The child’s voice in adult literature

Getting the child’s voice right in writing for children is easier than using a child narrator, or child’s eye view in free indirect discourse when writing for adults. If you have a child narrator in adult fiction, you have to decide if the narrator is looking back with hindsight or whether they are pretending to still be the child they were. There are plenty of examples of both of these approaches and some narratives that fall between the two extremes.

Let’s look first at the child narrator. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Emma Donaghue’s five year old narrator in Room who tells the story of his and his mother’s incarceration with a five year old’s understanding or lack of understanding of the adult world, using more or less unadulterated five-year-old language. As readers, we have to suspend any disbelief we have about the likelihood of this being possible and just take the author’s word for it. (Interesting to note that I have used the metaphors of “unadulterated” and “the author’s word” , this time with their literal meanings.) Most of the time Donaghue convinces us that Jack, the five year old, really does see the world, and of course until the second half of the book, it is a really restricted view of the world, through the language available to him.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/aug/01/room-emma-donoghue-review-fritzl

It would be interesting to know if Bakhtin, the Russian linguist who coined the word heteroglossia to describe what goes on in fiction, ever thought about the child’s voice. But because of his theory of the interconnectedness of how different voices use words, his theories would embrace Donaghue’s experimental achievements. An earlier example of this kind of writing is the opening of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but there’s an adult knowingness behind the Joyce that is happily completely missing in the language Donaghue uses for her narrator, Jack.

http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Bakhtin-MainTheory.html

One recent novel using the child’s eye view but narrated from the vantage point of the adult is Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. We know the narrator has actually grown up because there is an introductory prologue written in the voice of someone in their sixties about what is happening at that moment in her life When the narrator then returns to her childhood, there is a different kind of suspension of disbelief called for: we have to forgive the narrator for somehow being able to remember so many details from when she was at primary school. Since she is telling the story of her friend Lila, as well as her own viewpoint, she seems to both know and remember a lot of what goes on in Lila’s head, as well as in the heads of other schoolfriends, family and grown-ups in the neighbourhood. I think this is a major failure in an otherwise intriguing and sensitive account of the lives of children in 1950s Italy.

By contrast we might look at another 1950s child’s eye-view of adult society given in Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, published in 1950. This time the narration is done in the third person but we only see the world as the naïve twelve-year-old Frankie sees it. We only know Berenice, who looks after Frankie, since her mother died giving birth, and her father is away, as Frankie know’s her. The same goes for John Henry, Frankie’s six year old cousin. So Frankie doesn’t know, and the reader doesn’t know what they think, only what they say and do in Frankie’s presence.

It’s worth reading these two books, the first as an example of a failure in the use of a first person adult/child narrator, the second as an example of a successful third person narrator who gives the reader only what the child knows, though as third person narrator, much more could be given. John Mullan, writing in the Guardian in 2009, picks out ten first person child narrators from what he considers successful works/novels, including Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience : these are all worth looking at so you can decide what makes a convincing first person child narrator whether for children or for adults.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/dec/19/ten-best-child-narrators

There’s another Guardian article warning readers that a lot of child narrators in adult fiction sound phoney and that Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and the autistic teenager in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time are two among very few that manage to sound convincing. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/feb/03/young-narrators-sound-phony Maybe both of these are successful because the narrators are teenagers and the books were probably written with teenagers in mind rather than older readers.

If you are writing memoir rather than fiction the same issues arise. You are probably more likely to use the first person though you can write memoir in the third person. When you are dealing with childhood you need to decide if you want to write as the child, or as an adult looking back. There’s a useful series of tips here.

Marjane Satrapi in her graphic novel, Persepolis, has caught the child’s eye view of her own childhood in both words and pictures, telling the story of the revolution against the Shah in Iran in 1979. Have a look at the pictures and text and decide whether this is just a child’s eye view, or whether it is the knowing child using the information she was to gather as an adult.

I suppose the nearest we can get to the child or young person writing their own memoir or diary would be something like Anne Frank’s Diary. This blog really only scratches the surface of a very complicated issue in writing and narration. It’s worth exploring further.

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2 comments for “The child’s voice in adult literature

  1. 17 October 2017 at 8:47 pm

    Thanks for raising a very important issue, Liz. I see a lot of highly sophisticated, adult-sounding child narrators! So it’s very important to look at the exemplars you suggest.

  2. Liz Newman
    20 October 2017 at 5:41 pm

    Really interesting post, Liz. I think teenagers are particularly tough voices to create, as their vocabulary is so transient and dates so quickly. A mention should be made of Melvin Burgess who manages several different voices in Junk – but the book is set in the eighties, and having a specific date makes things so much easier. Junk is a wonderful example of how to capture a teenage reader and make your point towards the end, when you’ve got them well and truly hooked.

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