When I was young, I gobbled up classics like All-of-a-Kind Family, The Boxcar Childrenand Little Women. (I still haven’t fully forgiven Amy for her crime against Jo’s manuscript.) Big, boisterous families—so different from mine—enthralled me. By the time my sister was born, I’d been an only child until for nine years, 10 months and 28 days.
As I started writing Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties, it was clear 12-year-old Ava was an only child. Although Ava’s situation is somewhat unusual—her mom died shortly after giving birth—Ava isn’t alone in her “onliness.” This year, I’ve been reading as many middle-grade novels from fellow debut authors as I can, and I’ve enjoyed several centering only children in a variety of genres.
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“I wrote an only child because I am one,” says Nicole D. Collier, whose Just Right Jillian published in February. “Being an only child is a pretty specific experience and smaller families are more common now.”
She’s right. In fact, families with one child are the fastest-growing kind, according to the US Census Bureau. The Pew Research Center found that the percentage of women who ended their childbearing years with one child doubled from 11 percent in 1976 to 22 percent in 2015.
Decades of research have debunked the so-called “only-child syndrome.” Singletons aren’t more selfish or spoiled, bossy or bratty than peers with siblings, but negative stereotypes persist. (Consider these headlines: Is it cruel to have an only child? Don’t feel guilty about “only” having one child. Why it’s totally okay to have just one child.) Scientists believe a variety of influence personality factors. As we know representation matters.
Collier’s second novel—The Many Fortunes of Mayaout in January—also features an only. “I write about the interior lives of girls,” she says, “and I imagine, in general, only children have a decent amount going on inside; They aren’t always beholden to taking care of youngers, or being told what to do by olders, or always having a twin nearby.”
Refe Tuma grew up with four sisters and has four kids of his own. Frances and the Monster, his debut middle grade Frankenstein retelling set in 1939 Switzerland, came out in August and features an only child. “Sometimes we write from our own experiences, sometimes what fascinates us most are the lives we never got to lead,” Tuma says. “Growing up in a large family, I relished the chance to step into the shoes of sibling-less characters.”
As an introvert, Tuma says he appreciates only children’s “highly developed interiority” and their “practiced agency.” “Only kids often need to make things happen for themselves,” he says. “With no siblings to default to when they’re bored, they have to find fun.”
A Rich Inner Life
The possibility of a rich inner life—perhaps born from more solo time—motivated other debut authors to write only-child protagonists, too. “It’s a very internal book—it’s written in diary entries,” says Andrea Beatriz Arango of her novel-in-verse, Iveliz Explains It Allreleased in September. “Iveliz is going through some mental health things that are approached very differently by the other generations in the household—her mom and her grandma. So it made sense in my head to keep it streamlined.”
Mental health also plays an important role in my novel. Ava, recently diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, doesn’t want to leave her rural Iowa home to travel to Colorado with Dad. But he wants Ava to meet his long-distance girlfriend, Jenn, who lives in Denver with her daughter—Mackenzie, aka Z—who’s also 12 and an only.
Ava is shy, unused to meeting people, and mad at Dad for not appreciating her concerns about Colorado’s myriad dangers—including oxygen-stingy air and cute ground squirrels harboring plague. Ava believes she alone must protect herself in this scary, new world.
Melissa Dassori also heightened her character’s isolation with her only-child status. In JR Silver Writes Her World, published in July, JR and her best friend are drifting apart. “She gets a little more alone time than she bargained for,” Dassori explains, “and making her an only child made that a starker scenario.”
Conflict Drives Stories
Stories are about trouble. Readers want to see characters struggle and, ultimately, be changed by it. Writing about an only child immediately strips away a potential source of support (although—as anyone with a sibling knows—they also can serve as a great source of conflict)!
Erika Lewis sharpens her story’s emotions by forcing her only-child protagonist to witness what she longs for. In Kelcie Murphy and the Academy for the Unbreakable Arts, the first in a fantasy series that launched last March, Kelcie appreciates the two brothers in her “den” (her dorm in her magical school) but also envies them, Lewis says. “She’s jealous of their connection, how they’re so obviously family looking and protective of one another, yet still teasing,” she says. “She’s never had that. Never had someone know her so completely. And she really wants a family like that.” Kelcie’s yearning plays into a satisfying story arc.
In George Jreije’s Shad Hadid and the Alchemists of Alexandria (published last week), Shad is a Lebanese-American boy who’s always felt like an outsider. When he’s sent to a mysterious (and dangerous) boarding school, he bonds intensely with new friends.
“Shad’s classmates become family, and that likely would not have been the case if he already had siblings he was close with,” Jreije says. “Being able to capture that experience on the page can be really engaging and inspiring for young readers, whether they have siblings or not!”
Lisa Stringfellow agrees. “Not having siblings make friendships even more important,” she says. In her dual-POV Caribbean mermaid fantasy, A Comb of Wishespublished in February, Stringfellow heightens the story tension when one of her main characters, Kela, pulls away from her best friend, Lissy, just when she needs her most.
Kela is mourning her mother’s recent death in a car accident, and Lissy wants to support her. Kela’s temporary retreat is confusing even to her but is a believable expression of grief that makes the situation even more painful for both girls. “In my story,” Stringfellow says, “the community—and how they look after Kela and her dad—is important.”
Michael Leali, author of The Civil War of Amos Abernathywhich published in June, says only-child stories often “zoom in on the importance of found family.” His next book, Matteo, out next May, also features an only child. “I found in both books that I was able to highlight parent-child relationships in more focused ways because there is only one child to care for,” he says. “The only child really gets to be the star of the show.”
Just like in real life, some protagonists are only children because one or both parents are absent or struggling.
Katryn Bury, whose Drew Leclair Gets a Clue Launched a mystery series in March, says the mother in her story is a bit immature and somewhat flustered to find herself with a child when she doesn’t feel fully grown herself. “Drew’s dealing with her mom abandoning the family at the start of the book,” Bury says. “When Drew had health issues right away, (her mother) didn’t feel like she could have any more kids because she was already struggling to play this unfamiliar role as mom.”
Sally Engelfried—who has six siblings—says close women friends, onlies raised by single moms, inspired Daphne, her only-child protagonist in Learning to Fall (September). “Those relationships always fascinated me because there was this common thread of the kid being quite mature and able to hang out with grownups easily and the mom being ‘cool’ and maybe having a more friend-like relationship with their daughter, but also dependent on their kid in a way I noticed was specific to that one-on-one relationship,” she says.
Some studies have found that only children score well in creativity, self-reliance and independence and develop reasoning skills earlier from copying adult speech patterns. Some studies found they’re somewhat less agreeable as kids, yet more cooperative as adults.
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In Michelle Mohrweis’ dual-pov novel The Trouble With Robotswhich came out late last month, two only children—polar opposites—must work together to save their school’s robotics program. “Both Allie and Evelyn are feeling very lonely and isolated on their own,” Mohrweis says. “Part of the story is them learning how to open up to other people and find friends, some of whom may well become close as family one day.”
In my story, Ava and Z are strikingly different, too, and their path to friendship is like a rugged mountain pass with stomach-churning switchbacks. But while Ava fears Colorado’s mountains (“a magnet for danger!”), the biggest threat may be Jenn, her dad’s girlfriend, who’s actually pretty great. What does that mean for Ava’s future?
This vacation will change everything—maybe even Ava and Z’s “onliness.”
Meet the author
A surprise move to Colorado and her own anxiety disorder inspired Kelly Crocker’s debut middle grade novel, Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties, from Albert Whitman & Co. Kellye spent six wonderful months working in youth services at a large, suburban Des Moines public library in 2012 but had to quit when a serious illness left her homebound for a year. A longtime journalist, Kellye now teaches creative writing to young people through a large literary nonprofit. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Denver, where you can find her reading, making art from the recycling bin, and hiking with her husband and their rambunctious Black Lab, Daisy.
Links: Website: www.kellyecrocker.com
About Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties
Anxiety has always made Ava avoid the slightest risk, but plunging headfirst into danger might be just what she needs.
Dad hasn’t even been dating his new girlfriend that long, so Ava is sure that nothing has to change in her life. That is, until the day after sixth grade ends, when Dad whisks her away on vacation to meet The Girlfriend and her daughter in terrifying Colorado, where even the squirrels can kill you! Managing her anxiety, avoiding altitude sickness, and surviving the mountains might take all of Ava’s strength, but at least this trip will only last two weeks. Right?
Publisher: Whitman, Albert & Company
Publication date: 10/18/2022
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post