Friday, 14 January 2011

Child narrators in adult fiction

with Elizabeth Baines and Charles Lambert


family.jpg Some people (me included) rarely produce child-centred stories, which is odd - after all, we were all children once. Writing from a child's point-of-view isn't easy. Done well though, it can be effective and affecting, so it's worth a try. Most stories of this type use a third-person-priviledged point-of-view, though a first-person treatment is possible. Two story collections I've read in the last year or so have a fair proportion of child-centred stories, so I thought I'd bring the authors' views into the discussion.

Some writers raid their own pasts

  • "The key, I think is memory: quite simply, remembering, never forgetting what it was like to be a child - ... when I was in my early twenties I made a conscious vow ... never to forget what it was like to be a child ... But I do also happen to have a very good memory: ... 'Leaf Memory' is based on a real-life memory of my own, aged two years and two months" - Elizabeth Baines
  • Exercise

    Write 100 words about your earliest memory. Do it twice - first in a language closest to the way you thought at the time, then using your current powers of expression.

My memory's nowhere near that good. I'm a parent, which you'd have thought should be useful in this context, but childlessness may have advantages. Parents have less time to write, but that's not all - in "The Psychologist" March 2009 they reported on a survey that found that parents are no happier than childless couples. In fact, once the children leave home, parents are sadder. One begins to wonder what the point of children is.

  • "having no children myself means that I've never fully grown up. I'm at the age where many of my friends are wondering why hostile, sulky delinquents from outer space have occupied their teenage children's bodies. And what do I do? Easy, I side with the kids. ... Basically, I can't grasp the crisis from the parent's viewpoint, however hard I try." - Charles Lambert

family.jpgIn his film, "A story of children and film", Mark Cousins suggests that children's points-of-view been dealt with in film more often than in novels. Maybe so, though novels are catching up - a judge of the 2013 Man Booker competition said there were a lot of child-PoV entries. Writing's hard enough as it is without burdening oneself with extra handicaps, so why should authors restrict themselves to a child's viewpoint and vocabulary? It's fair enough in children's fiction but what about fiction for adults? Let's look at each restriction in isolation

  • 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
    A way round both of these limitations is to use a fluid 3rd-person priviledged point-of-view, rather as in the Joyce example below.
  • Language - Children may not have a wide, intellectual vocabulary, but that needn't be such a restriction. They can be original in their use of words, less restricted by convention and social mores.

Exercise: Guess the age!

How young can you go? "My Mother's Dream" (Alice Munro) is from the viewpoint of someone before their conception, then as a foetus, then a baby for most of the story, which is probably beyond the call of duty. Try guessing the age of the children in these extracts, and the supposed age of the narrator.

  • Maisie received in petrification the full force of her mother's huge and painted eyes - they were like Japanese lanterns swinging under festival arches
  • After a while of playing, Mary gets bored and speaks on the phone. She always twirls the cord around her finger and gets her whole body wrapped up in it. It’s silly. Sometimes I don’t think she’s really a grownup. Maybe she’s just playing dress-ups.
    Daddy walks in with a big smile on his face, and Mary skips up to him like a little girl and gives him a kiss on the cheek.
    “Did you go to see your mother today?” That’s Daddy speaking to Mary, not me. She nods and does doll’s eyes and hangs her head to the side making a stupid groaning sound. She sounds like my Ted in the mornings.
  • 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.

    He sang that song. That was his song.

    O, the green wothe botheth.

    When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.
  • We were coming down our road. Kevin stopped at a gate and bashed it with his stick. It was Misses Quigley's gate; she was always looking out the window but she never did anything.
    - Quigley!
    - Quigley!
    - Quigley Quigley Quigley!
    Liam and Aidan turned down their cul-de-sac. We said nothing; they said nothing. Liam and Aidan had a dead mother. Missus O'Connell was her name.
    - It'd be brilliant wouldn't it? I said
  • The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries. The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light. He kept on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect, out of the reach of the rude feet, feigning to run now and then. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of the players and his eyes were weak and watery.
  • MARCH 25, MORNING. A troubled night of dreams. Want to get them off my chest.
  • Saturday January 3rd
    I shall go mad through lack of sleep! My father has banned the dog from the house so it barked outside my window all night. Just my luck! My father shouted a swear-word at it. If he's not careful he will get done by the police for obscene language.
  • 'Is that your name?' I was bold enough to ask the Miss more prone to mirth.
    'Eleanor is what I was christened but people call me Ellie.'
    Idly, I said, 'That's not what my mother calls you.'
    'What does she call her?' enquired the one who was not Ellie.
    'Not just her, both of you.'
    What does she call us?'
    Her dress smelled of corridor.
    The sisters awaited an answer. Ellie, dried dribbles of Wall's ice-cream on her frock, seemed as eager to know as her sister.
    A curler in her hair, a clip between her teeth, my mother held her breath,
    'She calls you …' I paused to accord the phrase the respect with which I had always heard it uttered, 'She calls you "the Misses Linster".'
    Though obviously the cause of amusement, I wasn't sure what was funny.

The extracts are from "What Maisie Knew" (Henry James; the child's 7), "The Book" (Jessica Bell; the child's 5), "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (James Joyce), "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" (Roddy Doyle; the boy's 10), "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (James Joyce), "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (James Joyce), "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4" (Sue Townsend) and a story by Ian Madden; the child's 6 years old. Authors often seem to have over- or under-estimated the child, but kids have an irritating habit of not acting their age - one moment they talk like an adult, next moment they sulk like a baby. In any case, one shouldn't expect dialogue in literature to be like Real Life - it has to be artificial to some extent but how much? It can be difficult to convince the reader of the narrator's age.


Let's see how the experts do it

  • Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero.
    "Was I minus numbers?"
  • A shadow made me start as my mother's face loomed towards me where I lay, eight months old, tongue-tied, spastic and flailing on my course rug, on the warm lawn, in the summer of 1947 - in an English country garden. My father was playing French cricket with Miranda and John, and I could hear a tennis ball
  • Early one morning as we were beginning our day’s play in the back yard, Jem and I heard something next door in Miss Rachel Haverford’s collard patch. We went to the wire fence to see if there was a puppy—Miss Rachel’s rat terrier was expecting— instead we found someone sitting looking at us. Sitting down, he wasn’t much higher than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke:
    “Hey yourself,” said Jem pleasantly.
    “I’m Charles Baker Harris,” he said. “I can read.”
    “So what?” I said.
    “I just thought you’d like to know I can read. You got anything needs readin‘ I can do it...”
    “How old are you,” asked Jem, “four-and-a-half?”
    “Goin‘ on seven.”
    “Shoot no wonder, then,” said Jem, jerking his thumb at me. “Scout yonder’s been readin‘ ever since she was born, and she ain’t even started to school yet. You look right puny for goin’ on seven.”
    “I’m little but I’m old,” he said.

Note that these extracts tell the reader the age of the child. Kids tell each other their ages, so it's not too artificial. It gets round one problem when writing such pieces.


  • It's very tempting to slip out of character for a few paragraphs. A commonly used way to include an adult's viewpoint is for the child to be an uncomprehending messenger - e.g. to have the child find an adult's diary and read it (Paula Sharp calls that a hackneyed device though!). Here's Elizabeth Baines' approach
    • "The story 'Power' ... strictly, use[s] a child narrator, ie, the voice is that of the child as a child, and in this case in the present tense, as the story is happening. This is the most restrictive way of adopting a child's viewpoint, with least chance for authorial intervention. The main way I get round the restriction here is to splice the child's narrative with the mother's phone calls on which the child eavesdrops."
    • "In 'Star Things' ... the child is constantly and innocently quoting things her parents have said"
    She notes however that "the children's voices in these stories aren't entirely naturalistic, I do take linguistic licence, as they're not intended as straightforward dramatic monologues"
  • Even the best adult books with child narrators risk being treated as if they're children's books
  • One has to be rather careful about using material that can be traced back to a particular child - moreso than with consenting adults.

Special Needs

Authors have tried combining age limitations with other features. In a sense, these writers are having it both ways; they can exploit the freedom and freshness of the child narrator without having to make too many compromises in vocabulary or intellect.

  • "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" (Mark Haddon) has a clever, autistic 15-year-old narrator
  • "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (Jonathan Safran Foer) is held together by Oskar, a precocious and obsessive nine-year-old polymath
  • "How the Light Gets In" (M.J. Hyland) has a highly intelligent, damaged 16-year-old
  • "Flowers for Algernon" (Daniel Keyes) doesn't have a child narrator, but the IQ and language of the narrator change in the course of the novel.

Authors quoted

The quotes are used (with the authors' permission) from Virtual Booktours that they made - Elizabeth Baines' "Around the Edges of the World" Tour and Charles Lambert's "Something Rich and Strange" Tour

  • Elizabeth Baines won 3rd prize in the Raymond Carver Short Story Competition 2008. Her book, "Balancing on the Edge of the World" (Salt) was shortlisted for the 2008 The Salt Frank O'Connor Prize.
  • Charles Lambert was an O.Henry Prize winner in 2007, along with William Trevor and Alice Munro. Books include "Little Monsters" (Picador) and "The Scent of Cinnamon" (Salt)


  • Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artists as a young man" - `When you wet the bed, first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell. His mother had a nicer smell than his father.' (not quite first person, but the book's language grows as the boy does)
  • Hugo Hamilton's "The Speckled People" - people have said "The world here is viewed through the eyes of a child who does not judge, merely details and describes." .... "Though Hugo matures as the story unfolds, the simple, declarative sentences of a child's confused and partial understanding do not. (...) He has made an attempt on something impossible - to show from a child's point of view what a child can't see. To the degree that he succeeds, it's remarkable."
  • Paula Sharp's "Crows over a Wheatfield" - people have said that "the characters are so involving - not since 'To Kill a Mockingbird' or the opening chapters of 'Jane Eyre' has there been a more acute and astute child's view of the world".
  • Eimear McBride's "A girl is a half-formed thing" (Faber 2013) - "Two me. Four you five or so. I falling. Reel table leg to stool. Grub face into her cushions. Squeal. Baby full of snot and tears. You squeeze on my sides just a bit. I retch up awful tickle giggs. Beyond stopping jig and flop around. I fall crack something. My head banged. Oop. Trouble for you. But. Quick the world rushed ou like waters. Slap of. Slap of everywhere smells kitchen powder perfume soap of hedges in the winter dogs and sawdust on a butcher's floor. New. Not new. I remember. Patterned in my brain." (p.7)
  • Sue Townsend's "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4". Comedy.
  • Colum McCann's "Everything in this country must" - this collection's stories have 1st person narrators in their early teens.
  • Roddy Doyle's "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" - has a 10 year old 1st person narrator
  • Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters was written for adults by a 9 year old
  • Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" - has a 6 year old narrator.
  • Emma Donoghue's "The Room" - has a 5 year old narrator.
  • Jessica Bell’s "The Book" - has a 5 year old narrator. See Jim Murdoch's blog for details.
  • "The Life of Pi"? "The Tin Drum"? "Empire of the Sun"?

Discussion Points

  • Are child-narrator stories usually autobiographical?
  • What other devices do authors use to bring an adult perspective into child-narrator stories?
  • What 1st person child narrator novels/stories have you read? Did they work?
  • Try writing a 1st person child narrator story!

1 comment:

  1. Sorry, I had to correct a typo! Thanks for the post, very interesting! I was saying that I have a novel with 3 narrators, one being a 13-year-old girl. I worry that my book falls in the middle between young adult and adult fiction.