Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Child's Play: Narrating Adult Fiction

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...

Be objective

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?


Megan Sayer said...

Great advice there Patti, and you're right, it can be such a challenge writing from a child's point of view.
My last book started when the narrator was 11, so I very much understand your challenge there. Kids do think in images and sounds and smells, and they place importance on completely different things to that which adults do. The challenge I found was telling a big-picture story through the eyes of a person only focused on the tiny details of how things affected her - for whom the big picture was some kind of annoying afterthought - yet keeping the reader interested and connected to the big picture story. All that in present tense, so I couldn't even resort to foreshadowing.
It felt risky. I had no idea until the whole book was done whether or not it had been successful, and the whole way it felt like walking some kind of tightrope. I think it's one of those things that you don't realise just how crazy it is until long afterwards. Like now, in fact.
But it was fun. And it made me appreciate my long memory for trivial details and my seeming inability to stop jumping in puddles and start acting like a grown up after all.

Patti Hill said...

Megan: Great observations. I will be forever grateful for a college class called Human Growth and Development. If you're going to write from a child's POV, a text from a class like this might be useful. Mine gives the physical, cognitive, and social growth of each age group. What I loved about 11-year-olds is that they understood my humor. I was never lonely in the classroom. They're great company...until the end of the year when hormones start washing through their systems, and they smell awful after recess and move toward the self-involvement of the teenage years. Ah man, now I'm missing my teaching days.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

You've named some of my favorites and have also brought up some excellent points.

I'd love to capture the mindset of a child with precision. I'm drawn to their wide-eyed impression of the world. So far I've played with the idea of having a child as my MC, but haven't executed it for a novel I intend to publish.

When the day comes for me to get serious about it I plan to reread this post.
~ Wendy

Lori Benton said...

Patti, these are great suggestions, and I noted the one in your comment too. I'm working on a story with two child POVs. 99% of what I know about children comes from the stories I've read, but the few conversations I've had with them stick out in my memory for how different their perceptions of the subject turned out to be.

Julia said...

Great advice. My favorite is also To Kill a Mockingbird. I also love Mary DeMuth's Daisy Chain. I would love to try this someday as a writer.

Anonymous said...

Love this post, Patti. Scout is one of my all-time favorite fictional narrators. I love her voice. Julia mentioned another novel with a young narrator that I really enjoyed, Daisy Chain by Mary DeMuth; enjoyed the entire series.

I've written a novel -- in fact wrote it a number of years ago -- with a child narrator, who, like Scout, is looking back on a memory from an adult perspective, but I think I keep the story in the POV of an 11-12 year old boy. The story came to me as I was working on dinner one afternoon quite a while ago. And this is what "Charlie" said to me. "I decided long ago if I was ever to write a story it would be about Annie. And Mama. And all of us. I'm Annie's brother Charlie, and it's my fault she died." I couldn't write fast enough as he told me that. Then, of course, I had to discover his story. I hope to publish it within the next year. It was a challenge to write from a boy's POV, but Charlie was very real to me, and that made it easier. I have to laugh. Last night I watched the first episode of a new TV series called Perception. It's about a college professor with mental illness. He sees and talks to people who aren't there. Um, sort of like we do.

Patti Hill said...

Wendy: If you're intrigued by writing from a child's POV, why not try a short story? Writing a short story is like going out for recess. Quite indulgent.

Lori: At every developmental stage children are more or less vulnerable to trauma, as well--or are effected differently by trauma/crisis. My sister and I are six years apart. The fallout from my father's death when I was 3 and she was 9 is very different for each of us. And is still with us.

Julia: Yes, Daisy Chain! Thanks for bringing up Mary's books. Have you seen her new web site. Wow.

Sharon: I so want to know how Charlie is doing. Poor Annie.

Anonymous: Shame on you for spamming our comments section!

Lynn Dean said...

Excellent insights, Patti. Your description of napping on a chenille bedspread brought back all sorts of memories for me--the scratch of bougainvillea boughs against the window screen, the whirr and flap of venetian blinds caught in a breeze, the mesmerizing rhythms of an oscillating fan...and then the riiiip as my fingers found one of those little chenille knobs and discovered that by pulling I could make a whole row of knobs disappear. That, of course, was followed in short order by my grandmother's shriek of horror. ;)

Really, I think Megan hit on something so important when she described the challenge of telling a big story through the eyes of someone focused on how the events affect HER--"for whom the big picture was some kind of annoying afterthought." We chide children for being "self-centered," but our perception of the world necessarily starts from ourselves. And that's not always bad. For example, we learn not to hurt others because we experience hurt ourselves. I do remember, though, trying to understand the Viet Nam War without "cognitive hooks" as you put it. I vividly remember eating cereal at the breakfast bar one morning. Mother had stepped into the garage to switch out some laundry when the news came on our black and white tv with pictures of gruesome carnage that the anchorman attributed to "guerrillas." My world extended no farther than the Austin city limits, but we had a zoo. We had gorillas! In my mind, they must have gotten lose to run amok through a nearby neighborhood. ;)

Writing from a child's POV presents unusual opportunities for both tragic insight and humor.

Patti Hill said...

Lynn: Thank you for your thoughtful additions. I think I'll get a chenille spread just for naps. Such a lovely, lumpy experience.

I also relate to your story about guerrillas. When my mom lamented that my sister was going through a stage, I reacted with jealousy. I wanted to ride on a stage! I loved horses! So, it may be important to remember how literal children are with homophones.

I liked how you summed up your comments: "Writing from a child's POV presents unusual opportunities for both tragic insight and humor." Oh yes.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Wow! I learned so much from this post. 1) Other people experienced that same discovery of pulling out chenille plugs (I was supposed to be taking a nap - at the age of three) 2) I should have taken the Human Growth and Development class instead of CLEPping it and 3) Writing in first person from the POV of someone unlike yourself in age, gender or race is actually admirable not taboo. In other words; go fearlessly where your creativity and experience takes you. No one else can write your book.

I am also reminded of Cold Sassy Tree, by Olive Ann Burns.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Wow! I learned so much from this post. 1) Other people experienced that same discovery of pulling out chenille plugs (I was supposed to be taking a nap - at the age of three) 2) I should have taken the Human Growth and Development class instead of CLEPping it and 3) Writing in first person from the POV of someone unlike yourself in age, gender or race is actually admirable not taboo. In other words; go fearlessly where your creativity and experience takes you. No one else can write your book.

I am also reminded of Cold Sassy Tree, by Olive Ann Burns.

Bonnie Grove said...

So much good conversation going on here!

Patti, its a wonderful post--really needed! I've read several novels with a kid as the POV character, and frankly it's boring for me. Children are wonderful, but I have trouble when they are the whole voice of a novel. I have to be in the mood--maybe when I'm away and missing my kids. Oh, wait. I'm never away from my kids. hmmm.

Megan: I like your points very much. I just want to interject that even in first person, there is always foreshadowing. It's in every novel/story, and I bet it's in yours too.

Sharon!! Charlie? Seriously! Can't wait to read this!

Cherry: Cold Sassy Tree. **sigh of joy** an example of a writer who got. it. right. Amazing novel. I read the partially completed sequel "Leaving Cold Sassy" with a heavy heart. Burns was a treasure.

Megan Sayer said...

Bonnie once again I'm super-impressed by your story-whispering skills. I was about to say that I didn't understand how you could foreshadow anything in first-person present-tense and could you please explain further, but before I did it I read over the first chapter of my book, and Lo! Yes. I'd done it.
Just goes to show: if you spend enough time doing your planning and research ahead of time, you CAN write a book by the seat-of-your-pants and have no idea why it works.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

This is a great post, Patti. I love books written from the child's POV - Room was remarkable, and I loved "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time" as well.

One of my favourites is the voice of the 14-yr-old girl in "Secret Life of Bees". The author nailed it.

I think the child's POV appeals to me because of its simplicity. It's harder to write simply. I also love the freshness of the observations and descriptions. That line you quoted from Room really stuck with me after I read that book. "It's like a crater, a hole where something happened."

Saying something so profound in such few and simple words - that's real literary greatness.

Patti Hill said...

Cherry: Well said, Cherry, "Writing in first person from the POV of someone unlike yourself in age, gender or race is actually admirable not taboo. In other words; go fearlessly where your creativity and experience takes you. No one else can write your book." And yes to Cold Sassy Tree. Ab-so-lute-ly a delight!

Bonnie: As I used to tell my students when they complained about boring stories, "You just haven't found the right story."

Megan: Yep, planning and research puts our subconscious into overdrive. We write what needs to happen because we know it must...on several levels.

Karen: How could I have forgotten Secret Lives of Bees. Wonderful! And Elizabeth Berg's Katie series: Durable Goods, Joy School, and True to Form. And her What We Keep. Brilliant!

V. Gingerich said...

I thought I didn't care for adult fiction with a child narrator, but lately I've happened upon several: The Secret Life of Bees, Roseflower Creek, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I totally fell in love with Oskar in ELaIC. I'm still thinking about him, over a week later.

So I've changed my mind, and Sharon, I want to read your book!

Oh, and the chenille thing? For me it was a pillow. And something my aunt did, called candle-wicking. And a good scolding.