A Child’s Perspective Can Be Effective

ScoutAs an adult who reads fiction, it’s interesting to occasionally encounter a novel in which the goings-on are viewed from a child character’s perspective.

That approach can bring readers’ memories back to their own younger years, and inspire analysis of whether the author successfully captured the kid perspective or instead created a character who sounds like a mini-adult.

Child narrators in fiction convey the process of learning about life, sound innocent or not so innocent, and don’t understand certain things or are precocious enough to understand more than might be expected. Also, some fictional kids THINK they don’t understand certain things but understand more than they realize — or might not grasp certain things yet telegraph that lack of grasp in a way that helps the readers to understand those things.

It’s not easy for adult novelists to narrate from a child’s perspective. The writers can’t be TOO knowing, and might have to navigate the difficult process of yanking themselves back to the mindset of their own childhood as fodder for taking a younger approach in a book. In fact, some novels told from a child’s perspective feature adult characters looking back and telling the stories from the vantage points of their kid selves.

When successfully created, child narrators can be memorable/poignant protagonists, can grab the sympathy of readers, and more.

Among the examples of this kind of novel is Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, which I read last week. It’s a coming-of-age story, set on Antigua in the Caribbean, starring a brainy girl who’s at first rather innocent and then becomes more calculating and angry. From Annie’s perspective, we learn a lot about her, her friends and classmates, her love-hate relationship with her parents, and Antiguan life in general.

One of the most famous novels featuring a kid’s-eye view is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout Finch takes the reader through a journey that includes how she views her upstanding lawyer father Atticus and learning about the harsh realities of the world — most notably the virulent racism in 1930s Alabama. (Photo is of Scout and Atticus in the To Kill a Mockingbird movie.)

Some novels told from a child’s perspective take the young protagonists up to the start of adulthood or even well into adulthood, but have many early chapters chronicling the kid years. That’s certainly the case with Ms. Kincaid’s book (which ends with Annie leaving Antigua for a job in England at age 17) and with the stars of the English novels David Copperfield and Jane Eyre.

Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical classic chronicles David Copperfield’s mixed bag of a childhood, his school experiences, and eventually his two marriages — with many vivid supporting players (including Mr. Micawber) along the way.

Jane Eyre’s child perspective in the early chapters of Charlotte Brontë’s novel is fascinating as she recounts her difficulties living in the household of her cruel aunt and then her time in a harsh school for orphans. The young Jane is often unhappy, yet displays plenty of mental strength and a kind of fierce confidence that helps her as she grows from girl to woman.

There are also novels that unfold via a third-person/omniscient/adult narrator yet feature child or teen protagonists so memorable that it almost seems like the books are told from their perspectives. L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain are among the notable examples.

Your favorite novels told from a child’s point of view?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about back to school and more — is here.

52 thoughts on “A Child’s Perspective Can Be Effective

  1. I concur with the title this week, and was so charmed by the young Jane Eyre in the first pages of her book that I read the rest to catch glimpses of young Jane in her growing then maturing self. And I too am a happy veteran of The Curious Incident,etc., and think it is a sensitive and moving portrayal of the boy at the heart of the mystery.

    But there are limits, and wherever there are limits, especially as expressed in prose, Thomas Wolfe can be counted on to overshoot them. Here is Eugene Gant, third-person reflective infant from “Look Homeward, Angel”, Wolfe’s first book (a book that arrived in a steamer trunk in the form of eleventy-zillion pages that he and Maxwell Perkins, mostly Perkins, took down to novel-size):

    “Lying darkly in his crib, washed, powdered, and fed, he thought quietly of many things before he dropped off to sleep — the interminable sleep that obliterated time for him, and that gave him a sense of having missed forever a day of sparkling life. At these moments, he was heartsick with weary horror as he thought of the discomfort, weakness, dumbness, the infinite misunderstanding he would have to endure before he gained even physical freedom. He grew sick as he thought of the weary distance before him, the lack of coordination of the centres of control, the undisciplined and rowdy bladder, the helpless exhibition he was forced to give in the company of his sniggering, pawing brothers and sisters, dried, cleaned, revolved before them.”

    And there’s more where that came from…

    As a young man learning to write in college and a native of NC, I took a shine to Wolfe that now, looking through the glass darkly, I can’t altogether justify.

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    • Thank you, jhNY! Wow — in that excerpt, there’s a LOT of adult-ish thinking going on in the brain of that kid in a crib. GREAT writing in its way, but weird in terms of conveying a child’s perspective. I’ve never read Thomas Wolfe, so that was an eye-opening introduction. 🙂

      And, yes, the perspective of the young Jane Eyre is so compelling. One reason why I’ve read Charlotte Bronte’s novel five or six times. Hmm…haven’t reread it for a decade or so. Maybe in the next year…

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      • Wolfe wrote voluminously, but probably not effortlessly, and with his big heart leading him on– sometimes to strange places, as above. His evocation of Asheville NC in the early 20th century (“Look Homeward, Angel”) is a completist’s labor of love and bewilderment regarding his own past. If you’re going to read one Wolfe novel, “Look Homeward Angel” is the one to choose.

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          • Of course, you are welcome !
            We watched, I thought beto was good but He should run for Senate, no chance here. Biden much better than last time, but if he is the nominee….I don`t know… 🙄

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            • I agree, bebe — Beto has been very good lately, especially on the need for gun control amid all the carnage, but should run for Senate. As you say, no chance of getting the Democratic presidential nomination.

              From what I read, Biden was indeed better than during the first two debates, but I unfortunately think he’s not sharp enough in general and too wishy-washy on the issues to go toe-to-toe with Trump.

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    • Thank you, Bill! Definitely up there along with “The Scarlet Letter,” “Moby-Dick,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and a few others.

      The first two-thirds or so of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is as good as it gets, but, as I’ve mentioned in this blog before, I feel the appearance of Tom Sawyer and his subsequent antics devalues the latter part of Twain’s classic a bit.

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    • And Twain wrote it without knowing the Great American Novel was a thing!

      A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon a book from 1836, now out in paperback published by the NYRB: “Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself” (actually written by Robert Montgomery Bird). It’s a farcical and cynical novel, picaresque-ish, but like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, makes its way through the country, North to South and back, by the extraordinary means of a narrator with the strange talent of being able to enter and inhabit the bodies of the recently deceased, after his own apparent demise. After a life as a clueless and luckless farm owner, he becomes, among other things, a wealthy but henpecked husband, a calculating and rakish suitor, a miser, a Quaker philanthropist, a slave… and in the process, takes on many of the controversies and tropes of his day.

      Bird is no Twain, but he’s no slouch either, and the range of his book reminded me of “Huckleberry Finn”, though the perspective and authorial insights therein are another thing altogether.

      I would not be at all surprised to find that Twain was familiar with this book.

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  2. Oh Dave, once again, you waited until the very end before mentioning one of the first books I thought of – Anne of Green Gables. We have a new lady at our book club who mentioned this one as her favourite book ever. One of the other ladies has never read it so I’m going to lend it to her next week. I’m looking forward to a few new people discovering it, and then being able to gush over it for a few months.

    Fortunately, I’m also reading a book that you didn’t mention. Seven Little Australians is about… well… seven little Australians. It’s not actually first person narration, but you do get into the heads of some of the children who are wonderful fun. Though their education may be a bit lacking. One of the naughtier children is sent off to boarding school, but decides to run away. The school is seventy-seven miles away, and she catches a train for most of it, but then she has to walk some of the way where she comes across her brother and despairs that she’s never going to reach home:

    “Do you suppose there are many miles more?” Judy said, in such a quick way that all the words seemed to run into each other. “I’ve walked hundreds and hundreds, and haven’t got home yet. I suppose it’s because the world’s round, and I’ll be walking in at the school gate again presently. Seventy-seven miles,” she said, “and I walked eleven yesterday, that makes eleven hundred and seventy-seven—and six the day before because my foot had a blister—that’s eleven hundred and eighty-three. And if I walk ten miles a day I shall get home in eleven hundred and eighty-three times ten, that’s a thousand and—and—oh! what is it? whatever is it?”

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    • Thank you, Sue!

      Well, better late than never for my “Anne of Green Gables” mention; I must have had too much raspberry cordial. 🙂 I envy anyone reading that wonderful, iconic novel for the first time! Sounds like you have some GREAT discussions ahead.

      And a great discussion by you of “Seven Little Australians”! Also, I LOVE the excerpt you posted. The author clearly captured a kid’s voice in a funny, memorable, realistic but exaggerated, exaggerated but realistic way!

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      • Yes! I’m so glad people here understand what First Read Envy is 🙂

        I’ll also be able to chat about the Charlotte Wood book that I just finished which was brought to our group a few months ago. I didn’t tell the booklover that I was reading it, so hopefully he’ll be pleased when he finds out that he has another obsessed fan to talk to!

        I’m glad the except wasn’t out of place. I was a little worried that I might have gone a bit mad with the copy and paste. But it was such a delightful book. Mostly. For a children’s classic, it did have some pretty adult themes at times…

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        • “First Read Envy” — LOVE that phrase! It’s a serious syndrome (in its way).

          I’m sure that book lover you mentioned will indeed be pleased!

          If anything, Sue, that vivid excerpt was too short. 🙂

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  3. Of course I adore any mention of Anne of Green Gables 🙂 I also really enjoyed the Ramona Quimby series growing up, told from point of view of feisty Ramona (who reminds me a little bit of my own childhood self, I dare say… 🙂 ). A recent book I read from a younger perspective is “the Librarian of Auschwitz,” which is about a young girl (I can’t remember her age exactly – pre-teen I think) who risked her life to care for and let out the handful of books that were smuggled into Auschwitz. It’s based on a true story and is a pretty amazing read if you get the time. Ruta Sepetys’s “Between Shades of Gray” also gives us a young perspective on the imprisonment of thousands of people in the east during World War II. I got sooooo much reading done while I was out and about, I’m looking forward to discussing it all here! 🙂

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  4. I’d also go with Astrid Lindgren on this question, but my favourite is the much darker story The Brother’s Lionheart, all told through the eyes of the younger brother. This young voice makes it work well for children while adults may read between the lines and see a different story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, ireadthatinabook!

      Great observation of yours: “This young voice makes it work well for children while adults may read between the lines and see a different story.” A first-person child narration can definitely help a book work on two levels (for a kid reader and an adult reader).

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  5. “The Secret Life of Bees,” by Sue Monk Kidd, is told through the eyes of a young teen. The author does a great job of making the girl’s thoughts and actions believable for a child, and I think the book is much more touching this way, than it would have been from third person.

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    • Thank you, Becky!

      “The Secret Life of Bees” has been on my to-read list for a while, and I WILL get to it. 🙂 Sounds really good, and I greatly enjoyed reading your description of it. Yes, a first-person narrative — while it has certain limitations — can be very powerful and poignant.

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  6. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and the two first person Dickens novels (‘Great Expectations’ and ‘David Copperfield’ are both told by the adult recalling his childhood and pretty successfully recreating the child’s state of mind. Of course, in the Dickens novels, the events continue into the narrators’ adult lives where some of the things they didn’t realize as children become clear to them as adults. With ‘Huck Finn’, Huck is a child even at the time of the telling, not much older than he was when the events of the novel occurred and still concerned about being in the care of someone trying to ‘sivilize’ him i.e make him into a little conformist carbon copy of the model citizen of their world. He won’t be tamed, however, and is already planning his next escape into the ‘territory’. Huck will grow up, yes, but on his own terms.

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    • Excellent, descriptive comment, Brian!

      Dickens definitely created his share of memorable kid characters, but it hadn’t occurred to me that “Great Expectations” and “David Copperfield” were his only two novels with (in part) a first-person child perspective.

      Loved your line about Twain’s iconic teen character: “Huck will grow up, yes, but on his own terms.”

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  7. When I was young,I was,as so many,an avid reader of Judy Blume books. Many of her stories told in voices of young people such as “Are You There,God,Its Me,Margaret.” Or “Blubber” about an overweight kid. Relatable even more from that perspective.

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    • Thank you, Michele! Great mention!

      If I’m remembering correctly, my older daughter read a Judy Blume book or two, and I enjoyed reading at least one (and found it very relatable). One of her “Fudge” books, I think.

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  8. I will never forget my childhood friend Pippi Longstocking akaPippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim’s Daughter Longstocking. I will always be grateful to Astrid Lindgren’s daughter Karin who asked her mother to tell her the story of “Pippi Longstocking”. One of my favourite quotes:

    “All the children sat looking at Pippi, who lay flat on the floor, drawing to her heart’s content. ‘But, Pippi,’ said the teacher impatiently, ‘why in the world aren’t you drawing on your paper?’
    ‘I filled that long ago. There isn’t room enough for my whole horse on that little snip of paper.’”

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  9. I can’t remember the kid’s name from the Stephen King novel “The Body” which was adapted to the screen re: that great movie “Stand By Me”. I think it was Gordie. Oh btw, I’m thinkin’ I’m liking my anonymous status. Deleted my word press kinda accidentally on purpose, yikes! Hope you didn’t get any foul weather Dorian style. Susi

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    • Thank you, Susi! That work from the ultra-prolific Stephen King is an excellent example of this topic!

      I can’t remember if King’s “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” was first- or third-person, but he definitely captured the thought processes of a girl lost in the New England woods.

      If “Anonymous” works for you, it works for me! 🙂

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  10. The three that came immediately to my mind are “Lady” by Thomas Tryon, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon, and “My Family and Other Animals” by Gerald Durrell.

    “Lady” in my humble opinion is a GREAT novel that didn’t receive the attention it deserved. The novel by Mark Haddon is written from the perspective of an autistic 14 year old and is quite compelling! Of course, the book by Gerald Durrell it’s not a novel although I’m sure he glorified the truth in his effort to tell the story, making it hilariously funny!

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    • Thank you, lulabelle! Three great mentions!

      I, too, thought “Lady” was a terrific/underrated novel when I read it on your recommendation. Also, the VERY funny “My Family and Other Animals” is indeed one of those nonfiction books that reads almost like a novel — and, as you allude to, might contain some exaggerated elements. 🙂

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    • Also, some fictional kids THINK they don’t understand certain things but understand more than they realize — or might not grasp certain things yet telegraph that lack of grasp in a way that helps the readers to understand those things.

      Dave, this also made me think of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher, who narrates the book, doesn’t always have a good grasp on what’s going on around him, but Mark Haddon writes in a way that the reader always knows what’s going on. Sometimes you’re a few steps ahead of Christopher, so your heart breaks for him before he even knows stuffs about to get bad…

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      • Thank you, Sue! “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” has been very aptly mentioned more than once here and on Facebook (after I linked my column there). Great observation about how the “might not grasp certain things yet telegraph that lack of grasp in a way that helps the readers to understand those things” idea can especially apply to a character who’s on the autism spectrum or has other challenges that might lead to processing things more slowly.

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  11. I think a lot of “animal” books are told from a child’s perspective. The one I was particularly thinking of was “My Friend Flicka,” about a boy and his filly, but there are plenty of others about children and animals.

    Now that I’ve started thinking about it, there’s a ton in that genre. “Misty of Chincoteague.” “Billy and Blaze,” and “The Black Stallion” spring to mind. They’re sort of aimed at children, but they can also be read by adults, and they emphasize the connection between children and animals. There’s also “The Yearling,” which I think someone brought up recently. And then there’s “The Red Pony” by Steinbeck.”

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    • Thank you, Elena! Well said, and a terrific point about a number of “animal books” being told from a kid’s perspective. That can certainly add to the poignancy — the child/animal bond is often extremely close, making for upbeat and/or tragic reading depending on the way the plot goes.

      I’ve read “The Yearling,” and loved that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings novel. “The Red Pony” is not as compelling while being compelling enough, but painful to read and not one of my favorite Steinbeck works.

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    • My mother grew up on the Eastern Shore of VA, and knew the Beebe family well enough that when we visited Chincoteague, my sister and I met Misty– probably the late 1950’s, because I do seem to recall meeting the Beebe patriarch– having been read the book at bedtime first. I think it was during Pony Penning Day, as I recall ponies in the water, but I may be remembering that from the movie. There’s been a lot of water over the galleon since then…

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      • Thank you, jhNY! Another very interesting memory from your earlier life!

        After seeing your comment, I read up on the “Misty of Chincoteague” novel via Wikipedia. Sounds like a really good book — and that was a clever galleon reference by you. 🙂

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