Take Ten: Child Narrators with a Strong Voice

Not too long ago, I read that one of my favorite books of last year, James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, was going to be made into a movie. I must admit I was of two minds about this; on one hand, I love the idea that the story would possibly reach a greater number of admirers, but on the other, I always worry when someone makes a movie that features such a strong narrative voice. The voice can be seriously lost in the shuffle since most movies rarely feature a continuous voiceover.

Anyway, it started me thinking about other strong child narrators in adult fiction – Onion in The Good Lord Bird at the top of my list right now. The following novels all feature kids who are perhaps wiser than their years, but definitely still have an innocent outlook that enlivens their stories. And, best of all, their voice is so robust you can’t imagine anyone else telling that story.

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The Bear by Claire Cameron

  • While camping with her family on a remote island, five-year-old Anna awakes in the night to the sound of her mother screaming. A rogue black bear, 300 pounds of fury, is attacking the family’s campsite, pouncing on her parents as prey. Anna manages to get her brother into the family’s canoe and paddle away. But when the canoe dumps the two children on the edge of the woods, they must battle hunger, the elements, and a dangerous wilderness.

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

  • One thing you could depend on in Cold Sassy, Georgia, was that word got around – fast. On July 5, 1906, things took a scandalous turn. That was the day that E. Rucker Blakeslee, proprietor of the general store and barely three weeks a widower, eloped with Miss Love Simpson – a woman half his age and, worse yet, a Yankee! On that day, fourteen-year-old Will Tweedy’s adventures began, and an unimpeachably pious town came to life.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon

  • Despite his overwhelming fear of interacting with people, Christopher, a mathematically-gifted, autistic fifteen-year-old boy, decides to investigate the murder of a neighbor’s dog and uncovers secret information about his mother.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

  • Mistaken for a girl on account of his curly hair, delicate features, and sackcloth smock, 12-year-old slave Henry Shackleford realizes that his accidental disguise affords him greater safety and decides to remain female. Dubbed “Little Onion” by his liberator, abolitionist John Brown, Henry accompanies the increasingly fanatical Brown on his crusade to end slavery — a picaresque journey that takes them from Bloody Kansas to Rochester, New York, where they attempt to enlist the support of such notables as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman before embarking on the infamous, ill-fated 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry.

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

  • Possessing encyclopedia-like intelligence, unusual zookeeper’s son Pi Patel sets sail for America, but when the ship sinks, he escapes on a life boat and is lost at sea with a dwindling number of animals until only he and a hungry Bengal tiger remain.

Room by Emma Donoghue

  • A five-year-old narrates a story about his life growing up in a single room where his mother aims to protect him from the man who kidnapped her when she was a teenager and has held her prisoner for seven years.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

  • Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison, is propelled into a mystery when a man is found murdered on the grounds of her family’s decaying English mansion and Flavia’s father becomes the main suspect.

The Travels of Jamie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor

  • Jaimie McPheeters, 14, leaves Louisville with his father in 1849 for California and the gold fields.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

  • Scout Finch, daughter of the town lawyer, likes to spend her summers building treehouses, swimming, and catching lightning bugs with her big brother Jem. But one summer, when a black man is accused of raping a white woman, Scout’s carefree days come to an end. In the county courtroom, she will join her father in a desperate battle against ignorance and prejudice.

True Grit by Charles Portis

  • With her papa’s pistol tied to her saddlehorn and a supersized ration of audacity, fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross sets out to avenge her father’s murder.

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Annotations are courtesy of NoveList Plus, which offers reviews and recommendations for fiction and nonfiction. Log into NoveList Plus using your TFPL card.

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