Am I crazy?
In my manuscript--Goodness & Mercy--I have a first-person, eight-year-old narrator. Not only that, I have multiple first-person narrators.
I'll answer my own question: Yes, I am crazy.
But I love a challenge, and writing with a child narrator for adult fiction fulfills that requirement on many levels. You might be thinking: To Kill a Mockingbird! I loved that story. I never tripped up on the child narrator, not once. Scout is just so, so wise.
And she is wise because she speaks as the adult Scout--Jean Louise Finch!--remembering a pivotal period of her childhood. While childlike in her honesty, Scout's observations are peppered with adult vocabulary and filtered through years of living. And it works! Harper Lee manages to create a believeable character that settles us into an eight-year-old's skin without baby talking to us. I love that story, too.
There have been some notable contributions to the list of fiction for adults with child narrators in the last decade: Room, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Me and Emma, just to name a few. Here's what I'm learning about writing with a child's voice for adult readers:
Children remember differently
They remember details that would slide right by most adults. Maybe it's because they're shorter, but more than likely it's because they don't have the cognitive hooks to snag what they observe. This means they'll remember conceptually through images. For instance, I remember taking naps at my Aunt Evie's house. Naps there weren't about sleeping at all. I lay there in the still heat, running my fingers over the chenille spread to find a break in the pattern of nobs and hedges. The chenille spread, not boredom or resentment, represents my memories.
Carrie of Me and Emma by Elizabeth Flock remembers the farm where she lived with her stepfather, mother, and younger sister:
Just to the side of that, taking up a whole outside wall of the mill, is Mr. Murray's old sign that shows a cartoon rooster cock-a-doodle-dooing the words Feed Nutrena...Be Sure, Be Safe, Be Thrifty.
Having children doesn't help
When my sons were small, I had no interest in hearing children's voices in my imagination, along with endless requests to hunt for fossils and yet another lemonade stand. My fantasies were all about people who spoke in complex sentences and used multi-syllable words who hated rodents, fish, crawdads, salamanders, and hermit crabs. Perhaps when grandchildren come along...
More than being a parent, I'm drawing on my time as an elementary school teacher to write with a child's voice. I was too emotionally invested in my own children to learn anything objective about how children develop cognitively. What I learned from my students is that they are not insulated from tough experiences ("Do you play sex games at your house, too, Mrs. Hill?), are highly sensitive to nuance ("You won't be doing your one-legged happy dance today, will you?"), and aren't nearly as inhibited as you might like them to be ("Mrs. Hill, you have a booger in your nose. It's green.").
Children do make judgements, especially if an injustice occurs or someone is injured by another on the playground, but not all of their emotions are accompanied by tidy explanations of why something happens. Children are the purest of observers for their lack of life experience, and this makes them wonderful narrators, allowing the reader to assign meaning and emotion to what happens on the page. If child narrator does passed judgment, they're likely to use what populates their world, like movie heroes and cartoon characters or toys as illustrations or for vocabulary. Here, the child narrator, Jack, aged 5, in Room by Emma Donoghue uses a television reference to explain that his mom cannot say what she wants to:
“Goodbye, Room.' I wave up at Skylight. 'Say goodbye," I tell Ma. 'Goodbye, Room.'Ma says it but on mute.I look back one more time. It's like a crater, a hole where something happened. Then we go out the door.
Talk to and listen to actual children
Can't overstate this. I promise you will be surprised and delighted by what you hear and see. Children are the greatest show on earth! Take special note to how they move and the words they use.
Don't be in such a hurry to grow up yourself
Stay childlike: take the time to pull the petals off a daisy, play fetch with the dog, worry over having no friends to play with, get really dirty, eat from the dog dish, build a mud castle, pocket a rock, watch cartoons, stand up to pedal your bike really, really fast, play with the window out the car window, stomp in a puddle, color in a coloring book, read a dog story and cry your heart out, wear mismatched socks, and sleep in your clothes.
My points are generalities, of course. Every child is an exception, but when writing a narrator, the voice must ring true. That's the only rule that needs breaking.
I also have a 90-something narrator in Goodness and Mercy. Oddly, I had a much easier time with her voice, sonny.
Have I missed something? Who are your favorite child narrators? What challenges have you faced writing from a child's point of view? What is the power of a child narrator in adult fiction? Who has done this best?