We all love our Dickensian tales about evil stepmothers and adorable orphans who have to make their own way in a dark world – but sometimes they get lucky. Fiction has given us some of the most loving and supportive adoptive parents you will ever see, and these ten foster families particularly warm my heart.
10. The Weasleys (Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling)
I put the Weasleys in tenth place because they never technically adopted Harry, but we all know they would have in a heartbeat if Dumbledore hadn’t insisted on Harry going back to his aunt and uncle’s house each year. To them, he is a part of the family just as much as their biological sons are, and my heart grows three sizes every time Mrs Weasley throws her arms around a slightly flustered Harry.
9. Mr and Mrs Owens (The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman)
Mr and Mrs Owens are two ghosts who have been married for 250 years, but never had any children. One night, a little boy toddler crawls into their graveyard and his mother’s ghost begs Mrs Owens to look after him – and so she does. To her, it’s that simple: this child needs her help, so she will help, and that’s that.
8. Mr Brownlow (Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens)
If Oliver Twist is the quintessential orphan boy, then Mr Brownlow is the ultimate guardian. He is just a kind, wealthy man who takes an interest in a lost child and decides to take him under his wing. He earns some more points because he seems to be a bookworm; he is so caught up in the novel he picks up at a bookstall that he doesn’t even notice that the Artful Dodger steals his handkerchief.
7. Ben Moore and Cillian Boyd (the Chaos Walking series, Patrick Ness)
Without giving too much away, these two men sacrifice a lot to raise their late friends’ child and save him from a terrible tragedy. They are torn up by guilt and a desire for revenge, but always put Todd first, no matter what. It is implied that they were together when Cillian is referred to as Ben’s “One In Particular.”
6. Joe Gargery (Great Expectations, Charles Dickens)
Joe Gargery is one of the nicest characters in all of literature – too a fault, almost. Even when Pip begins to look down on him and is clearly embarrassed to be seen with him, an uncultured, uneducated blacksmith, Joe has nothing but love in his heart for his boy. I bet he gives fantastic hugs.
5. Ms Honey (Matilda, Roald Dahl)
Ms Honey is pure wish fulfillment in human form – a beautiful, warm, loving teacher who understands and appreciates Matilda in a way her own parents never have. Her very name oozes sweetness, that’s how good a person she is. Her only flaw is that she has trouble standing up for herself, but luckily Matilda, ever fighting for justice, decides to do it for her. Ms Honey and Matilda both come from an abusive home, and in their shared pain, they find each other and make their own happy ending together. The musical captures this relationship beautifully as well and makes it very clear that these two see each other when nobody else seems to understand. Ms Honey struggles to fight the monsters underneath her bed, but then Matilda takes her hand and helps her finally rip off the blankets. Together, they are no longer afraid.
4. Jean Valjean (Les Misérables, Victor Hugo)
Jean Valjean is practically a saint by the end of this novel, and one of the things that transform him is his relationship with Cosette, the little girl he takes in because he feels that he was responsible for her poor mother’s death. Valjean does everything in his power to protect Cosette from the evils of the world and at one point even carries a wounded Marius on his back through the sewers of Paris because he knows his daughter loves him. Now that is dedication.
3. The Hubermanns (The Book Thief, Markus Zusak)
Hans and Liesel Hubermann are two ordinary people who become extraordinary through their actions during World War Two. Not only do they take in young Liesel, but they also hide a Jewish refugee, Max, in their basement, at the risk of their own lives. When we first meet Rosa, she is mean to Liesel, even abusive at times, but our perception of her changes when we see her interact with Max. Even though she can still be really harsh, Rosa changes from a cold stepmother into a loving parent before our very eyes.
As for Hans, he starts off as “barely visible. An un-special person.” To Liesel, he is a warm and supportive father figure, but to the rest of the world, he appears to be unremarkable – until the war hits. His acts of rebellion against the Nazi regime bring out his strength and his deeply held beliefs on fairness and justice. In his own way, Hans becomes a hero, someone for Liesel and Max to look up to. He is kind and gentle, with an ever-present twinkle in his eye and a spine of steel when push comes to shove. It’s impossible not to fall in love with him and fear for his life every step of the way.
2. Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert (Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery)
The Cuthberts and Anne Shirley have a rocky start. Marilla has her heart set on a boy to help out on the farm, but when Matthew finds a little girl at the train station, babbling excitedly about how she finally got adopted, he cannot bear to tell her the truth. Anne and Matthew have a deep connection the moment they meet, and even though Marilla is reluctant at first, she too ends up falling for Anne’s innocent charm. Both Matthew and Marilla make a conscious decision to take in Anne, not because she is an extra pair of hands, but because they see that she needs a home and deserves the happiest family they can be for her. Anne finally has a place where she belongs and in turn, she melts Marilla’s seemingly frosty heart and puts a smile on Matthew’s face. They may have changed her life forever by deciding to adopt her, but she has changed their lives just as much and just as deeply.
1. Betsey Trotwood and Mr Dick (David Copperfield, Charles Dickens)
Like Marilla Cuthbert had initially had her heart set on a boy, so is Betsey Trotwood sorely disappointed that David Copperfield was born a boy. So disappointed, in fact, that she marches out of the room the second the doctor announces his gender and never returns – and who can blame her, after her terrible experiences with men (including her own husband). Years later their paths cross again and after hearing how badly his stepfather has treated him, Betsey decides to adopt David and look after him. Again, like Marilla, she can seem cold at first, but David quickly finds that she cares very deeply, even if she doesn’t always show it. She is fiercely independent and will not stand for anything less than what she believes to be the right thing to do. The moment she decides to look after David, she becomes a protective force to be reckoned with. One of my favourite moments in all of literature is when David shows up at her door out of nowhere, exhausted and in tears, and she just sits down right there on the garden path, flabbergasted, as he tells her what he has been through.
David’s other guardian is Mr Dick, an older man who lives under Ms Trotwood’s care. He is mentally disabled and was sent to an asylum by his brother, but when Betsey sees how badly he is treated there, she lets him move in with her and treats him with the utmost respect. She trusts his judgment and asks him to adopt David with her so they can guide him together. Mr Dick is a gentle man and takes to David right away; they fly kites together and David takes him seriously and oh my God I love these characters so much.
Mr Dick and Betsey Trotwood are both outsiders in Victorian society (he is mentally ill and she is a woman living alone who lets no man tell her what to do), but they look after each other and help David get back on his feet after suffering so much abuse for so many years. They are a curious pair and this new family unit they form with their new adoptive child brings out the best in all of them; they have created their own little island of misfit toys.
(I’m not crying, you’re crying.)
Edit: I know this list is already finished and out there in the world, but I would like to retroactively add Rafael from Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Last Night I Sang To The Monster to this list.