Lost by the System: The Orphanmakers of Children’s Literature

This week marked Independence Day in the US, but I want to focus this blog on the idea of unwanted independence.  Children’s literature—particularly children’s literature for white, middle-class Americans and Brits—has often been predicated on the (at least temporary) disappearance of parents in order that child protagonists might have an exciting adventure.  But for many real children, separation from parents is both economically and (more importantly) emotionally devastating—not the start of an exciting adventure, but the first step in a long and frightening road.  I highlight Principle 6 of the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child:

“Principle 6  The child, for the full and harmonious development of his personality, needs love and understanding. He shall, wherever possible, grow up in the care and under the responsibility of his parents, and, in any case, in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security; a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother. Society and the public authorities shall have the duty to extend particular care to children without a family and to those without adequate means of support. Payment of State and other assistance towards the maintenance of children of large families is desirable.”

This principle may seem obvious (or, given what is currently happening at the US-Mexico border, maybe not): young children should live with their parents when their parents are alive.  But children’s literature is littered with examples of how international institutional systems have separated children from their parents.  Many of these examples depict the separation as being for the child’s own good, but in fact it is usually the institution (or the state that sponsors it) that benefits.

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Missionaries often deemed it best to separate children from the influence of their “heathen” parents.

Take for example the 19th century missionary school.  White writers depicted the missionary school as a place where colonized subjects could escape the tyrrany of their parents’ superstitions and be given the light of knowledge.  This knowledge generally, of course, led them to embrace the white-dominated society and reject their home society, as in this example from The Juvenile Missionary Magazine of 1854.  In a story entitled, “Woman in India,” the text argues that missionaries don’t even have to recruit children to their schools, as they are eager to leave their heathen parents behind:

“In April, 1847, five girls in the Mission-school of the Free Church at Madras determined to embrace the Gospel, and knowing that they would not be allowed to do this at home, they put themselves under the protection of the Missionaries.  One of them, called Muniatthal, was only twelve years old, but she was a very intelligent child.  On hearing her intention, her relations met together, and, taking with them a crowd of heathen, armed with stones, and clubs and bars of iron, they attacked the Mission-house until they were driven away by the police.” (8)

Note how the police are on the side of the state; the parents try to get their child back by using the courts, but the judge tells the parents that “Children have certain rights of their own; and throughout the length and breadth of this land, they will be protected in those rights which God and nature have given them” (9).  The British institutions of church and state collude to remove the child from her parents.

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Eulalie’s drawing of happy lepers; Peter and Tess, the white children, appear friendly, but they keep their hands in their pockets.

While such blatant imperialism might be frowned upon in later years, the idea that the state could better care for children than their parents and that the child should be happy in such situations remains common in children’s literature in the 20th and 21st centuries.  In The Adventures of Peter and Tess Through the British Commonwealth by Stella Mead, with illustrations by Eulalie, the white British children visit a leper colony where children are sent away from their families; while there the children are taught “English” (as opposed, I suppose, to patois) and they are all delighted to be there; an illustration shows Peter, Tess and a white doctor looking at five dark-skinned children who appear to be in a pen of some sort, but who are all smiling.  The text depicts the place as “restful and happy” (n.p.) but it is not clear if or when the children will be reunited with their families.  In Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft, the state is depicted as benevolently stepping in when Donovan’s parents give up on parenting Donovan; white people are obliged to take “trouble” over Donovan’s upbringing because (like the Indian heathens) his Jamaican parents are unwilling or incapable.

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Children torn from their parents to learn the ways of the whites in When We Were Alone; they were only happy when they could escape to nature.

Authors of color depict the separation of children from their parents by the state quite differently.  David Alexander Robertson, a member of the Norway House Cree nation, showed how devastating being taken from your parents to be schooled by the colonizer can be in When We Were Alone (Highwater, 2016).  In this book, illustrated by Julie Flett, a grandmother describes to her grandchild how she was taken away because white people “wanted us to be like everyone else” (n.p.).

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Julia Gukova’s illustrations for Richardo Keens-Douglas’s Freedom Child of the Sea; slavery separated children from mothers even at the moment of birth, as this illustration shows. Other enslaved people can only look on helplessly.

Richardo Keens-Douglas reminds readers of the horrors of slavery in Freedom Child of the Sea (Annick 1996): “mothers were separated from their sons, fathers from daughters, brothers from sisters.  The wind that first day blew with a roar that had never been heard before in the beautiful land.  It carried the sounds of fear, pain, tears and broken hearts out to sea” (n.p.).

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This is what separation of mothers and children looks like in Alex Godard’s Mama Across the Sea.

And Alex Godard’s beautiful illustrations for Mama, Across the Sea (Henry Holt 1998) is a reminder of the economic separation that many children face from their parents who have to leave their homes to make enough money to survive—often seeking jobs in the country that formerly colonized them.  All of these books indicate the ways that colonization and imperialism have affected people of color around the world.  Institutions tear children away from their parents, causing them lasting emotional pain and not necessarily improving their physical or economic well-being in the process.

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Families belong together.  Children should not be lost in institutional systems—nor lost by them.  The UN knew this nearly sixty years ago, and it would do us good to remember it now.

 

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