Little Orphan Annie: Bookish Origins of an Iconic Redhead

You might know her from Broadway or her multitude of films, but did you know that Little Orphan Annie has roots in the bookish community?

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Annie taught us that despite the hard knock life, the sun will always come out tomorrow. But this sassy young girl was not always the iconic character we know her to be today. So how did Little Orphan Annie go from a once-mentioned poetry character to a household name?

The Poem That Started It All

She’s still talked about today, but the character of ‘Little Orphan Annie’ actually made her first appearance in 1885 (and to think I thought the 1980’s version was ancient as a kid)! In “Little Orphant Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley, a young girl, Annie, tells stories to other children. Annie was based on Mary Alice “Allie” Smith, an orphan that lived in Riley’s home. The poem was originally titled “The Elf Child” and then “Little Orphant Allie”, but a misprint alongside the poem’s growing popularity caused Riley to officially change the name. 

Little Orphan Annie, bookish, origins

The poem was first printed as a book in the 1885 publication of The Boss Girl, under its original title “The Elf Child”. Other books that featured the poem were printed in the following years such as The Orphant Annie Book in 1908. The poem’s popularity led it to become the inspiration for the famous toy “Raggedy Ann.” 

The Comic Strip

When cartoonist Harold Gray joined the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper was looking to publish comic strips that would lead to nationwide syndication. Gray pitched many ideas, but the comic strip that was eventually accepted was Little Orphan Annie which took its name from the Riley poem. After a test run on August 5th, 1924, the comic strip began to be published regularly. 

The comic’s main character was Annie, a young orphan with auburn hair who could often be heard uttering “Gee whiskers” and “Leapin’ lizards!” Recurring characters included her dog Sandy and her benefactor Oliver Warbucks. 


Three adaptations were released during this era of Annie’s evolution. This included a 1930 radio show and two films. One film was released in 1932 by RKO Pictures and the other was released in 1938 by Paramount Pictures. Both of these films loosely follow plot points featured in the comics but do not follow the same plot as the later stage and film adaptations.

The strip ran for many years and often included political undertones. Despite the Chicago Tribune’s efforts to remain neutral, Little Orphan Annie made it clear how she felt about World War II. The comic character was seen blowing up a German submarine and leading a group of children called the Junior Commandos that collected materials for the war. These political themes continued until Gray’s death in 1968. 


The Next Era

After the comic’s founder had died, the strip continued through other cartoonists and a series of reprints. However, it was the next adaptation that really led to Annie becoming a household name. In 1972 Martin Charnin approached Thomas Meehan with one question in mind: What if we adapted ‘Annie’ for the stage…with music? 

While the project was intended to be a stage show of the comic, Meehan struggled to find the right material to create one central narrative. Instead, he took the comic’s main characters (Annie, “Daddy” Warbucks, and Sandy) and inserted them into a new story. Meehan and Charnin, alongside Charles Strouse, who wrote the music, were inspired by the depressing mood that struck New York during the Nixon era. They decided to place Annie in a similar-feeling era, The Great Depression. 

The Broadway production opened on April 21, 1977, and went on to win seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The show has since been revived multiple times, including productions in London’s West End. 


It all came full circle as the success of the Broadway production led to the resurrection of the comic strip. At the helm of this resurrection was Leonard Starr who worked on original Little Orphan Annie strips from 1979 to 2000. The strip was then handed over to other artists such as Andrew Pepoy, Alan Kupperberg, and Ted Slampyak. However, as these new artists tried to modernize the iconic character, people began to lose interest. 

The last official comic strip of Little Orphan Annie ran on June 13th, 2010. The final panel of the comic read “And this is where we leave our Annie. For now—”, which is extremely fitting considering Annie is far from gone.

A Household Name

There have been numerous film adaptations of the stage show since its initial Broadway run, the most popular being the 1982 version which starred Aileen Quinn as Annie, Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks, Ann Reinking as Grace Farrell, and Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan. Annie and its kid’s version, Annie Jr., are produced in schools throughout the world every year.


The comic versions of these characters didn’t fully disappear either, with Annie and Daddy Warbucks making multiple cameos in the comic Dick Tracy in strips as recent as 2019.

Little Orphan Annie remains a prominent figure in pop culture. She is still referenced in books, movies, tv shows, and more. Despite her large prominence in my own childhood, I was somehow unaware of her bookish origins! For more content about pop culture that relates to books, click here!