• DAILY TELEGRAPH | 19 May 2007 | Katie Tait

    This interesting article about orphans in children's literature includes a brief interview with Darren Shan. READY TO 'DIE' FOR YOUR CHILDREN?

    I'm working in the kitchen when my daughter comes in. Around her neck is a brown cardboard tag that reads: "AgnesTait, age7, orfan." She informs me that she and her brother Albert are being evacuated because their parents have been killed in a bombing raid. I nod solemnly and try not to take offence that, yet again, I appear to have been killed off.

    My death varies in my children's games. I've been lost at sea, hit by bombs and killed by a knight. It's essential that I'm out of the way so that they can begin playing their favourite game of "orphans".

    My children are not alone in this' fantasy. Mary, a mother of two from Gloucestershire, found that her daughter, Hannah had told everyone in her Brownie pack that her parents were both dead and that the lady who picked her up was her aunt. Mary only discovered about her own untimely death when the Pixie leader squeezed her arm at the end of the session and told her, with tears in her eyes, what a good job she was doing.

    "Everyone laughed, but I worried about it endlessly afterwards and talked to my husband about whether I should take Hannah to see someone or try and be a 'better' mother," says Mary. "It was difficult to realise that being an orphan to her was a very romantic ideal."

    This doesn't surprise bestslling children's author Cressida Cowell at all. "The idea of being an orphan is hugely attractive to children as it gives them a sense of empowerment, especially now, in an age when children are so much mqre protected than they once were, when the thought of limitless freedom is intoxicating," she says. "No one is there to tell them what to do and they can take control."

    For this reason, many children's authors quickly lose their heroes' parents so that they can have the sort of adventures that just couldn't happen if a responsible adult were around. Certainly a quick look at my daughter's book and DVD shelves reveals the root of her desire. It starts with The Story of Babar, whose hero tragically loses his mother but then ends up as King of the Elephants. This sits next to A Little Princess in which Sara Crewe has a far more adventurous time as a parentless servant than as a pampered rich girl.

    'Then there's Peter Pan, and who wouldn't rather be a lost boy than the rather prim Wendy?

    The list goes on, with films such as The Jungle Book, Annie and Oliver Twist. And, of course, there's Harry Potter, probably the most famous orphan of all, who would never have been let loose to fight Lord Voldemort if James and Lilly had been tucking him into bed. In all these works, the dreadful reality of losing a parent is quickly glossed over to get to the adventure part. The same is true of Superman, Spider-Man and Batman, whose parents would never have allowed such death-defying deeds.

    Dr Lisa Sainsbury, a senior lecturer in children's literature, says it's not surprising that orphans are alluring: "The classic convention is that they end up in a better place than where they started. Their 'new" parents are often improved." So James Henry Trotter's parents may have been killed by an escaped rhinoceros (in Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach) but he finishes up famous in New York with a surrogate family of giant insects. Similarly it's made quite clear that the Fossil girls in Ballet Shoes have a far better upbringing than they would have had if their parents had lived.

    Cressida Cowell thinks that playing orphans is another way for children to face their worst nightmare: "As parents, we try to wrap things up in a positive light for children, but in fact many children like that certain edge of darkness."

    This enjoyment of the macabre by the young has brought success to children's author Darren Shan, who writes dark adventures for the over-10s. In one of his books, the parents are eaten by demons. "My readers love those bits," he says. "Children read in a very different way from grown-ups. They don't connect it to themselves in the same way adults do. They just think: 'Hey, that sounds cool.' "

    Where Shan says the rules change is when you deal with the death of a child: "Children tend to see adults almost like aliens and their death doesn't upset them, they just see it as a way to freedom. But they connect far more with the death of a child and you have to be extremely careful if you write about that"

    So take heart from the authors who know. If your child informs you that you've drunk poison or been squashed by a bus, it doesn't mean that you've been failing in your parental duttes, but rather that he or she is ready for an adventure without you.

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