Magical Brats

Literature’s love affair with the only child

Caitlin Keefe Moran hangs around the Internet here.

In 1888, Caroline Hewins opened her Atlantic article on the history of children’s literature with the following observation: “It’s hard to imagine a world without books for children.” This is even more accurate today than it was back in the late nineteenth century; children’s and young adult books make up an outsized part of the publishing industry, and with the rise of ebooks this share is only growing. Hewins can take a large amount of credit for popularizing the idea of the child reader in America. She created one of the first rooms expressly for young readers in a public library; the Hartford Public Library, where Hewins’s room was located, still gives out a scholarship for aspiring children’s librarians in her honor. Before Hewins, some libraries didn’t even admit patrons under the age of twelve.

So I can safely say that Caroline Hewins saved my childhood.

I am an only child. I was born late enough in my parents’ marriage that neighbors could reasonably stop my father while he was walking with my stroller and congratulate him on his new grandson (I was painfully bald, but made a dapper boy); still, my parents wanted to have more children, but complications during my mother’s pregnancy put that idea to rest. We lived in a little town of two thousand, surrounded by farmland, where there wasn’t much to do if you didn’t have a four-wheeler or a friend to swim in the public pool with. I was a weird kid, alternately shy and bossy, stir crazy and anxious about the wide, wide world. Reading was my greatest pleasure.

When I would complain of being bored during the endless summer months, my mother, a preschool special ed teacher who didn’t suffer whiney children, would say, “You can’t be bored. You have all these books.” All these books was quite a lot of books, so when my best friend from down the street wasn’t around to play I spent much of my time reading on the back deck. I didn’t feel alone in my books—there were lots of only children there, more than I ever met in real life. There was Sally Lockhart and Harriet the Spy, Jane Eyre and Dorothy Gale and Hermione Granger. There was even Bella Swan for a while, until I decided that she needed to work her shit out before we could be friends again (she didn’t). I was always comforted, when I encountered these characters, to see other people as shy and bossy and stir crazy and anxious about the wide, wide world as I was.

Public domain image by Charles Robinson

Only children in stories are otherworldly, apart. They are imagined as preternaturally bright, and maybe a little strange. In fairy tales, where I first discovered other onlies, their singularity signifies their isolation and vulnerability. The miller’s daughter spinning alone makes easy prey for Rumpelstiltskin, and Rapunzel in her tower has no chance of resisting the prince who wants to marry her; she knows nothing of the world, after all. In these tales and in others like them—Snow White and the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, for example—the susceptibility of the only child (often long-wished-for and conceived in her parents’ old age) to harm and kidnapping and imprisonment is a problem to be solved exclusively through marriage, usually to royalty if she can manage it. The absorption into an existing family structure through marriage cures the fairytale only child of her loneliness, and provides a safe space for her in a previously unsafe world. Rapunzel goes one step further—she gets married and has twins, ensuring that the cycle won’t repeat itself.

With the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class in the mid-nineteenth century, a new genre of literature for children emerged, one that was imaginative instead of didactic. This period, spanning roughly from the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the first collection of A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories, is referred to as the “Golden Age of children’s literature” and heavily features orphans and onlies finding their way through the world, usually after being rejected by their families or pseudo-families (Jane Eyre, Anne Shirley, Huck Finn, and Pip from Great Expectations all fit this mold, to name a few).

Public domain image by Charles Robinson

But no one crafted late Victorian onlies like Frances Hodgson Burnett. With Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1886, A Little Princess in 1905, and The Secret Garden in 1911, Burnett created archetypes for onlies of all kinds: the charming upstart, the poor but virtuous people-pleaser, the spoiled brat. Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, more than any other character, is the apotheosis of everything people dislike and fear about onlies. She is stubborn and selfish, “disagreeable,” “spoiled and pettish,” and “sour.” When her parents die in India after years of ignoring and neglecting her, Mary is sent to England to live with her uncle, a misanthrope still mourning his late wife. I loved and loathed Mary Lennox. Sometimes I was afraid I was her—people loved to tell me I was spoiled, and they were right. I fretted when I recognized that I often stayed in to read instead of going outside to play—wasn’t that just like Mary’s disdain for the minister’s children that earned her the nickname “Mistress Mary Quite Contrary”? Other times, I wasn’t so sure I didn’t want to be Mary—she was bright and curious, if a bit prickly, and it was refreshing to read about a girl my own age who wasn’t a child martyr or a suck-up like Sara from A Little Princess (sorry Sara).

The Secret Garden dramatizes the journey of the only child character in the extreme: alienated from her negligent parents and so coddled by her Indian caretakers that she doesn’t even know how to dress herself, Mary more or less has to learn how to be a human, how to live and interact with people who are different from her, and how to build a community in an isolating world. “I have nothing—and no one,” Mary tells the gardener Ben Weatherstaff—until she discovers her “bit of earth,” a friend in Dickon Sowerby, and in Colin Craven an only child as tyrannical and bitchy as she is. Together they make up a weird little family, and bond over creating a space of beauty and refuge in the garden. This is the dream of any lonely only wishing there was someone out there paying attention to her: a couple of understanding friends and a private space to build a paradise.

Public domain image by Charles Robinson

In our own time, the only child occupies a peculiar, yet still recognizable, place. If we divide the current marketplace for young adult literature into three categories—paranormal/fantasy, dystopian, and realistic/historical—it quickly becomes clear that onlies still inhabit the realm of magic above all. Two of the three “Big Three” books that launched the current vogue for young adult fiction—Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games—feature onlies, and both Harry and Bella must contend with mystical powers that make their ordinary existences into strange ones. Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson, the demigod son of Poseidon, is an only, as are Artemis Fowl, criminal mastermind and sometime enemy of the fairies, and Lyra Belacqua, companion of daemons and rescuer of talking bears in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. All of these characters must navigate worlds shaped by powers far beyond their control; they are marked by their apartness. They are special, chosen. Their odyssey is a dangerous one that must be undertaken alone, but ends in the formation of new sympathetic friendships. Interestingly, both Harry Potter and Bella Swan find alternate families almost immediately, and by the end of their respective stories have married into them, leaving their former insecurity and solitude behind, just like Rapunzel and her ilk.

That’s not to say there are no only children in contemporary fiction. Gillian Flynn made delicious use of Amy Elliot Dunne’s onlyhood in the 2012 thriller Gone Girl. Amy spent years observing her parents’ obnoxiously happy marriage as a “little lonely only child,” and so trained herself to observe the foibles and weaknesses of others, to chillingly amazing effect. She is also astute enough to recognize the way that others perceive her is informed upbringing as a privileged only child. “I was that way, for a while, with Nick,” Amy writes of trying to please her husband in their early years of marriage. “But it was unsustainable. I’m not selfless enough. Only child, as Nick points out regularly.” That Amy — spoiler alert — is revealed to be a master manipulator only makes this passage better; she knows what Nick and his family expect of her because she’s an only, and she knows what we as readers expect of her too. And then she twists all of us in knots.

I went to my friends to see if people with siblings were as fascinated as I was with the magical onlies of literature. (I am an only child, after all, prone to navel-gazing and flights of ego.) Kristy, a high school friend now working in journalism, is the eldest of four and one of “about twenty-five cousins.” The summer after senior year, she and I, along with a group of our friends, left a graduation party a bit tipsy and camped out in a Borders for the release of the final Harry Potter book, so I knew she would have a lot of say about her reading experience as a child.

“The idea of being orphaned or an only child with distant parents always struck me as desperately romantic,” she says. She describes how she would dress up in long skirts and blouses from her dress-up bin, “steal” bread and cheese from the kitchen and run away to the woods behind her house to pretend she was a medieval orphan escaping an abusive aunt. (“Yeah,” she says, “I don’t know either.”) Kristy, like me, was a constant reader, although for her it was an escape instead of a lifeline to other people. She read to block out the cacophony of the morning bus, and got in trouble for reading underneath her desk in math class Being an only child “allowed my favorite main characters to have an enormous amount of freedom and go on fantastic adventures,” she says, “which aren’t typically possible when you have to cart along your little brother or be home by dinnertime. It was a very alluring concept for me.”

Emily is a fellow editor and the youngest of three. She and I share an inordinate love of The Phantom Tollbooth (whose main character, Milo, has shades of the Mary Lennox style of disaffected, bratty onlies about him). “Orphans and only children do seem to invite more sympathy from the start,” she says. “Maybe a character without siblings seems somehow more desperate to find her place, and you want her to be her own hero! But I guess there’s an inherent loneliness there that really makes you root for them.”

Public domain image by Charles Robinson

No one quite knows what to do with the only child as an idea, and so, like stay-at-home moms and Photoshop, we must continue to debate about it ad nauseam. In April 2013, the Guardian ran a series of essays about only children written by adult onlies and parents of onlies; they included “I wish my son wasn’t an only child” and “Being an only child, I felt like a foreigner.” The New York Times followed up that June with a debate on its Motherlode blog: Are only children lonely? Are they too spoiled and selfish? Do they need, in the words of one of the Guardian contributors, “someone to knock the edges off”? I sometimes wonder this about my favorite literary onlies, as I’ve gotten older and read more widely. Maybe if Hamlet had had some siblings to talk though his problems with, he wouldn’t have dicked around the halls of Elsinore for so long. On the other hand, having a sibling did nothing to help Ophelia or Laertes. And don’t even start on the subject of sisters with Cordelia.

We read to discover who we are, and who we are not. In literature’s only children, we have a curious window to the world and to ourselves. The isolation of the only child, and the lack of protection and comfort afforded by an extended family structure, speaks deeply to a basic human anxiety of being alone and vulnerable. This is why people often react with such overblown hostility to only children (I don’t have time to wrestle with Granville Stanley Halls’ infamous proclamation that being an only is “a disease unto itself”; I’m still working on the “being a millennial is a disease unto itself” doctrine that New York Times trend pieces are currently espousing.) I once had a classmate in college, a person I respected and admired, say to my face that he didn’t think that only children should be allowed. But what he was really saying was: I don’t think people should be alone.

My only-ness made me garbage at Easter egg hunts (who could compete with teams of siblings fanned out over the ground like egg-finding SWAT teams?), but in other ways it didn’t define me at all. The journey from separation to companionship and love is not an only-child story; it’s a human story, writ large in the only child. At the end of the journey, we can all only hope to be like Mary Lennox: alongside a couple of close friends or family members, tending our little bit of earth in the sun.

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