Over the summer I was contacted by a wonderful writer from the US called Connie Mayo. She found me (and What Milo Saw), by researching writers of adult fiction who used child narrators in their stories. It is a technique (though technique sounds a little clinical for the magic of having having a child’s voice in your story) she uses brilliantly in her historical novel, The Island of Worthy Boys. However, Connie admitted her frustrations at people’s responses to her book, especially the assumption that because her narrators are children, her novel is often assumed to be a children or Young Adult book. This sparked our dialogue about the different perceptions of children, Young Adult, adult and cross-over fiction in the UK and in the US.
I told her Connie that my experience in the UK had been a largely positive one. I love that What Milo Saw defies categorisation, that a nine year old boy read it and came to ask questions in my session at The Wantage Literary Festival; that a forty year old men emailed me to say that he finished reading Milo in the bath and sat there sobbing for a good while afterwards; that a man in his 80s read the whole of Milo to his beloved wife because she, like Milo, suffers from Retinitis Pigmentosa; that a high powered editor of a major Sunday newspaper read Milo on a long-haul flight in favour of the films on offer.
My feeling is that, as writers, we make choices which resonate with our characters, our stories and the ideas we are exploring. Whether we end up writing in the third or first or indeed second person, from the point of view of an five year old or an eighty five year old, from the point of view of a man or a woman or an animal, is not decided by the categories and demarcations made up by bookshops or libraries or publishing houses.
Our choice is an artistic one. It is a choice born out of a desire for truth, integrity and authenticity.
Of course I have experienced some frustrations. Friends or colleagues who haven’t had the time to read the book sometimes refer to me as a children’s writer; one Milo review stated, ‘this novel doesn’t know who its audience is.’ Others act surprised at the seemingly adult nature of my second novel, The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells, as though I were breaking away from my voice when, in fact, the novels are very similar in style and tone.
I am a writer who writes for readers in the broadest definition of that word. I take delight in knowing that no one feels excluded from picking up my novels. Similarly, it’s a joy to me that this autumn, I have taken part in both a children’s book festival alongside amazing children’s writers like Meg Rosoff and Tanya Landman, as well as an adult literary festival in Sheffield, Off The Shelf, where I had the chance to be on the panel with writers of adult fiction like Marina Lewycka and Nik Perring. For me, there is no conflict in this, just a deep joy that my book is being read so widely.
From speaking to Connie, I did realise that life is a little easier for me on this side of the pond. In England there is a little more tolerance, perhaps, for novels that straddle categories. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time made a huge difference in this sense – in fact, I heard Mark Haddon say that when his novel was released, it had two ISBN numbers: one for the children’s section of bookshops and the other for the adult section. Connie lamented that, despite their many literary qualities, Americans seem keen to pigeonhole their books as belonging to a certain readership – she then added the witty aside: ‘As if every third adult American hasn’t read Harry Potter.’
I told Connie about my love of adult books with child narrators. That Charles Dickens was brilliant at this, most notably in David Copperfield, as was Henry James in What Masie Knew (a title which inspired my own). One of my favourite novels of all time is The Poisonwood Bible, which has five narrators, all women, four of them children. Another firm favourite is Room by Emma Donoghue, who has a five year old narrator tell the harrowing story of being incarcerated with his mother, a story based on the Josef Fritzl case. And this last example brings me to another important point. I like to write about strong, contemporary issues, issues like the crisis in nursing homes, immigration, a mother walking out on her young family, adoption. Told through the eyes of adults these stories could, I fear, come across as bleak and even a little flat.
Children, however, have a magical way of seeing the world. A funny way. A truthful way (because they have not yet learnt to lie about what they see). And an incomplete way too, which creates a delicious situation for the reader, an ironic gap in which he or she knows more about what is going on than the narrator.
John Boyne, author of the amazing, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, writes this about the appeal of writing child protagonists:
I’ve always enjoyed novels with a youthful protagonist; more often than not they’re optimistic, good-willed, resourceful young people forced to live through an adult experience and through their occasionally naïve voices we get to re-live a familiar experience in an unexpected way.
Perhaps life is also made a easier for me because I write from several points of view. What Milo Saw is primarily about Milo, it is his story, and he tells it more than anyone else (in terms of words and pages). But his story is also told through the eyes of his Gran, who is in her nineties, and his mum, Sandy, and his friend Tripi, a young Syrian refugee who works in the kitchens of Gran’s nursing home.
Similarly, my second novel, The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells, is told through five points of view: three adults, two children, one of whom is seven years old. I am currently writing a YA novel, however, one told exclusively through the eyes of a fourteen year old – and it is her voice which made me feel that this story would sit well with teenage readers. Though, from what my agent tells me, many women in their twenties love reading YA literature. So the lines are blurred again. Perhaps in the future I will set myself the challenge of writing an adult novel entirely from the point of view of a child…I can feel my fingers itching.
Anyway, enough about me. Here are some thoughts on the subject from Connie in the form of questions about her new novel, The Island of Worthy Boys.
What inspired you to write this book?
It was discovering that The Boston Farm School, a residential school for indigent and orphaned boys, existed for over 100 years on Thompson Island, which is so close to Boston that you can easily see it from the highway. And yet, most people have never heard of the school, in part because the main building burned down in the 1970s, so there is no physical artifact for people to ponder. I love reading historical fiction, mostly because I love learning about history in a painless way, and I wanted to write a book that would inform people about this really unique school.
Why did you choose to make your protagonists children?
At first I considered writing the story from the point of view of a young female teacher, because I thought I could easily capture that voice. But then I asked myself what was the most interesting, most informed point of view for a story about a school full of boys, and it seemed obvious that the answer was: the boys. Adults never really know what’s happening in schools. My teenagers tell me what happens in their classes, and what they say is often at odds with the party line we get from the school. I’m not saying one is always right and the other wrong; I’m just saying they are often different – and the kids’ perspective is almost always funnier and more interesting.
Were you surprised when you were first asked if your book was in the Young Adult genre?
Completely. It never occurred to me while writing it that The Island of Worthy Boys would be for anyone other than adults. The first time I heard this question was when I participated in an online forum that was sort of a boot camp for query letters. Other authors would critique your letter that you are creating to snag an agent. So your letter starts out with a quick synopsis of the beginning of your book – mine was something like, “Sleeping in alleys, rolling drunks, and counting on nobody – that’s how twelve-year-old Charles survives on the streets of 1889 Boston and he likes it just fine.” And then an author asked me, “Oh, so are you writing for middle school or high school?” and I responded, “Neither! Isn’t that obvious?” And then I thought, maybe it is YA and I didn’t even realize it – maybe I wrote a YA book accidentally. So I started to research what YA really was.
What did your research tell you?
According to what I have read, YA has several distinguishing characteristics. The first two are: 1) The reading audience is generally made up of teenagers; 2) The protagonists are generally the same age or slightly older than the reading audience. So right there, my book does not qualify as YA. But beyond that, YA subject matter is about the issues that teens are dealing with – establishing independence from parents, navigating the social world of their peers, romantic attraction. These issues aren’t sidecar in a YA novel – they are the whole point of the novel. So I don’t think my book passes that test either.
Did the age of your protagonists make it more challenging to get published?
I’ll never really know, but I did have one New York agent give me feedback on this subject. I was meeting with her face-to-face at a writing conference, and she had read at least part of the book beforehand. And she said, “Connie, this is very well written, but the people who read historical fiction are women, and women want to read about female protagonists. So I think you should put this book in a drawer, and tomorrow start writing a historical novel with a female protagonist.” I tried to tell her that I thought my choice of protagonists would make my book stand out, but it was clear that she thought it was too risky. Her attitude reinforced what I had been hearing about traditional publishing: that their world has been so turned upside down by eBooks and self-publishing that they aren’t sure how to make money anymore, so they tend to stick with what has worked in the recent past. It’s never been harder for a debut author to get traction in the traditional publishing world.
What’s next for you?
The first three months after your publication date are said to be very busy, so I made a pact with myself that I would be OK with not starting the next novel until at least January 2016. But I have several ideas on the back burner. I’m fascinated with Roosevelt Island in the 19th century, back when it was called Blackwell’s Island. There was a smallpox hospital, a prison, a lunatic asylum, all within spitting distance of each other. I guess I have a thing for islands.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this discussion. Do join in the debate about child narrators in adult fiction by sharing this article via twitter of Facebook and making suggestions of your own. I would love to hear from authors or readers about amazing stories carried on the shoulders of children.
Here is a small list (there are many, many more) of wonderful novels with child narrators:
- Room, Emma Donoghue
- David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
- The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne
- The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
- The Island of Worthy Boys, Connie Mayo
- What Maisie Knew, Henry James
- The Night Rainbow, Claire King
- The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
- The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night Time, Mark Haddon
- Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman
- A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
- Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
- The Lovely Bones, Alice Seobold
- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee