young voices in fiction

Tom-SawyerIn a novel, what makes a narrator’s voice seem young? Well, vocabulary is an obvious clue–the use of kid slang, dancing around or misusing big, “grown-up” words.  Sometimes writers commit deliberate grammatical errors (“me and Katie got green lollipops”) or limit themselves to choppy little sentences (“Teddy bawled. Hard. Snot came out of his nose.”) in an effort to convey “young.”

But my favorite young voices in fiction are those that don’t differ all that much from adult voices when it comes to word choice and sentence mechanics. Instead the difference comes across more subtly and globally in the narrator’s “young” way of viewing the world. Whether the narrative POV is first-person or third, there’s a sense that the world is fresh and strange, that human relationships are mysterious to the point of being inexplicable, and that what’s imagined is just as compelling as what is known or learned.

Lullabies for Little CriminalsHeather O’Neill, award-winning author of Lullabies for Little Criminals, has this to say about creating a “young” world (through her 12-year-old protagonist’s eyes) rather than aiming specifically for a “young” voice:

Even though the novel is set in rooming-houses and the red-light district, it still exists in the childish realm of make-believe: a world in which plastic swans are real; cracks in the walls are spiders; and an old fan blowing in the corner of the room is the seaside.

In O’Neill’s novel it’s the gap between what (adult) readers believe about negligent parents, juvenile delinquents, drug dealers and pimps, on the one hand, and how the child narrator sees them, on the other (i.e., as great people) that generates much of the narrative tension. For O’Neill the key to a young voice is its relationship to risk:

The inability to properly identify danger exists throughout the book….Twelve is a beautiful and striking age. It’s when kids start talking big and thinking about how they could make it on their own: just like angels right before they are cast out of heaven. They have such innocent and dangerous ideas.*

I really like the phrase “innocent and dangerous ideas.” The pairing of a narrator’s innocence and a reader’s awareness of danger could apply to many great novels about children and young people.

*Heather O’Neill’s comments are found in the “About the Book” section of the 2006 HarperPerennial paperback edition, pg. 10.

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