Children’s voices telling adult stories

I’m the first to admit that I’m a sucker for a charming narrator, especially when that narrator is young, trapped in impossible circumstances, and wise beyond his/her years. This all started when I was young, in pretty decent circumstances and not at all wise. I fell in love with Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (novel)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those voices never left me. Since then, I’ve added countless others – boys and girls who inspire, charm, and generally break my heart. I marvel when an author can so perfectly capture the voice and tone of a child or a teenager (as I am equally frustrated by authors who try and fail to find that thin line between naiveté and cynicism.) I wanted to wrap Scotty Ocean up and bring him home with me when I read An Ocean in Iowa.  Rose Edelstein’s warmth and charm anchor one of my all-time favorite books, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. And I will never forget the brilliant 12 year-old mapmaker T. S. Spivet, the heart of one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read (The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet).

All of these characters captured my heart. But now there seems to be a new crop of young narrators telling absolutely horrific stories, intent on breaking my heart into a million pieces. I noticed it first in the uproar surrounding Emma Donaghue’s Room, a story of kidnap and abuse told completely through the voice of 5 year-old Jack. I heard from several people that they found the child’s POV difficult and a bit creepy, but I bought it completely. For me, the unusual perspective elevated the novel from good writing to an outstanding book.

When I tell her what I’m thinking and she tells me what she’s thinking, our each ideas jumping into the other’s head, like coloring blue crayon on top of yellow that makes green.”

Likewise, Girlchild is a story that can only be told in the first-person perspective. Rory Dawn suffers the kind of mistreatment and abuse that turn readers stomachs, but her voice is so honest and determined that I couldn’t put the book down.

I haven’t found a mirror yet that doesn’t reflect the curves of the Calle back at me, my dirty ways, my fragile teeth and bad skin, my hands that won’t stop picking at themselves.”

cover image from Goodreads

This week, I’ve added a new voice.  Admittedly it took a while for me to get into the groove of Stephen Kelman’s Man Booker Prize nominated Pigeon English. Kelman turns vocabulary and syntax completely upside down in order to capture the mixed-up world of young African immigrant Harri Opuku.

I put my alligator tooth down the rubbish pipe. I heard it fall down to the bottom and disappear. It was an offering for the volcano god. It was a present for God himself. If I gave him my best good luck then he’d save us from all the bad things, the sickness and chooking and dead babies, he’d bring us all back together again. He’d have to or it wouldn’t be fair. It was a good swap, nobody could say it wasn’t.”

Again, Harri is trapped in poverty and violence, especially considering the dead body that opens the book. But he is an innocent. He finds beauty in the rubbish of his life. Once I caught the rhythm and lyricism in his broken language, I was a goner.

If Agnes dies I’ll just swap places with her. She can have my life. I’ll give it to her and I’ll die instead. I wouldn’t mind because I’ve already lived for a long time. Agnes has only lived for one year and some. I hope God lets me. I don’t mind going to Heaven early. If he wants me to swap places, I will.”

I love Harri for his courage, his uncomplicated bargains and his pure heart.

None of these books are easy reads. They don’t wrap up in tidy little bows. Instead, they open up worlds which I hope my own children never have to face. In fact I ask myself if I am allowing myself to be manipulated by this style. Are these authors trading in on the inherent sympathy readers have for the innocent? Maybe.

Regardless, it’s a style I love and will continue to seek out. I’d love to hear your suggestions.

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