**DISCUSSION: Children as Narrators

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**DISCUSSION: Children as Narrators

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Jan 25, 2010, 9:21pm

Since I just finished a fair number of short stories where children (ages 13 and under) were the narrators, I thought I'd use that as catalyst for a discussion of children as narrators.

I realize that it is hard to generalize, but think about a book or story (adult books, please) you have read that had a child as a narrator. What purpose do you think it served for the author to use a child's viewpoint instead of an adult's? Is there perhaps a different motive between using a 6 year old, a 12 year old or a 15 year old?

Here's a little thought to start the ball rolling: Children are associated with innocence; does using a child narrator make the story more truthful?

And just because we are all book geeks, please use examples from your reading (and I don't really think there's any right or any one answer here). The idea intrigues me at the moment and I thought I'd throw it out there and see what some of your thoughts are! (I, for one, am going to mull over some stories and come up with some of my own theories or, better yet, more questions!)

Edited: Jan 25, 2010, 10:15pm

Well, the book that immediately comes to mind is To Kill A Mockingbird. From reading a Harper Lee bio, Mockingbird by Charles Shields, I know that the choice of a narrator was something Lee struggled with. Critics had a problem with the two first person narrative voices, that of young and old Scout. From the bio: "A few critics later found fault with this technique. Phoebe Adams in the Atlantic dismissed the story as "frankly and completely impossible, being told in the first person by a six year-old with the prose style of a well-educated adult."

The book continues: "It might be that Lee floundered when she was trying to settle on a point of view. She rewrote the novel three times: the original draft was in the third person, then she changed to the first person and later rewrote the final draft, which blended the two narrators, Janus-like, looking forward and back at the same time.

As to why Lee, or any author chooses a child narrator, truth or honesty might enter into it. I also think a child's "take" can free an author from preconceptions.

I'll think on this some more and think of other books with child narrators. The Little Friend comes to mind. Others?

ETA: (A quick check reminds me that The Little Friend wasn't narrated by the child. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

Jan 25, 2010, 11:19pm

Children as narrators:

As I see it, having a child as narrator allows the adult to read between the lines – to see what the child may see but does not understand. Or to understand to what a child cannot give voice.

I do not think that a child narrator necessarily makes the narrative seem truer. Children are frequently less innocent than they seem as I know from long experience. For example, In the Fountain Overflows, Rose is clearly not innocent. Some would say she is too precocious to be convincing. However, when I read my own diaries from childhood, I find fairly sophisticated language and insight. In fact, I took a cynical pleasure in watching adults underestimate what I understood (not nice but true). So I believe that that child narrators can sound like adults. I am not at home and so cannot peruse my novels and offer quotations.

One last thought, I don’t think all child narrators are necessarily meant to be convincing as child narrators.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - This narrative worked because the child was a polymath
The Last Day the Dog Bushes Bloomed – utterly believable. The child watches as her parents split up. The character really has no idea what is happening.

Child of All Nations
The God of Animals
A Girl Made of Dust
Beasts of No Nation
Smell of Apples
Peace Like a River
Little Boys Come from the Stars
Frost in May
The Fountain Overflows
Shadow Baby
When We Were Romans
Black Swan Green
Alfred and Guinevere ***** (funny and believable)
Ellen Foster
Oranges Aren't the Only Fruit - Of course the narrator grows up, so . . . this may not count

And here is a blurb from the following website on Macedonian works with child narrators: http://www.macedonianlit.com/pdfs/critical/Through%20a%20Child's%20Eyes.pdf

If you read the entire article, you will find brief translations of certain sections of these novels. I assume these works have not been translated into English.

Macedonian literature has a number of works with child narrators that are worthy of note. These include Makedoncheto (The Macedonian Boy) by Petros G. Vocis, whose childhood memoir is written in the child narrator's voice of five year old Petros, who recounts his life in the lost world of his family's ancestral home village of Setina in northern Greece. The book is a memoir of a year when the Greek Civil War raged in his home village. The author recounts the tragedy of a family and a community torn apart by the events of that war. Another work that deserves our attention is Zhivko Chingo's novel, Golemata Voda (The Big Water) that is narrated by the young boy, Lem, during his time in an orphanage in post World War Two Macedonia. A third noteworthy work in which a child frequently appears as narrator is the collection of short stories by Jadranka Vladova, Voden Znak (Water Sign). Her child narrator often evokes a certain magic and romance in every day family life in Macedonia's capital Skopje in the 1950's and 60's.

Jan 25, 2010, 11:25pm

I personally have a lot of affection for the child narrator, and have ever since I read Davitas Harp by Chaim Potok - a book which hit me at the right time. But, Lois, 13 is too young, 14 is the perfect age of the child narrator, and Holden gets left out too, he is 16. Decent books that I fell in love with with the 14-yr-old narrator include The Lovely Bones, The secret life of bees, a The Curious incident of the dog in the nighttime. Why 14? At 15 their too smart, too aware, and too hormonally aggressive. At 12-13 the child is a mess of puberty. And before 11 they are so young that the books tend to get a little over simplified. (Exceptions in include Elllen Foster (11), and maybe The Giver (12)...but the Giver isn't really that complex, except for the ambivalent ending.) But 14 - it's the quiet after the most intense years of puberty, and it's when we first really start to look out at the world and observe. Everything is new, and scary, and normal.

Others: Thea got To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Fin. Chaim Potok has lots, and at different ages. Sorry by Gail Jones is brilliant. In the Country of Men has a nine-yr-old narrator and makes use of the awkwardness of that age. Barefoot Gen (6-7) doesn't really count because the images are really a sort of third person narrator. If you go to 16 you get The Catcher in the Rye & Life of Pi (and Storyteller by G.R. Grove)

I've always liked child narrators because they let me start from the beginning. They don't know anything, they aren't complex enough to hide anything, and so you learn from their naive and sort of unbiased observations. Naivety is part of it, but not the whole attraction. For me it's a comfortable way to enter a book.

Jan 26, 2010, 12:06am

#3 "As I see it, having a child as narrator allows the adult to read between the lines – to see what the child may see but does not understand. Or to understand to what a child cannot give voice."


#1 "Children are associated with innocence; does using a child narrator make the story more truthful?"

Children are so easily manipulated. I think they make the story more fresh, but not more truthful.

#1 "Is there perhaps a different motive between using a 6 year old, a 12 year old or a 15 year old?"

I sort of answered this above. Age effects the narrators comprehension, expression, and their types of response to it. At 6 I don't think you can express much - so maybe the novel needs some high trauma to reach to reader. At 15 I would think there's a lot of passion and you can be very expressive and idealistic; and, I would suspect potentially painfully manipulated - because they will get it...afterward. At 12 - good luck - the author needs a heavy dose of naivety, IMO.

Jan 26, 2010, 9:59am

As I expected, there are some interesting thoughts here.

>2 theaelizabet: a child's "take" can free an author from preconceptions. But can this also mean that it might free the reader from preconceptions?

>3 urania1: Innocence is sort of the standard line, but I agree with your statement that Children are frequently less innocent than they seem....

A story that came immediately to mind after I wrote the first post was a story by JCO narrated by a 9 year old girl and about a family with a several disabled (possibly autistic) child. The 9 year old is the 'normal' child and clearly neglected by the parents who must pour all their energy and resources into the older child. The young girl is actually scarred by a deliberate act of the barely controllable older child and suffers teasing at school because of it. The 9 year old is not innocent by any means (and that, I think, is part of the story) and her internalization of the situation and her emotions is riveting.

I definitely think a child narrator can be very unreliable.

>4 dchaikin:/5 Dan, I agree with a lot of what you are saying. In the Colum McCann collection I just read, all three stories were narrated or from the viewpoint of children. Particularly in "The Hunger Strike", he uses a just-turned 13 year old boy for the very reasons you point out about that age - they are in that moment of change between child and adolescent. In the story the boy is grappling with this change in the personal and public sense as he tried to make a connection with his imprisoned young uncle who is on a hunger strike (an uncle he doesn't know, btw).

Perhaps the use of children might be different in novels vs short fiction? (am thinking about this because my examples are short fiction)

Here's something I found tooling around on the web:
Viewpoint - Though children might not understand what's going on, and might be unable to be involved in the scene, they have certain advantages as observers - like cameras, they might see things from a new angle and might be ignored by the protagonists. The child might not understand what's going on, but readers are likely to. The difference between the character's and the reader's understanding can be exploited for laughs or for more serious effect. On the BBC's web-site they give the example of this - a child bursting into his parents' bedroom, upset to find them wrestling naked on the bed. Successful writers consciously exploit this irony

* "children can have instinctual knowledge which we adults can lose, and these insights yet gaps can be the stuff of dramatic conflict and motor a story" - Elizabeth Baines
* "one of the things I'm doing when I choose to use children as the channel through which the narrative is seen is what Henry James did with Maisie; I'm exploiting their clear-sightedness and innocence. Children see everything, but don't necessarily understand any of it. Whether they're protagonists or witnesses, they tend to be one step behind - or to one side of - the attentive adult reader, which sets up an interesting narrative gap through which the unsettling elements can squeeze." - Charles Lambert

This is from an article here

Jan 26, 2010, 10:17am

One thing to mention is that unless the story is very well done, using a younger child as narrator is often a mistake. Fault Lines used a series of six-year-old narrators, but rather than being unreliable, they were merely unrealistic. It's almost impossible to write in that early voice without being strangely precocious or affected. Has anyone encountered a book in which using a very young narrator worked to the narrative's advantage? I'm thinking more of novels, than short stories where an unusual viewpoint can be manipulated to advantage.

Jan 26, 2010, 10:18am

>6 avaland: >2 theaelizabet: "a child's "take" can free an author from preconceptions." But can this also mean that it might free the reader from preconceptions?

Yes, I should have been clearer. I meant that the author is freed from the reader's preconceptions.

Jan 28, 2010, 5:36am

Do we need to make a distinction between REAL child narrrators, and FAUX child narrators- in other words, adult narrators who are looking back at incidents in their childhood and describing them as they perceived them at the time? This is how I read TKAMB, and I take this to be one of the key themes of the book: the shifting borders between innocence and experience. Harper Lee does this so subtly that's it's almost hard to notice until one starts to think about it.

Another example that springs to mind is Treasure Island. Jim's age is not specified but I always reckoned he was about 12 (young enough to be ship's boy). Again there is a very subtle difference in points of view between Jim as he was, and Jim as he is.

Another example is Holden Caulfield, who seems to have two ages as well, the age of the events he is describing, and the age of describing them .These ages are perhaps very close together (one or two years at most).

Urania, I have read NONE of the books you cite in your list (are there ANY books you have NOT read?), but I would be intrersted to hear whether you think these 'child' narrators are real or faux.

Jan 28, 2010, 6:50am

>9 tomcatMurr: That's a very good point. I am mostly interested in what you call 'real', but a discussion of the other is equally intriguing.

Jan 29, 2010, 7:21am

I see the child narrator (in modern fiction) as primarily another method of creating an unrealiable narrator, insomuch that the reader has to interpret the events through this controlled view. The difference being that the child narrator does not mislead us deliberately but rather through a limited view, or a misunderstanding, of events.

>9 tomcatMurr: - that's a very important distinction - it is also a good way for the author to avoid the biggest pitfall in using a child as narrator, language. The problem with using a 10yo as the single narrator is that it limits the author to the language of a 10yo, albeit usually a precocious one. Nothing draws the reader up quicker than when a child narrator suddenly gains the language skills of a well-read adult.

Jan 29, 2010, 8:15am

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.

O, the wild rose blossoms
On the little green place.

.... etc

Portrait of the artist as young man
James Joyce.

Jan 29, 2010, 9:12am

FAUX is the norm in my experience, as is an adolescent/pre-adolescent narrator.

Some examples of REAL, young-child narrators:
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale

Edited: Jan 29, 2010, 12:20pm

Here's a bit from rachbxl's Belletrista review of The Earth Hums in B Flat that I thought interesting, considering our conversation:

Gwenni Morgan, the narrator, is a deliciously precocious 12-year-old growing up in a small town in Wales. Strachan captures perfectly the frustrations of the child wanting to be taken seriously, struggling to be a part of the adult society around her by eavesdropping on adult conversations and drawing anything but adult conclusions, on which she acts in a way that only a child could. Gwenni is a marvellous creation, her child's black-and-white take on the world contrasting beautifully with her rich dream-world, which is a constant source of embarrassment to her more pragmatic mother and older sister. "Don't you dare say anything to anyone about it again," Gwenni is warned by her mother when she attempts to recount a night-time flight of fancy. "You don't want people to think you're odd, do you?"

Full review here, if you are interested in more.

Feb 2, 2010, 11:32am

How about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time?

Not only a child narrator but one with Asperger's.

>10 avaland: I'm not sure I agree that children are really unreliable narrators. Rather the opposite - the report their experiences without really interpreting, leaving the reader to draw inferences that would escape the child.

Feb 4, 2010, 8:36am

So, let's see...

child narrators (say, under 10)
pubescent narrators (11-13...roughly)
adolescent narrators (14 and older)

faux child narrators - "adult narrators who are looking back at incidents in their childhood and describing them as they perceived them at the time." Perhaps most used in coming-of-age stories?

child narrators may be:
free from preconceptions
more honest
thinks simply, concretely
naivety provides a blank slate
innocent or... not so innocent
provide a different viewpoint
or may not be unreliable
sometimes unrealistic

Just as an interesting note, here are some very simplified notes from the theory of cognitive development:

Age 4 - 7: curiosity, questioning, primitive reasoning
Age 7 - 12: appropriate use of logic, ability to view things from another's perspective, "can only solve problems that apply to actual (concrete) objects or events and not abstract concepts or hypothetical tasks.
Age 11 and up: begins to think abstractly, to reason logically. Can apply reason to hypothetical situations. Can hypothesize, deduce. Begins to entertain possibilities for the future. Thinks about social matters. Has a heightened self-consciousness.

I don't mean to get into a deep discussion of cognitive development (of which I am not qualified) but I thought the notes would be a nice companion to our discussion. With regards to child narrators, I'm most interested in the inability of children to understand abstract concepts (i.e. "love") and which they, in my maternal experience, interpret concretely.

Feb 5, 2010, 6:00am

useful summary, thanks avaland.

I thought this was interesting and pertinent.


Feb 5, 2010, 7:16am

>17 tomcatMurr: Murr, that was a great article, thanks. While reading it, the book that came most to mind was Towelhead by Alicia Erian. It's greatest asset, imo, is the voice of the 13 year old, Jasira.

Feb 5, 2010, 7:46am

>15 jintster: - an unreliable narrator is not just someone who is lying to you or avoiding the truth, they can also be telling the truth but because they don't understand it they are unreliable.

>17 tomcatMurr: - there is an interesting unasked question in there - where does the reader stand? At 14 a voice may speak to use, at 40 it may seem artificial. Does that make the voice successful or unsuccessful? When, as an adult, we read a book with a child narrator, do we look at it on two levels - one as the adult we are & one as the child we were?

Edited: Feb 5, 2010, 7:56am

>18 avaland: I haven't read it, don't even know it. Can you give an excerpt, like a short paragraph or something?

>19 Jargoneer: oooo now that is subtle. Maybe that accounts for the enduring greatness of books like Great Expectations or To Kill a Mockingbird, which speak to us when we are young on one level, and then speak to us again when we are old on another.

Feb 5, 2010, 8:36am

>20 tomcatMurr: I don't think I have the arc any longer. I doubt it is any one passage though, more of the general candor and dark wit. It's one of those hard to read books as Jasira is pretty much stumbling through early adolescence on her own, failed (and or victimized) by every adult in her life.

>19 Jargoneer:, 20 That is an interesting point. I'm going to mull on that one awhile. I'm thinking that there are certainly books that will have that bi-level effect on us, but I'm also thinking that there are a lot of books that fail or don't intend to work that way.

Feb 9, 2010, 5:28am

It finally popped into my head:

Daisy Ashford The Young Visitors

The only really authentic child narrator I can think of in my reading.

(Is it a sign of aging? I have been racking my brains for the name of this book and writer since the beginning of the thread, and this afternoon, on the train, it pops up, out of the blue.)

Any one else read this?

Edited: Feb 9, 2010, 8:09am

>22 tomcatMurr: Interesting! Not just narrated but written* by a nine-year-old. *off to inter-library loan*

eta: *or maybe not?? JM Barrie? The more I look, the more I should have known tcM would recommend an iceberg

Feb 9, 2010, 11:24am

I am currently reading The Earth Hums in B Flat. While some sections do sound as if they are narrated by a child, other sections - particularly descriptions miss the mark entirely - e.g., "See how the moonlight shines through the trees to make the leaves dance on the white walls of Brywn Coch." The shift doesn't bother me in this book. Why? Behind the child is an adult who skillfully crafts a child's voice - rather different than an adult who lacks the skill to craft a child's voice. A child's report of adults' conversations tends to work better. One of the problems with books for children is this: the children narrators all too often sound like adults who are trying to sound like children.

In any case, for adult novels, I think we enjoy the double vision - of being in the know when the major character is not. This phenomena is similar to watching one of Shakespeare's plays, Othello for example. The audience knows exactly what is transpiring. Othello knows nothing. The difference, of course, is that in a work narrated by a child, the book often concludes with the child's disillusionment, entry into the next step toward adulthood, or with the voice of the grown-up who was once the child and now removed from or reflecting on the events that prompted the story.