult supervision. Pippi is polite and friendly but refuses to go with the officers. This results in a hilarious game of chase which ends up with Pippi manhandling both policemen and scaring them off. Their parting thoughts are that if a young girl can physically lift two grown men from the ground, she is perfectly able to look after herself and she is thus left in peace.

Much has been said about the subversive nature of children’s literature and I think that it does seem to work best when it turns expectations on its head. Granted, it’s important to show love and security in younger children’s books but, as Astrid Lindgren so wonderfully portrayed, there is a place for children to be emancipated, at least in their imaginations. Even Peter Pan, who never wanted to grow up, still looked for a mother figure in Wendy, whereas Pippi seems to cope very well on her own, thank you very much.

So, is this convention for negatively portraying orphanages and orphans genuinely a reflection of what children want to read? Or is it ultimately an adult expression of what we want children to feel and need? I’m not sure but it would be good to read more books in the vein of Pippi Longstocking.

What do you think? Do you know of any children’s books that portray orphanages in a good light?



  1. That’s a great observation! Although I have never thought about it, Holly is quite right, most books do make orphanages seem like an awful places. From a writer’s perspective I can see how it’s necessary to create conflict in order for the story to move forward, but you bring up an interesting point about the possibility of a bigger social reason being behind it as well.


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