Maman’s belly is at the stove, her bottom squeezed up against the table where we are colouring. Her arm is stretched forwards, stirring tomato smells out of the pan and into our socks. She isn’t singing.
This is the voice of Pea, the five (and a half) year-old narrator of The Night Rainbow. The novel begins with the line above and is told entirely from her view point. When I was writing the book, I wasn’t aware of many contemporary novels written from a child’s point of view. Then, just as I sent it out on submission, Emma Donaghue’s ‘Room’ began to make waves, the voice of her child narrator, Jack, clearly dividing opinion in reviews. Some loved it, some hated it; it was shortlisted for the 2010 Booker.
I took great comfort in this when a couple of months later, the voice of Pea (now out on submission) was dividing publisher’s opinions too. Was it an authentic voice? Believable? They couldn’t agree. Luckily for me (and Pea) we found a home, and more of this, including – at last – a launch, in a few months’ time.
Meanwhile, in the last two years there have been several excellent and successful contemporary novels published, told from a child’s point of view, including:
- Caroline Smailes – In Search of Adam
- Stephen Kelman – Pigeon English
- Christopher Wakling – WHAT I DID
- John Harding – Florence and Giles
And guess what? All of those authors have agreed to talk here about why, and how, they told their stories from the viewpoint of a child narrator. I’m thrilled to welcome them, and hope you find their responses as interesting as I did…
Why did you choose to write from a child’s point of view?
There’s something very liberating for a writer about putting yourself in a child’s shoes: liberating largely from the temptation to talk in your own voice, which is something I wanted to avoid in my first novel. Children have a way of expressing themselves which is purer and less prone to bullshit, and in trying to create an authentic portrayal of a world I knew something but not everything about I found that it helped to view that world without the constraints of an adult agenda.
Also, the age of my narrator – Harri is eleven – is an inherently fertile age to write about. It’s an age when we test boundaries, start to discover important things about ourselves, our own morality and how to impose it upon the world. A time of unique changes and challenges. It was fun for me to travel back in time to when I was that age to imagine how I might have reacted to some of the experiences Harri goes through. Writing him taught me a lot about myself.
I first had the idea for Florence and Giles on my way home from seeing Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw, his version of Henry James’s novella, at the English National Opera. In both, the story, about a governess who’s given charge of two orphans in a remote country mansion, and who may or may not see ghosts, is told by the governess. It struck me how, especially in the opera, we only see things from the narrator’s point of view. The children are seen only from the outside and are somewhat otherworldly, enigmatic and possibly even demonic. I thought it would be interesting to see the story from their point of view, to switch it around.
The kitchen, where the stove is always burny hot, is jollied by fat Meg, our cook, smiley and elbowed in flour, often to be found flirted by John, the manservant, who seeks a kiss but is happy to make do with a floury smack. Florence – Florence & Giles
After thinking about it for a couple of days I realised I didn’t want to do a rewrite of James’s story. I don’t really go for those sequels to Pride and Prejudice (even with zombies!) that are ultimately unoriginal. But I did like the set-up, the governess, remote house, two children, ghosts, and just used that to write my own story. In the original the children are called Miles and Flora, hence Florence and Giles, by way of playful acknowledgement of James’s book. In his story Flora is the younger child and least regarded character, so I thought I would make the girl older and the most important person in the novel.
The other reason behind this was that I feared that if I made the boy the main character it might become too autobiographical. Changing gender distanced me from that, although long after the book was finished I realised my own life had inevitably crept in: my mother was the cleaner at my primary school and after school hours while she cleaned I would read all the books. Like Florence I always made sure to put them back in the same place because I feared that if I found out, I’d be banned.
I looked after my children a lot when they were tiny – still do – and found the experience fascinating, hilarious and boring by turns. To help make sense of it all I kept notebooks. I wrote down what my kids said and did and guessed at what they might be thinking and wrote that down too.
A few years ago a voice emerged in the notebooks. It was full of energy, misunderstandings, chop-logic, run-on irrelevances and moments of clarity. I started inventing scenarios using that voice, bending reality with it, exploring its poignant and comic capabilities. But for a long while I didn’t have a story to tell with it. Then I read a newspaper article about child protection and began thinking of the shift in society’s attitude towards corporal punishment. Before long the alchemical reaction that powers all good stories began bubbling away. It seemed obvious that the most interesting way of writing a novel about the battle-lines between the state and the family in child protection cases would be from the point of view of a child at the centre of such a case.
I didn’t initially. The first section that I wrote was when Jude was eighteen, thus the primary decision to write ‘In Search of Adam’ didn’t consider a child narrator. It was the story that led to the need for an event to set Jude on a certain path, and that inciting incident opens the book when she is six years old.
I remember considering a third person narrative, worried that I’d struggle with creating a believable child’s voice, but soon dismissed that thought, knowing the writing needed emotional depth and/or reader engagement. Jude began the novel with such innocence and stepping into her mind and body allowed a view of the world that a third person narrative couldn’t quite capture.
What were the difficulties you encountered?
I know some find writing from a child’s viewpoint liberating, but I found it deeply emotive and, at times, disturbing. In writing ‘In Search of Adam’ I became that small child and to experience her fear and bewilderment left me emotionally drained.
However, the biggest challenge I faced was realisation that Jude would have a restricted viewpoint and understanding of her wider world. This was after considering the social class that she was in, events that caused the stunting of her emotional growth and the lack of care given to her. I had to consider the vocabulary available to her, the need for age appropriate thoughts, as well as her lacking understanding of what she was overhearing and seeing.
Many argue that first person narrative gives the author limited tools to work with, especially when the character also has a limited awareness, and so I relied on Jude overhearing, but not understanding. This reporting to my audience allowed the reader to learn from those around Jude, giving the reader the adult stance and (hopefully) evoking a desire to care for and protect the innocent child.
I gave Jordan a strawberry Chewit to give to the dead boy, then I showed him how to make a cross. Both the two of us made a cross. We were very quiet. It felt important. We ran all the way home. I beat Jordan easily. I can beat everybody. I’m the fastest in Year 7. Harri – Pigeon English
I prefer to view them as challenges, and very interesting ones at that. Of course you hope that you capture a voice as authentically as possible, and this was made easier for me by the fact that at the time of writing I was still living on the estate I was writing about, so I was surrounded by these kids on a daily basis and I had some exposure to what it was that preoccupied them, what they talked about and how they talked about it.
The main thing I had to keep reminding myself was that it wasn’t me reacting to the action of the novel, it was Harri – and this very quickly became an unconscious thing. I’d say it was as much an acting job as a writing challenge, and I consider it one of the greatest privileges and pleasures of my profession that I get to spend some time looking at the world through somebody else’s eyes.
I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I didn’t really experience any. As you may know Florence has her own invented language which came to me as I was working on the first page and from this I pretty much had her character. She invented words like Shakespeare and she was obviously well read. At the same time it’s clear this is a private language and that she is a child with secrets, so I had the idea of the forbidden library right away. I’d say Florence more or less became me or I became her right from the start. Other writers will know what I mean. It was like being possessed and she was mainly dictating what happened.
There were the practical difficulties of having a child narrator, or course, in that they are restricted in what they can do and where they can go. That’s why so many children’s books are set in boarding schools, because they have more freedom to prowl about at night! But like all difficulties you encounter with a book, they can be turned to strength. Florence wandering about at night to do things she couldn’t in the day became part of the fabric of the book. An adult wouldn’t have had to do that.
Billy – the narrator in WHAT I DID – is just six. Some scenes he can’t witness; many he’s involved in but misinterprets. But the reader has to understand what’s going on for the story to work, and treading that line was a challenge. Also, I had to choose whether to leaven the novel with adult-point-of-view passages, or vary the time-scheme to give a different perspective. In the end I did neither. I reasoned that the story would be more intense if I stuck with Billy’s present tense narration throughout. You can’t switch off real kids either.
What advantages are there to an adult novel written from a child’s perspective?
Freshness for one, and a different angle on adult life. I think too that it taps into a more primitive human psyche. For instance in Florence and Giles I was able to use a lot of fairy tales which I think are stories that have come down to us because they are about primeval fears, an attempt to explain and rationalise them, and to warn and prepare children for the very real dangers that life offers.
Also I’ve always loved stories about children (Florence and Giles draws especially on The Secret Garden and Jane Eyre, to name but two) and I always write books that I would want to read. In both the books I’ve mentioned I loved all the bits about wandering dark corridors at night etc, but both books frustrated me because that element ended and the plot opened out into the light. I wanted to write the kind of book where it’s all like that.
In a perhaps wonky way, I see all the difficulties as advantages too. I think that a narrative from a child’s perspective allows for innocence to seep from words, for unusual voice to emerge and for naivety to shine. This can lead to both humour and tragedy and, yes, some narratives from an adult perspective can do this but the difference (and main advantage) is the starting point. With a child narrator you start the story from a place of innocence, as many people have a preconception of purity with a child and this open heart in the reader can be an advantage.
This allows the telling of a story through a different lens. If a child witnesses an act of violence (or suicide, like on the first page of ‘In Search of Adam), this amplifies the horror or the emotion of the situation. I feel that a child’s perspective can offer a quicker path into the emotional heart of the narrative.
This is the first bit and shall I tell you why? Okay I will. It is to make you read the rest. Billy – WHAT I DID
For me all fiction is about voice. I read because I’m interested in the original thinking of the head I’m in. Whether it’s a stately, omniscient 19th century head, like George Elliot’s in Middlemarch, or the deadpan, 20th century point-of-view of Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s novels, I read because I’m interested to experience the world as distilled by that narrator.
A child-narrator has fresh eyes. And children tend to have less of an axe to grind. Billy doesn’t know right from wrong in his story, and in any case readers know they cannot trust a child of six to make important judgments for them, so they’re forced to do the thinking themselves. This should make for an engaging read. Also, a young child’s viewpoint offers a huge range of emotional responses in a compressed timeframe: a six-year-old can be in a rage one minute, deliriously happy the next, then sad again: that’s fun to play with in narrative terms.
As I said earlier, I think it’s that it compels you to abandon your own agenda and be taken on a journey rather than forcing your character down a particular path.
Harri very much led me, every decision I took was based not on what point I might be trying to make but purely on what felt natural for him. The result, I hope, is a book which reveals issues without being an issue-driven book.
Does a child-narrators voice have to be ‘authentic’?
A child-narrator’s voice must be convincing, but that’s not quite the same thing as authentic. All fictional voices are constructs in the end. Has a real whaler ever thought quite like Ishmael in Moby Dick? Are teenagers ever as unwittingly funny as Adrian Mole? Who knows whether a serial killer ever noticed what Patrick Bateman tells us in American Psycho?
These voices are sustained and consistent inventions. They feel ‘real’ while we’re reading them, but they’re not the result of real whalers, teenagers or psychopaths dictating their stories. (They’d be duller and less coherent if they were.) A child-narrator has to stand up to the same benchmark of authenticity. I hope Billy passes the test.
There were one hundred and twenty steps to climb down. One hundred and twenty steps before touching the grey sand. The sand was unhappy. It looked poorly sick all the time. A green handrail wove next to the steps. I never had the courage to touch it. The paint was covered in carved initials, decorated with lumps of hardened chewing gum and topped with seagull droppings. Yackety yack. Hundreds and thousands of lumps. Hacky yack yack. Paul Hodgson (Number 2) told me that his uncle caught an incurable disease from touching that handrail. He said that his uncle’s hand had dropped clean off. I wasn’t going to risk it. Jude – In Search of Adam
Personally, I think that the moment a child-narrator’s voice does not register as believable, then the reader will disengage.
The reader has to believe that the narrator is a child and whether or not that voice is ‘authentic’ will be subject to personal debate and life experience.
I think you have to be able to believe it was written by a child, which is what is so good about Chris’s and Stephen’s books (I haven’t got round to Caroline’s yet although it’s on my Kindle), they have the language and mindset of their children off absolutely convincingly.
Florence is actually a really exceptional child, an auto didact who has read an incredible amount, but I think the reader readily accepts that because once you begin reading a first person book you merge with the psyche of the narrator, even if they’re completely unlike you.
If the narrator is a serial killer you find yourself wanting him or her to get away with it because you see the world from their point of view, the inside, everyone else is outside. I think over the years there have been some pretty precocious children narrating books, but the reader will usually give the writer a lot of slack on the possibility of that as long as he or she can identify with the character.
What you want is a strong, original character, whether child or adult, that’s what makes for authenticity.
Well I think it has to be authentic to that child. Harri is a product of his upbringing and his environment, but he is also his own individual person, and of course part of that is informed by my own sensibilities and values, my own experience of being that age.
There are certain values that I share in common with Harri, but there is plenty about him that I find strange and confounding too! He surprises me all the time – and that’s because writing a character should be I think an organic process, as much an exercise of the imagination as a forensic attempt to represent another person.
In writing my characters I’m more concerned with being true to them than to myself, but you will always see parts of yourself reflected in them along the way. As long as a character feels right, instinctively, I’m happy, and then it’s up to readers to determine whether they’re ‘authentic’ to them. Everybody’s reading experience is personal to them, and that’s one of the great powers of literature.
Many, many thanks to Stephen, Chris, Caroline and John for their time and thoughtful answers. I’d encourage you all to read their brilliant books. If you’d like to find out more:
Caroline Smailes: Back in 2005, two weeks before she was due to start a PhD in Linguistics, Caroline watched an interview on Richard & Judy where they referred to someone as a ‘nearly woman’. Caroline identified with that label and faced her ‘now or never’ moment. She didn’t want to be someone who talked of ‘nearly’ having done something, she wanted to see if she could write novels.Within that same week, Caroline gave up her funding and her PhD place, enrolled on an MA in Creative Writing and over the next year she wrote ‘In Search of Adam’. Three novels, a novella and a short story collection later, Caroline is still loving writing. She can be found online at www.carolinesmailes.co.uk
Christopher Wakling’s six acclaimed novels include WHAT I DID ‘Warm, hilarious, and eye-wateringly moving, with the cleverest use of point-of-view since Jane Austen … the novel that should have won the Booker Prize.’ (Daily Mail).
Stephen Kelman was born in Luton in 1976. After finishing his degree he worked variously as a warehouse operative, a careworker, and in marketing and local government administration. He decided to pursue his writing seriously in 2005, and has completed several feature screenplays since then. Pigeon English, published by Bloomsbury in March 2011 and in paperback in January 2012, is his first novel.
*I ran a longer interview with Stephen all about Pigeon English and his next novel – you can read it here.
John Harding is one of Britain’s most versatile contemporary novelists. He is the author of four novels, all very different from one another. He was born in and grew up in a small Fenland village in the Isle of Ely, Cambridgeshire. He was educated at the village school and local grammar school and read English at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. Apart from a short period working on newspapers and magazines as a reporter and editor, he has been a freelance writer and novelist all his working life. His latest novel is Florence and Giles
For further reading on naïve narrators try Leo Benedictus’ excellent article in Prospect Magazine on the current trend towards ‘Hindered Narrators’, or Elizabeth Baines and Charles Lambert talking about child narrators here.