Luckily, there is an extra tool in the only child coping-toolbox, honed over years of being the only kid in the room: our overactive imaginations. (Try playing a game of Monopoly with your imaginary friend. Then try an entire childhood of that.) This very quality is also why some of the greatest characters in modern literature are only children, too.
Eloise from Eloise by Kay Thompson
There is no only child on earth more inspirational to the bored, listless only child than Eloise, the Plaza Hotel’s own little miscreant. Her active imagination turns New York’s most uptight environment into a dream playground for her best friends/pets Weenie and Skipperdee and of course her patient and “raw-ther” proper Nanny. Eloise is especially inspirational to the urban only child — the kind known to partake in hallway, elevator, and lobby adventures — but she’s a role model for any “only” who knows the value of a travel-free, indoor solo adventure, especially one you can take your turtle on.
Bee Fox from Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Being best friends with your mom is already difficult when your mom is a little unstable, sick of the world, and farming out her decisions and work to a virtual assistant in India. What do you do, then, when she just up and disappears? In this hilarious book, 15 year-old Bee navigates the extreme version of a change that we all face eventually, but onlies especially: what happens when you have to become the adult in the parent-friend duo?
Margaret Simon from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume
This coming-of-age classic is notable for being one of the few timeless YA reads featuring an only child lead. It makes sense since many books for tween and teen readers rely on sibling characters as sources of information for their protagonists. Margaret’s slow growth into a slightly more confident teen, her periodic TMI moments with her parents, and her confusion about things that anybody with an older sister learned years ago (periods!) are all things that onlies the world over can relate to, reminisce about, and be glad are over.
Matilda from Matilda by Roald Dahl
Matilda is an only child but she is also, in classic Roald Dahl style, at the whim of careless adults who aren’t as smart as her, or at least this is the case until she finds a friend and confidant in her teacher. For onlies who don’t fit in at home, this is the ultimate tale of redemption, reminding us all to find allies where we can, develop confidence because we have no choice, learn as much as we are able, and, of course, play as many practical jokes as possible in the process.
Marjane Satrapi from Persepolis by Majane Satrapi
Ann August from Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson
A less quippy and more dramatic Gilmore Girls-esque story in which the full slate of complicated teenage mother-daughter dynamics are covered. Author Simpson pulls us into the lives of a larger-than-life, impatient, flawed solo mother and her wise-beyond-her-years only daughter as they fail to put down roots again and again. Ann often finds herself playing parent despite being the kid, but unlike in Where’d You Go, Bernadette? this isn’t much of a change for these two — it’s a longstanding tradition.
Oskar Schell from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Like many only children, Oskar Schell tends to relate to adults more easily than kids his own age, and as he sets out to investigate the origins of a mystery key he found in his late father’s closet, he certainly holds his own among a number of fascinating adult characters. The book swings wildly from sad to hilarious to eccentric, but Oskar remains a great protagonist — a child with more intellectual interests than most, a lot of natural curiosity, an unusual amount of empathy, and a great sense of adventure.
Lily Owens from The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a southern novel filled with larger-than-life, sassy women and somewhat on-the-nose racial commentary. It’s not a subtle genre, but 14-year-old Lily Owens, our protagonist in The Secret Life Of Bees, is one of the more realistically-drawn and relatable characters in the canon. With her pluck and unique sense of justice, adventure, and curiosity, she’s a delightful lens through which to view the bizarre world of the beekeeping Boatwright sisters. Plus, for those of us onlies with best friend moms, the one daughter/so many mothers set-up is a dream!
T.S. Garp from The World According to Garp by John Irving
Irving’s portrayal of T.S. Garp gives us a complicated figure to sink our teeth into, a sometimes selfish, sometimes magnanimous, sometimes struggling only child. It has an especially unique angle, however, in that it also involves a radical feminist single mom who arranged her child’s conception in order to stay away from men. The story offers a complicated picture of the feminist movement has some interesting parallels to Irving’s own life, but mostly it’s a really interesting portrait of the relationship between a male only child and his male-avoiding single mother.
Theodore "Theo" Decker from The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Another sharply observed account of the lone son of a single mother. Though certainly not uplifting — our lead winds up essentially orphaned — this is a story of survival and shifting family dynamics that puts Theo’s only child independence to the test. It’s a story about a lot of things, but among them is the question of what it means to lose family when you barely had any to begin with. Theo is heavily flawed, but he’s loveable and tough and interesting and, most importantly, one-of-a-kind.