The Child Within: 3 times children's narrative made a book better
Fun fact: 2nd April – Hans Christian Andersen's birthday – is International Children's Book Day... bet you didn't know that! While this day was officially launched in 1967 to "inspire a love of reading and call attention to children's books," it got me thinking of not only books intended for children, but of books that place children at the centre of their narrative.
Some of my favourite reads are told through the eyes of a child. Stories and the issues they deal with are rendered so much more powerful because of the innocence at their core; an innocence we the readers can identify, but which calls to questions the way we become trained to read, reflect and deal with situations as adults. Here are three of my favourite examples - it's hard to imagine what these stories would have been if written from another perspective. If you haven't read any of them... do!
Room (Emma Donaghue, 2010)
To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it's where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits. Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it's not enough...not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son's bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.
Why it is so good: Told from the pointy of view of wee Jack who has zero understanding of the situation he was born into or how horrific it is, we understand long before he does the reality of the captive scenario which is all he knows. The author absolutely nails that beautifully simple logic that is unique to children, and by the end has us using it ourselves all over again. The way in which Jack understands the world around him – both the tiny room world he doesn't even know is a prison and the big wide world he is catapulted into – is told in such an effective and convincing way. Even the way he calls his and Ma's captor 'Old Nick' because he saw something about old Saint Nicholas, who only comes into people's homes at secret in the dead of night, on television once, is a stroke of genius.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (John Boyne, 2006)
When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move from their home to a new house far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence running alongside stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people he can see in the distance. But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different to his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.
Why it is so good: This book is set during the second world war, a fact never outlined, rather adhered to through Bruno's descriptions, such as the mysterious place with the funny name "Out-With" that his father becomes boss of. To readers, we quickly understand it to be Auschwitz. There is no language capable of describing the horror that went on there, and truly I cannot think of a better way to communicate the immense inexplicability of it than by witnessing it all through the eyes of a innocent child. This is undoubtedly one of the most powerful books I have read that tackles the intacklable topic of the holocaust, and in no way could it have packed such a punch if not told from Bruno's perspective. A must read.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee, 1960)
'Shoot all the Bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a Mockingbird.' This is a lawyer's advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of Harper Lee's classic novel – a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of 6-year-old Scout and her older brother Jem, Lee explores with exuberant humour the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the thirties. The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina of one man's struggle for justice. But the weight of history will only tolerate so much.
Why it's so good: I feel as though even trying to put into words why this modern classic, largely considered one of the best novels of all time, is so good is a futile effort. Just like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas though, this book deals with subject matter to confounding to explain; in this case, senseless (as it always is) racism. Scout and Jem give voice to the questions and frustrations we all feel in the face of such absurdity.