Babies left on doorsteps, dangerous distant relatives, gloomy manor houses inhabited by left-behind children: These are just a few of the hallmarks of the good old-fashioned orphan story. Sometimes the children are half-orphans with just one parent; sometimes they might just as well be orphans for all the attention their self-absorbed parents give them. Whatever the case, a few exceptionally bright and brainy youngsters have to fend for themselves against all manner of evils perpetrated by the dimwitted adults in their lives. Despite the grim premise, these stories are quirky, clever, cute, and crafty. Their authors and illustrators revel in the outlandish wiles of their villains, embrace the absurd, employ a deliciously snarky tone, and generally have a ball letting their infant heroes save the day. Mischief-makers young and old will delight in these oddball tales of childish know-how.
A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Bret Halquist, 1999, HarperCollins (Children’s Fiction/ Humor)
Oh, despair for the poor little Baudelaire children! Inventive Violent (age 14), bookworm Klaus (age 12), and baby Sunny, who likes to bite, have absolutely no happiness in store for them—and we are assured of that fact from the beginning by a wry narrator who cautions that “If you like stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.” Orphaned when their beloved parents and home are consumed by a fire, the trio of Baudelaire siblings are installed in the gloomy home of distant relative Count Olaf. Count Olaf, of course, is a wicked villain with dastardly designs on the hefty Baudelaire fortune. Since every other adult in the book is completely clueless, Violent, Klaus, and Sunny must rely on their own pluck and resolve to get out of this sticky situation. But remember that the title of this series is, after all, A Series of Unfortunate Events. The adults get no wiser, the children no luckier, and at the end of The Bad Beginning the Baudelaires are no better off than they were before. The reader, however, has been in a fit of giggles since page one. Author Lemony Snicket tells his tale of woe in a gleefully tongue-in-cheek fashion. Satirizing the literary conventions of many an old-fashioned classic, Snicket takes the orphan story to wonderfully absurd new heights. His flair for the comically melodramatic continues in The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, and ten other cunning titles.
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake, 2007, Puffin Classics, originally published 1961 (Children’s Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure)
James Henry Trotter is an very unfortunate orphan. When his parents are gobbled up by an escaped rhinoceros, James is sent to live with (and slave for) Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge. He chops wood and serves tea to his hideous aunts until he’s seven years old; then, à la Jack and the Bean Stalk, a mysterious old man gives the boy a bag of tiny green-glowing crystals and promises that if James mixes them up and drinks them down, he will be rewarded with magic and adventures galore. But poor James has no luck—in his excitement he trips and spills his magic crystals under the old peach tree in the yard. The result is an amazing large peach that grows overnight. The Aunts make a bundle showing off their giant peach (and making James clean up after the crowds who pay to see it). One night James, miserable as ever, finds a strange tunnel dug into the peach. In he crawls to meet a crew of magically enormous insects—grinning Centipede, dapper Grasshopper, motherly Ladybug, and all the rest. They welcome the boy with open arms, snip the stem of the peach, and James finally gets the fantastic adventure he was promised. Author Roald Dahl’s trademark sense of humor is in finest form in James and the Giant Peach—sometimes dark, sometimes whimsical, and always fabulously fun. The illustrations are part of the story’s charm; the first edition in 1961 featured elegant pen-and-ink drawings by Nancy Burkert. Quentin Blake’s energetic style is practically synonymous with the works of Roald Dahl and artist Lane Smith re-illustrated the book in a freshly quirky style for the 1996 release of an animated film version.
The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry, 2008, Houghton Mifflin Books (Children’s Fiction/ Humor)
The Willoughbys are a pleasant, old-fashioned sort of family—except that Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby tend to forget that they have children, and get rather tetchy when reminded of the fact. So the Willoughby children—bossy Tim, sweet Jane, and twins Barnaby A and Barnaby B—decide that they really would be better off as orphans. That way, they would at least be assured an adventure or two. A baby left on the doorstep (and re-delivered to a neighboring doorstep) is the catalyst for a series of astounding coincidences, devious plans, and literary conventions turned upside down that make up author Lois Lowry’s sprightly tale. Other characters include a down-in-the-dumps candy bar tycoon (inventor of the delicious Lickety-Split), a no-nonsense nanny who scorns other no-nonsense nannies (like that “fly-by-night” Mary Poppins), and a lederhosen-clad lad who speaks very poor German (he just adds extra syllables “with a vaguely Germanic sound” to English words). The sly, winking tone that Lowry adopts on page one carries through to the utter end, meaning even her glossary of vocabulary words and bibliography of orphan literature are a rare and playful treat to read. Absurd humor with more than a dash of sparkling satire, The Willoughbys contains some of the most impish orphans out there.
Rare Beasts: Edgar and Ellen, Book 1 by Charles Ogden, illustrated by Rick Carton, 2003, Tricycle Press (Children’s Fiction)
Orphans turn downright nasty in Rare Beasts, a slim volume overflowing with the devious deeds of twelve-year-old twins Edgar and Ellen. Their parents are off on a lengthy (it’s been years) round-the-world vacation—and no wonder, because Edgar and Ellen are the terror of the town of Nod’s Limbs. The deceitful duo runs amuck in a tall, narrow old house. They have a gloomy groundskeeper called Heimertz and a pet, named Pet, who they occasionally torment. In fact, it’s the presence of Pet that gives the siblings the idea for their latest evil plan—steal the town’s beloved pets, deck them out in paint and glitter, and sell them for a fortune as rare and exotic beasts. With money in their grubby little pockets, the twins will be able to fund all manner of underhanded schemes. It’s a master plan and Edgar and Ellen are determined to carry it out to perfection—if their own in-fighting and constant bickering (not to mention a very big pet snake) doesn’t get in the way. Rare Beasts is the first offering a series by author Charles Ogden (actually the pen name for a group of writers), and he holds nothing back in making his hero and heroine as gleefully diabolical as possible. Edgar and Ellen are so outlandishly over-the-top awful that he gets away with it and the result is a deliciously naughty little book. Whether the sneaky siblings develop any morals—and we rather hope they don’t—remains to be seen in book two (Tourist Trap) and its many prank-filled sequels.
Dying to Meet You: 43 Old Cemetery Road, Book 1 by Kate Klise, illustrated by M. Sarah Klise, 2009, Harcourt Books (Children’s Fiction)
Ignatius B. Grumply is a children’s book author with a severe (twenty years long!) case of writer’s block. Desperate to finally put pen to paper, Mr. Grumply takes up residence in a ramshackle Victorian mansion in the gossipy little town of Ghastly, Illinois. Mr. Grumply does not expect the house to be quite as rickety as it is. He does not expect the house to already be inhabited. He does not expect that inhabitant to be an eleven-year-old boy. And Mr. Grumbly certainly doesn’t expect the boy to announce that he lives there all alone with his cat—and a ghost! But that is indeed Seymour Hope’s story, and he’s sticking to it. His parents (paranormal investigators who have concluded that ghosts do NOT exist) are on tour in Europe; they’ve left their unwanted son behind in the care of whoever happens to rent or buy their equally unwanted home. The house was originally built by Miss Olive C. Spence, an old-fashioned writer-turned-poltergeist who has sworn to haunt her home for all eternity—or at least until one of her books gets published. Olive and Seymour (and the cat) get along swimmingly until old Grumply arrives with his bad moods and house rules. But savvy Olive and confident Seymour are as stubborn as old Mr. Grumply, and now a comical battle of wills rages between man, boy, and ghost. Told through letters that the characters write and receive and scattered throughout with Ghastly Times newspaper clippings and quaint line drawings by the author’s sister, Dying to Meet You is a fresh and funny first entry in a series that promises loads of charm.
Dial-A-Ghost by Eva Ibbotson, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, 2001, Dutton’s Children Books (Children’s Fiction)
The Wilkinsons are just the nicest family you could ever imagine. They are also ghosts, and they need a new house to haunt. Luckily, the Dial-A-Ghost agency specializes in finding homes for lost souls. The Wilkinsons are matched with a friendly group of nuns while other ghosts like the Shriekers—a mad child-hating husband and wife duo—are ideally suited for clients like Fulton and Frieda Snodde-Brittle, who have requested the nastiest ghosts possible to haunt their family home at Helton Hall. But a clerical error at the agency sends the Shriekers to the nuns and the Wilkinsons to Helton Hall. The Shriekers are vastly disappointed when there are no children to terrify, but the Wilkinsons are thrilled to find a little boy all alone. This is Oliver, the new heir to Helton Hall. Little orphan Oliver has been whisked away from his comfortable orphanage and installed in the ancestral home for the sole purpose of being scared to death so cousins Fulton and Frieda can have the family fortune all to themselves. Of course the Wilkinsons have no intention of harming a single hair on Oliver’s head. Rather, the ghostly family and the young lad become fast friends get along swimmingly. But the Snodde-Brittles and the Shriekers won’t give up that easily, and the shared happiness that Oliver and the Wilkinsons have finally found is imminently threatened. Author Eva Ibbotson paints a colorful cast of characters, some made of flesh and bone and some made of ectoplasm. There’s a healthy sense of humor, plenty of the macabre (the Shriekers are especially grotesque), and eerie little illustrations by Kevin Hawkes. Part comedy of errors, part ghastly ghost story, and with plenty of throwbacks to that old orphan literature of yore, Dial-A-Ghost is a creepy, crawly, comical adventure story.
Spring-Heeled Jack by Philip Pullman, illustrated by David Mostyn, 1991, Random House Books (Children’s Fiction/ Adventure)
When Rose, Lily, and Ned Summers escape from the Alderman Cawn-Plaster Memorial Orphanage one dark Victorian night, their goal is a ship bound for America so they can start a new life. But the pretty locket around Rose’s neck—containing photos of the orphans’ dear departed parents—attracts the unsavory attention of London cutthroat Mack the Knife. The children are saved by Spring-Heeled Jack, a legendary superhero-esque rogue who roams the city on bouncy shoes (he can leap over buildings in a single bound). But there’s still trouble—Mack manages to nab Ned and hold him hostage, and hot on Rose and Lily’s heels are Mr. Killjoy and Miss Gasket, the greedy caretakers from the orphanage. Rose and Lily and Ned have plenty of guts and gumption, and with Spring-Heeled Jack, a yappy dog named Spangle, a kindhearted sailor and his barmaid girlfriend on their side, there’s little doubt the Summers siblings will reunite and save the day. The real appeal of this thrilling tale of derring-do lies in its unique format. Author Philip Pullman’s action-packed text gives way every now and then to comics-style panels (by illustrator David Mostyn) that continue the plot, complete with witty asides and clever commentary by a crew of cartoon animals who keep pace with the story. There’s enough silliness in this send-up to entertain any adventure-lover.
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, illustrated by Carson Ellis, 2007, Little, Brown Books (Children’s Fiction/ Mystery)
“Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?” This unusual newspaper ad catches the eye of an especially observant and inventive orphan named Reynie Muldoon. It also catches the eyes of ready-for-adventure Kate Wetherall, brainy and sensitive George “Sticky” Washington, and very contrary little Constance Contraire. The children pass a series of tests for the mind and spirit and are recruited by the philanthropic Mr. Benedict. Their mission: Infiltrate the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, a school run by the brilliant but dastardly Ledroptha Curtain. Mysterious messages are issuing forth from the school to brainwash the unsuspecting population, and Reynie, Kate, Sticky, and Constance must combine their unique talents and skills to save the day. The reader follows clues and solves puzzles right along with the kids for a clever and interactive literary adventure. Like all worthy and wise orphans, Reynie and company pull together to outwit the villains and save the day. And like most orphans, their troubles are far from over—their unique capabilities are required in The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey and The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma. And thank goodness for that, because few things are more fun than saving the day with the Mysterious Benedict Society.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, illustrated by Pat Marriott, 2000, Delacorte Press, originally published 1962 (Children’s Fiction/ Historical Fiction)
Willoughby Chase may be an imposing mansion situated on a bleak moor that is teaming with hungry wolves, but indoors everything is cheery. Little Bonnie runs harum-scarum through her big house, beloved of dashing Papa, elegant but sickly Mama, and Pattern the devoted maid. Papa and Mama are embarking on a cruise, but little cousin Sylvia is coming to stay and keep Bonnie company. The two cousins hit it off right away but their new governess, Miss Slighcarp, wastes no time before showing her true colors—cunning, wicked, and cruel. Almost before they can blink, the toys are packed away, the ponies are sold, the helpful servants are dismissed, and Bonnie and Sylvia are declared orphans. Miss Slighcarp sends the girls off to slave away at a horrible school for orphaned girls where they are mistreated, abused, starved, and scolded. But in typical orphan fashion and with the help of a few well-placed allies, Bonnie and Sylvia rally to the challenge. Less snarky in tone and wit than the other books on this list, author Joan Aiken nevertheless delights in heaping burden after burden upon the slender shoulders of her heroines as they face wolves, lawyers, burnt porridge, and more. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is the first in a series of plucky-waif-makes-good stories by Aiken (followed by Black Hearts in Battersea, Nightbirds on Nantucket, and others), and all serve as prime examples of the classic orphan tale of woe and redemption.