Writing from a kid’s perspective is challenging—and when it’s mishandled, the results can be disastrous. That’s why we hold great child narrators in such high regard. You even could say we put themon a pedestal—or in some cases, a booster seat atop a pedestal. Here are our favorite fantastic and fierce child narrators:
Ellen Foster (Ellen Foster, by Kaye Gibbons)
The first line of Ellen Foster, “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy,” sure is a ballsy way to start a story, especially considering what “little” must mean to an 11-year-old. But it’s also fitting—Ellen is as bold and unabashed as this line. After her mother’s suicide, she sets out to find the family she knows she deserves, away from her abusive father and a series of uncaring family members. Though some scenes may give readers pause, or make them doubt such a young girl’s unflinching resolve—as when she gives a school psychiatrist a thorough telling off—you can always go back to the beginning and read that first line again to remind yourself what Ellen’s made of. (Not exactly sugar and spice.) She uses her quick wit and moxie to fight for what she’s looking for, and in doing so earns a place among the great precocious child narrators, like Huck Finn and Scout Finch.
Raymond Marks (The Wrong Boy, by William Russell)
Raymond Marks is a headstrong and perpetually misunderstood teenager, leading a normal life in the town of Failsworth, in northern England. That is, until a series of seemingly harmless events (including the Transvestite Nativity Play Scandal and a fly-trapping craze that involves an intimate part of the male anatomy) culminates in the disappearance of a village boy. Raymond is blamed for the circumstances that led to the child’s disappearance, but he doesn’t take the accusations lying down—he runs away. He sets out to find the only person who could possibly understand him: Morrissey. (You know, THE Morrissey.) Like the phony/not phony scale Holden Caulfield uses to size up his acquaintances, Raymond categorizes people into two camps: those who listen Morrissey’s band, the Smiths, and those who don’t. The teen tells his story in a series of letters addressed to Moz, which are at times annoyingly adolescent but always feel authentic. As Raymond gets closer to finding the brooding rocker, he must face the conundrum that plagues most idolizing adolescents: What if your object of obsession is nothing like you imagine them to be? In answering this question, Raymond learns how to grow up.
Jack (Room, by Emma Donoghue)
The subject matter of Room (kidnapping, sexual and psychological abuse, isolation) is enough to make anyone shudder, but 5-year-old Jack leads us through it with resilience and curiosity. His use of proper nouns (Chair, Bed, Sink) create an alternate world within the 11 x 11-foot-space where he and his mother are imprisoned, which Jack comes to understand is a soundproof shed built by their captor, Old Nick. Jack’s resilience continues to astonish throughout the book.
Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood (We Have Always Lived in The Castle, by Shirley Jackson)
Make no bones about it, Merricat Blackwood is crazy. Being in her head for a little over 100 pages is intense and strangely addictive. From the get-go, Merricat makes her age (18) known, but it’s easy to forget, as her voice sounds more like a tween’s. She speaks in repetitious rhymes and chants the names of poisonous plants to calm herself. The mental gymnastics Merricat performs are all in an effort to keep a dark secret about the deaths of much of her family at bay. Surprisingly, though, the secret she’s hiding isn’t who murdered them, it’s about what kind of people they were. Merricat has convinced herself that they treated her with unusual cruelty, and she even has imaginary confrontations with them to keep this perspective fresh in mind. The more Merricat tries to distract herself from reality, the more it comes into view for her readers.
Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright (Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison)
Bone begins her story by relating the details of her birth. Her 15-year-old mother was comatose at the time of delivery, making her unable to lie about her marital status. Thus, Bone is deemed a bastard. The narration of one’s own birth could easily come across as pretentious, but with Bone there is no pretense. Her life is the stuff of Greek tragedy. For years she is abused (in every sense of the word) at the hands of her stepfather, and her mother refuses to acknowledge that it’s happening until she finally sees it for herself. In a scene that is nothing short of excruciating, Bone’s mother chooses the man she married over her daughter, quickly fleeing town with him. Bone tells her devastating story plainly and without flinching. And the effect is that the reader flinches for her—but can’t help coming back to the page to hear the rest of Bone’s story.