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Gennifer Choldenko: Orphan Eleven (Trauma, Self-Esteem)


When I was twelve my brother, Grey, and one of my sisters, Glenys, went off to college. Glenys and Grey were my surrogate moms. They watched over me, read to me, taught me, fought with me. Without them I was desperately lonely.


Just months after they left began a horrifying sequence of events. First, my dog died followed by my uncle, and my grandparents. Soon after that my sister, Gina who was on the autism spectrum, died accidentally or perhaps not so accidentally. Then my parents both lost their jobs, and my beloved father drank himself to death.


My life was a badly written novel. One unrelated melodramatic event after another.

And the bouncy, enthusiastic, vivacious girl, the girl with lots of friends and a big smile, the girl who would come home from school with a sore arm from having raised it so hard and so often – that girl died. And the one who replaced her had hardly a word to say.


In retrospect it seems obvious, I was deeply disturbed and severely traumatized. And really after all of that, who wouldn’t be?


But I didn’t have the benefit of hindsight. I was right in the middle of it, being boiled alive in pain and confusion that would take many years to sort out.


As a teen living at home, I didn’t go to a therapist. The adults in my life had so many of their own problems, they weren’t able to see mine. My only recourse was to turn on myself. Every time I opened my mouth, the harsh chorus of critical voices in my head told me how stupid I was. I couldn’t get the voices to stop because I believed them. They were me.


There was no psychic room to go through the stages of development that most teens experience and so I stayed twelve. The good news about that is I now I make a living from being twelve. When I write, I write from the deepest part of who I am and that’s the part that’s twelve. I don’t try to write that way. It’s just how the words come out.


And it’s why I wrote Orphan Eleven. I was drawn to the real-life stories of the kids in a study the University of Iowa conducted on orphans in 1939 then called the Fluency Study, now known as the Monster Study. The study was designed by a speech pathologist named Wendell Johnson, who wanted to know what caused a child to begin to stutter.



Johnson took kids who didn’t stutter and put them in two groups. One that encouraged their speech, the other that cruelly corrected them every time they opened their mouths. Not surprisingly, some of the children internalized those brutal corrections. And stopped talking entirely.

I wrote about this because I knew what it felt like to have voices in your head that tell you how stupid you are every time you opened your mouth. And I knew that once those punishing voices move in, it is almost impossible to evict them.


At its core, that is what Orphan Eleven is about. Or as Jabo a little person who is a character in Orphan Eleven tells the main character Lucy: “None of us gets long on this lush and lovely planet. Don’t relinquish any more of your precious life to whoever it is who has hurt you.”

Jabo goes on to say:


“My father measured six feet three inches. Do you know how tall I am?”

Lucy shook her head.

“Three feet six inches. Six three, three six . . . nature’s little joke, but it wasn’t funny to me. When my father looked at me, the shame in his eyes was excruciating. The day he left me was the worst and best day of my life. “


Confronting those vicious voices inside me was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, and I didn’t do it alone. It was slow going finding the right therapist. When your mind isn’t your friend, it doesn’t make good decisions for you. But I stumbled along until I came upon a therapist who knew how to help. And slowly I got better, day by day, month by month, year by year.

Now I’m a professional twelve-year-old. And every time my fingers fly across the keyboard I imagine I’m talking to twelve-year-old me . . . writing the stories she so desperately needed to read.



With more than 2.5 million books sold, Choldenko’s best known Tales from Alcatraz series, has been called “A cornerstone series in contemporary children’s literature.” Publisher’s Weekly said Gennifer’s newest novel: Orphan Eleven: “Has all the ingredients to become a beloved middle grade book.” And Common Sense Media called it: “a riveting, uplifting page-turner.” Gennifer lives in Northern California with her loyal husband, her clever daughter, and her naughty iPhone chewing dog.