The best books about orphans not written by Horatio Alger

Gary Blackwood Author Of Curiosity
By Gary Blackwood

Who am I?

Though I’m not personally an orphan, I’ve always been drawn to books that feature them. Maybe it’s because I felt the lack of a father; mine wasn’t around much during my childhood, since he worked at a job in the city through the week. The absent or distant father is a recurring theme in my novels, including the Shakespeare Stealer series, Moonshine, The Imposter, The Year of the Hangman, and Curiosity. Of course, when you write for young readers, orphans also make ideal protagonists, since they’re forced to use their own resources to confront and resolve the story’s conflict, rather than relying on grownups.


I wrote...

Curiosity

By Gary Blackwood,

Book cover of Curiosity

What is my book about?

Intrigue, danger, chess, and a real-life hoax combine in this historical novel from the author of The Shakespeare Stealer.

Philadelphia, PA, 1835. Rufus, a twelve-year-old chess prodigy, is recruited by a shady showman named Maelzel to secretly operate a mechanical chess player called the Turk. The Turk wows ticket-paying audience members and players, who do not realize that Rufus, the true chess master, is hidden inside the contraption. But Rufus’s job working the automaton must be kept secret, and he fears he may never be able to escape his unscrupulous master. And what has happened to the previous operators of the Turk, who seem to disappear as soon as Maelzel no longer needs them? Creeping suspense, plenty of mystery, and cameos from Edgar Allan Poe and P. T. Barnum mark Gary Blackwood’s triumphant return to middle-grade fiction.

The books I picked & why

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Fingersmith

By Sarah Waters,

Book cover of Fingersmith

Why this book?

I’m a big fan of historical novels, especially ones set in the Victorian era. Waters does a bang-up job of immersing the reader in the era, but where she really shines is in creating believable, relatable characters who, even though they’re flawed, elicit your sympathy. She’s no slouch at plotting, either; the book provides possibly the most shocking turn of events I’ve ever encountered, one of those rare revelations that makes you gasp, “Whoa! I didn’t see that coming!” 


The Eye of Love

By Margery Sharp,

Book cover of The Eye of Love

Why this book?

Okay, this is really three novels, but they’re all linked, and all fascinating. Martha, the orphan, is offbeat, often unlikeable, and yet one of the most compelling characters you’re likely to find in fiction. Though Sharp is best known for The Rescuers and its sequels, this series is in a whole different universe, and definitely not for young readers. (By the way, they’re also very funny.)


Soul Music

By Terry Pratchett,

Book cover of Soul Music

Why this book?

And speaking of funny, they don’t get much better than Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Though they’re usually classified as fantasy, they’re really very pointed satire. He sends up everything from movies to opera to the postal system. Soul Music takes on popular music, and it’s one of his best. 


Great Expectations

By Charles Dickens,

Book cover of Great Expectations

Why this book?

When we think of Dickens and orphans, we tend to think of Oliver Twist, of course. But Great Expectations is a much more thought-provoking and satisfying book and features not one orphan but two: Pip, the protagonist, and his heartthrob, Estella. She and her adoptive mother, Miss Havisham, are two of the most memorable and fully realized (and infuriating) characters in literature. 


Silas Marner

By George Eliot,

Book cover of Silas Marner

Why this book?

I first encountered Silas Marner, as I did so many other great stories, in the form of a Classics Illustrated comic. I liked it well enough, but avoided the novel for decades, assuming it would be maudlin. Not so. It’s very realistic and very moving. Middlemarch is considered Eliot's masterpiece, and I've tried it a couple of times but couldn't really warm to it--even though it, too, features an orphan! Marner, on the other hand, drew me in right away. (Maybe I should try the Classics Illustrated version of Middlemarch?)  


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