Supporting Only Children Through Literature

The Power of One: The Bounty of Books
BY HF Contributing Writer, Dana Pilson

Would Arthur be as amusing without D.W.?  Who would Stella impart all her worldly knowledge to, without Sam?  Sister and Brother Bear might squabble like grizzlies, but could we imagine one without the other?  Annie is spunky while Jack is shy, the two of them make a dynamic duo in their magic treehouse.   Could we imagine Laura Ingalls growing up on the prairie without her rhyming sisters, Mary and Carrie?   It recently dawned on me that my five-year-old’s  most beloved characters all have siblings! They all have their sidekicks, a foil, a partner, another half. My daughter Daisy has been constantly asking why she can’t have a big sister.  “Everyone else has a sibling” she insists, “in real life and in books.”

Thankfully, I can counter that no, not everyone has a sibling, not in real life, and not in books either!  The storybook universe is populated by plenty of precocious only children.  Little Bear is a favorite, and I might add he never seems to complain about being an only cub.  His human friend Emily seems not to have siblings either, but rather a doll that only she can understand.   Loads of books feature one child for simplicity’s sake, such as Rainy Day Together, a sweet story about a girl spending the day inside with her mom, or Frida’s Office Day, about a young ‘cat’ going to work in the city with her father ‘cat.’  Some stories are more self-consciously focused on the only child experience, such as My Only Child, There’s No One Like You (one in a series of ‘Birth Order’ books), and Mr. and Mrs. Smith Have Only One Child, But What a Child! and Here I Am, An Only Child, written from the child’s point of view.  I recently read these three books to my only child at the library, and while she sat patiently through them, she didn’t beg to borrow them, in fact, she was pretty bored by all this only child business.

Stories about only children are much more interesting when there’s more of a story than simply, here’s what being an only is all about.  The “Rose” series, the continuation of the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” books, is our current favorite.  Rose is the only daughter of Laura and Almonzo Wilder.  Sure, sometimes she bemoans not having siblings, but the books follow her as she grows up in the Ozarks among other families, large and small, in the 1890s.  She plays in the creek, has crazy adventures with friends, rides her donkey to school, and wins the class spelling bee.  We love Rose! We read a new chapter every evening and we play “Rose and Laura” during the day.  Rose figures so strongly in our lives these days that she is basically one of my daughter’s best friends—actually, Daisy often plays that Rose is her big sister. 

There’s also Kevin Henkes’ charismatic Chrysanthemum, and the endearing Ruthie Sims.   Henkes lays it right out there on page one of Jessica: “Ruthie Sims didn’t have a dog, she didn’t have a cat, or a brother or a sister.  But Jessica was the next best thing.”  Jessica, it turns out, is imaginary.  Daisy’s imaginary younger sibling, for years now, has been a donkey named “Tingalayo,” or “Ting,” for short.  “Ting” comes everywhere with us, and sometimes she morphs into a human, and then back into a donkey.  It can get confusing.  When Ting pesters Daisy, all I have to do is say “stop it, Ting,” and the event is over.  I imagine disciplining real siblings is a bit more complicated, but I must say, it’s a breeze reprimanding this imaginary little sister.

When storybook onlies aren’t busy conjuring imaginary siblings, large and/or intelligent dogs step in as constant playmates.  The ubiquitous Clifford, Cynthia Rylant’s Mudge, even Susan Meddaugh’s speaking dog Martha all have distinct personalities, and while they might drool and shed, they essentially function as surrogate siblings, replete with antics, rivalries, and affection. In the first Henry and Mudge story, Henry, an inquisitive only child, asks his parents if he could have a baby sister or baby brother.  Their response, a simple “Sorry.”  They get him a very large dog, Mudge, instead.  Mudge is the consummate brother figure: he and Henry get muddy, play physical games, and loll around munching on snacks in Henry’s room. Henry’s cousin Annie and her father eventually move in next door.  Annie, an only as well, gets a pet rabbit who is every bit as pink and girly as Annie.

One of the most beautiful books I’ve ever come across is Someday, a simple story about a mother’s love for her only daughter.  I cannot read the book, or even think about it, without tears coming to my eyes.  “Someday I will watch you brush your child’s hair…” the writing is sparse, the illustrations simple, the message of enduring love undeniably resonant.   The tear-jerker, Love You Forever, is equally powerful and emotionally intense for the parent-reader.  I laugh every time I see the picture of the mother climbing up a ladder to get to her grown son’s room, but cannot stifle a sob when the son so lovingly cradles his elderly mother at the end.   Yet these two books are more like allegories than stories about a mother and an only child.  They are tales of true love; whether or not the child is an only seems merely incidental.

One of my favorite children’s authors is Cynthia Rylant, herself a parent of one child.  The world is made up of so many kinds of families, and she seems to write about every possible configuration: big sprawling families (When the Relatives Came), brother and sister living with grandparents (When I was Young in the Mountains) a girl living with her grandparents (Christmas in the Country), and of course, the Henry and Mudge series.

In the end, I like to say that every family is the right size for itself.  My job is to show my daughter, through books and stories and conversations and play, that she is not the only “only child” who ever walked the earth, nor is there anything wrong in being an only child.  Stories about only children are for all kids, of course, but they are extra added assurance for an only child that they are interesting, can have loads of fun and have lots of friends and wild adventures, and that they are important in their own right.  Big extended families with loads of kids racing around, small families made up of a single parent and one child, grandparents raising their grandchildren, there is no right size, they are all all right.  We are all the right size for ourselves.  We love stories in our house, reading them, telling them, acting them out… may we never run out of inspiration!


Dana “Dee” Pilson

Dee lives with her professor husband and young daughter in rural Pownal, Vermont, just over the state line from Williamstown, Massachusetts. She is an art historian and has worked in museums in New York City, Boston, and Williamstown. She has been an avid writer since the tender age of eight, filling journals with personal essays and short stories, as well as mounds of poetry, both serious and whimsical. New Yorker by birth, New Hampshire-ite by schooling, and now Vermonter by choice, Dee writes about art and architecture, the environment, books, food, exercise, travel, and green living. Her new blog, “The Power of One,” focuses on issues related to parenting an only child in today’s child-centric world.

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