Tuesday 13 September 2011

Writing from a child's viewpoint

This blog started out as a place for my thoughts about writing and books, and immediately fell off the rails and became a general ramble. Time, then, for a book-related post.

By one of those odd coincidences, I have recently read three novels in which at least part is written from a small child's POV, and in the first person. The first was Emma Donoghue's Room; an immensely successful novel, which has won many plaudits. For me, however, it didn't quite work. The child is just five, and yet much of the vocabulary he uses is way beyond that of even the brightest five-year-old. This spoilt the novel for me, although many wouldn't agree. I also found the names for household objects (Chair, Table, Bed etc)used without the definite article contrived and irritating.

The second book was Nell Leyshon's Devotion; a brilliant if slight (in length) novel about the break-down of a family, told in four first-person voices; the mother, father, and teenage and six-year-old daughters. Leyshon's novel doesn't seem to be doing especially well commercially (I happened upon it in the library) and this is a great shame, because I think she really does manage (as much as is possible) to get inside the heads of the two children, and the book is altogether a wonderful if tragic read; I really recommend it.

The third novel is Chrsitopher Wakling's What I Did; like The Slap, the story of the aftermath of the public smacking of a child, and told from the point of view of the six-year-old involved. This one I find particularly irritating (I'm only half-way through). The "thoughts" of the little boy seem to me contrived and unlikely, esepcially (again) in the vocabulary he uses. For example, would a child of this age really use the word "extraordinarily", and then "air looms" for "heirlooms"? It borders on the cute/twee, and for me, it doesn't work. This is a shame, because the story is an absorbing one, but several times I have been sorely tempted to give up on it because of the style. The actual story could have been told in the third person, and I don't think it would lose any of its impact.

In conclusion, I think from now on I will avoid novels told in this way. It can work - just - but it's very, very difficult to pull off. After all, how many of us can remember our thought processes at the age of six? We may remember what happened and how we felt, but that's a different thing altogether.


  1. Hmm, a view point of a child written by an adult doesn't work for me.... I know we've all lived through it but as I look back over my life I'm looking back as an adult not as a child. My mind and thought have grown in that time I have a better understanding. It's like read a book written by a human seeing life through the eyes of an animal, not possible. It will always be just a work of fiction. Yes, I know it's a fiction book, but what I mean is it has to be bloody good to take me in and have me hooked.

  2. My 6 year old, reasonably intelligent, grandson recently wrote a story of which he was, rightly, extremely proud. It was imaginative, original, and very good. BUT, no way was it anywhere near the standard needed to be published as a book. And, at that age, you wouldn't expect it to be.

    So, a book written from the viewpoint of a child must surely inevitably fail because it can never be believable.

  3. I also had this experience recently. I entered a short story competition in which the winning entry had the narrator bemoaning the fact that the love of his life had turned her affections on another. The language was such that it sounded like an adult but the 'twist' at the end revealed him to be a toddler jealous of his baby brother.
    All of the comments praised the cleverness of the story so I just thought maybe my misgivings were just sour grapes. It obviously didn't bother the judges. I still felt a bit cheated though.

  4. Thank you, Frances, for these reviews. I have ordered Devotion today and look forward to it very much. I'm unsure about child view-point too, but think it depends on the quality of the writing. So I shall read Devotion with an open mind.

  5. Interesting post. I think the most important (and difficult) thing in using a child's voice, or viewpoint, is to get the vocabulary just right. And I imagine the younger the child, the more difficult that will be!

  6. This post has really got me thinking - yes, that's a good thing! Thank you Frances :-)

  7. Exactly, Jarmara!

    Gai, I agree. You can't have it both ways i.e. write a novel that appeals to adults but using (or trying to use) child vocabulary.

    Hi, Keith. Yes - it's a bit like those stories which turn out to be a dream after all. Cheating.

    Hi, Joanna. I do hope you enjoy Devotion. John's now reading it and loves it. Please let me know what you think.

    Hi, Rosemary. I think that's exactly what I'm trying to say (although it did occur to me after I'd written the post that children's books written in a child's voice work a lot better, although they're written by adults).

    Thanks for commenting, Diane.

  8. The only one of these I've read is Room, and I did have mixed feelings about it. Like you I found the child's voice irritating, particularly at the start, but later on I was drawn into the story. Then when I reached the ending I wasn't quite sure if it sat right with the rest of the book somehow. I've really been in 2 minds whether to recommend this book to other people.

    I will look out for Devotion though, thanks.

  9. Hi, Joanne I found the ending of Room difficult to believe. Would the mother really have let her son take that huge risk? Quite apart from the child POV thing, I didn't really enjoy the book as a story.

  10. We still have my mum's school essays from when she was about 8 years old. Those little essays and the pencil pictures she draw for each one give quite an interesting insight in what was going through her curly little head in the very early 1950s, apart from showing what daily life was like for the average (neither rich nor too poor) family in our part of the world during that time.
    So, my advice for any author whoc hinks about writing a story from a child's perspective is to read essays and letters written by children.

  11. Sorry for the bad spelling in my previous comment - this sounds like a lame excuse, but my keyboard's batteries went flat just as I was typing, and by the time I had replaced the batteries, I just clicked "publish your comment" and did not check properly what I had written. I guess you still get the idea, though!