Photo credit: Amber Marlow
My entire childhood library was overflowing with stories about little kids whose parents had died or were assholes. Anne of Green Gables
, Pippi Longstocking
, even Harriet the Spy
had absent dickhole parents. At the time, I LOVED THIS. As someone who raised herself, loved loved loved words, and deeply needed to feel seen amidst the competing backdrops of perfect families I couldn’t relate to, it was unbelievably healing to find solace in those books.
As I’ve gotten older though, I’ve started to find the genre kind of objectively bizarre. We have so many books, so so many, that are targeted to children and young adults, where everyone’s parents are dead or don't care about them, and kids love these books. So why is that?
The most obvious observation could be that kids love the idea of a world wherein there are no adults and kids rule and can do whatever they want and eat whatever they want and never wear pants. So basically getting all of the perks of adulthood (food, pantslessness) without having to work or pay rent, aka the dream — for both children and adults.
But I often wonder if the dream of black-and-white awful or just plain dead parents resonates mostly with the heartbreakingly many kids who don't have parents who love them very much, or who can't love them, or who aren't around, or even very safe. What if, as I was navigating my own hell, and wrapping myself deeply in these stories, a big part of what made them such bestsellers was that so many other kids were too? Even if they didn’t consciously realize it, were there millions of children like me, reading about a child who also feels alone, who also feels unappreciated, who also feels out of place, who also dreams of a better world with more love and more care (and Gilbert Blythe as a romantic prospect, omg) and is feeling seen on some level for the first time, maybe ever? I think it’s very, very likely.
I’d felt so incredibly, wonderfully, seen by books about orphans, I'd assumed that was all of us.
So much of childhood TV and movies and books depicts a bunch of warm loving families with no problems ever, no pain, no nothing. And I would watch them all, confused. I was pretty sure that every other kid had what I had, which was, uh, not that. As a kid, one of the ways I coped with not having that was telling myself everyone else was definitely in hell, too, definitely, mm-hmm, and whenever I’d see TV shows that depicted sooo much less than hell, I was confused and just assumed these were fictional stories designed to show you how great that’d be if it existed. Then, as an adult, when I realized almost everyone I knew totally had that or at least claimed to have that, I was understandably devastated and angry. What do you mean that’s what everyone else had? That was an option? What the fuck?
If anything, I think I’d felt so incredibly, wonderfully, seen by books about orphans, I'd assumed that was all of us, orphaned in some way, picking up the pieces, and healing through books — wonderful escape hatches books. But apparently that wasn’t true. Most kids who read those books read them the way I watched TV shows about perfect families: like a funny, fictionalized version of the world where adults were just magically gone; ha ha, can you imagine? Hilarious. But of course, I assume, those kids read them thinking that once the book ends, the characters' parents tucked them warmly them into bed and give them everything they could possibly need. Because, oh my, how bizarre would it be if there were any other side to life? It just doesn’t make sense.
Still, I know the kids like me were out there, are out there. And when I wrote How To Be Alone
, I wrote it for every one of them. I wrote it for every person who related a little too much to Anne Shirley and wasn’t sure why. Who told themselves it was just because she was spunky, just because she was a loudmouth little kid, just because she was a misfit in that funny, no big deal way that’s just on the surface. Yeah, that’s all. And maybe years later realized it was because they felt so deeply alone, so deeply out of place, so deeply weird because they related to her desperate need to feel loved, to feel seen, to belong.
But it was easier, maybe still is easier, to wrap themselves in the protective cloak of normalcy that comes with being able to say you just like a book, just like the characters, just like the idea of something, someone, some story. Without ever having to say why. And then, if and when you meet a kindred spirit of your own, and they love it too, maybe you can share a look or a nod that says, That’s why I like it too.
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is an award-winning comedian, musician, actor, and author of How To Be Alone: If You Want To And Even If You Don't
. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.