Big Girls Don't Cry

(a few thoughts on childhood loss in children's fiction)

When I was first sending out DOTTY and the Calendar House Key to publishers, I had a few responses I hadn’t expected. In particular, one editor commented that he found the prologue to the book so distressing that he just couldn’t get past that to enjoy the rest of the story. And the cause of all the upset? The death of Dotty’s parents.

I have to admit I was a bit stumped by this. I mean, a lot of children’s writers kill off the protagonist’s parents –it serves as a convenient device to enable the writer to place the child in a situation in which they otherwise wouldn’t find themselves – a strange new place that they might explore – or left with baddies with whom they can interact or even vanquish. In short, childhood loss and separation in children’s books is a pretty common theme.

I’m sure you’ve already thought of some examples, but to name but a few:

  1. Harry Potter (parents killed by Voldemort; left with unsympathetic uncle and aunt who favour their own offspring and make Harry live in a cupboard

  2. A Series of Unfortunate Events (parents killed in train wreck; children sent to live with a succession of ill-fitting and often ill-intentioned guardians

  3. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (children evacuated during wartime and sent away to live in a big old house with a stranger)

  4. Oliver Twist (the classic badly-treated orphan story)

  5. The House with a Clock in its Walls (orphaned boy sent to live with an uncle who he doesn’t know; uncle turns out to be magical)

And there are many, many more, of course. Let me know which ones spring to your mind :)

Despite this extensive catalogue of literary proof, I couldn’t help but fret about this editor’s stray comment and wonder if somehow I’d got it wrong. Was I right to feature the subject of Dotty’s recent bereavement so heavily in the book? Had I not dealt with the issue sensitively enough? What set my character’s bereavement aside from all these others, that it should cause such offence? Could I have done it another way – sent Dotty on a simple summer holiday to visit her Great-Uncle, perhaps?

But no matter how much I thought on it, I found myself back at the same place – I didn’t want to change Dotty, or her circumstances. Why? Because, at the end of the day, her circumstances shape who she is. And, in the end, because she surmounts them and becomes stronger in spite of it all.

Imagine my delight, then, when I read on Facebook this recent comment from a reader:

My use of the word ‘delight’ is caveated. In truth, my initial reaction was actually panic that I might have traumatised yet another reader(!) But then I got past that, and found myself being just so thrilled to have touched someone with Dotty’s story.

You see: the thing about Dotty and her story is that it reflects my own in so many ways. I make no false claims here – my parents didn’t die when I was a child, nor in a tragic firework accident. But I did lose them when I was very young and it affected me deeply. Indeed, as I write this on the day of the sixteenth anniversary of my mother’s death, I still miss her more than I can say. Even as a young adult, the loss of a parent is difficult to deal with, when you don’t quite feel you’ve yet found your way in life. And in my experience such bereavement brings with it a sense of isolation that somehow never seems to leave you.

So perhaps this is what my reader saw (and felt) when she read DOTTY and the Calendar House Key. Perhaps this is why Dotty feels so very real – and what sets her story aside from the rest.

Or maybe it’s just another orphan story and the vast majority of people don’t dwell on it too much. After all, it’s a fun tale about Dotty’s magical adventures, as much as it is a record of her coming to terms with the loss of her family, her home and ultimately her friends. Isn’t it?

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