Good morning crime dogs. Today, for our First Pager we’re back in the land of the young again, this time with a five-year-old as our tour guide. I’ll let you take a read and then we’ll regather to talk. In the meantime, I’m going to try to get Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “That Smell” out of my head.
“Eww! What stinks, Daddy?”
“I don’t know, Squirt.”
“Don’t call me that. I’m not a squirt.” Five-year-old Mandy thrust out her lower lip. One, because Daddy called her squirt, which meant he didn’t think she was a big girl at all, and two, because he was trying not to laugh and that made her mad.
“Am I allowed any kind of nickname?” her father asked
Mandy thought about it. It wasn’t like you could shorten Mandy into much, but having a nickname that didn’t make her feel bad would be nice. Everybody called her cousin Jason, Sport. That wasn’t a wimpy nickname. She decided it might take time to pick the right one. It was important. “I’ll let you know.”
“Okay, Squi….Mandy.” He squeezed her hand a little tighter as they walked the narrow path at the edge of the Sugar River. A silvery layer of frost covered the ground and it felt crunchy beneath her rubber boots. She pictured animals using the trail to get a drink of the river water and wondered if any of them ever slipped on the icy edges and tumbled in. The trees and bushes were still bare and the weather was what Aunt Jenny called iffy, which meant even though it was spring break her dad still dressed her in a winter coat on adventures like this first day of fishing.
Daddy held her hand and carried fishing poles and a tackle box in the other as he searched for the perfect spot to drop their lines in. Maybe she shouldn’t have made a big deal about her nickname. After all, she was the one Daddy took fishing. Not Jason.
“Let’s try the other side of that big rock.” He pointed a few feet ahead at a giant stone sticking up on the bank.
The breeze picked up and the smell got worse. Even worse than when her dad forgot the thawed chicken in the microwave and it took him two days to figure out what was stinking.
“Pee-ewe, what is that?” Mandy wrinkled her nose.
“Whew. No idea, but you’re right baby girl, that reeks.”
Another nickname she hated. Baby girl. No one in Kindergarten wanted to be called baby-anything. Mandy bit her tongue and forged ahead over the uneven land.
“Must be a dead animal around somewhere. Should we move or can you handle it?” he asked.
Okay, a caveat. I sometimes wonder if we shouldn’t ask our contributors to tell us what genre or sub-genre they are working in. It would make critiquing a submission clearer and maybe fairer. Given we have only 400 or so words here, I have to guess at the writer’s attempt, with few clues. The title Love Kills suggests crime fiction and I’d bet my last brass farthing that the eww-worthy smell isn’t a dead fish but a ripe body bobbing in the water. But beyond that, I can’t begin to guess who the target audience is for this book. Children? Doubt it. Young adult? The narrator’s too young for that. Adults? That’s my guess here, and if that’s the case, we have to talk about the viability of child narrators. But first…
I like this. It is cleanly choreographed, meaning I can tell exactly what’s going on. The interaction between father and daughter is sweetly rendered. My dad used to take me fishing when I was a tadpole and I treasured the time with him. There are some nice spare details like the crunch of boots on ice that tells us it’s cold, maybe in the netherworld months of early November or March.
But what I really like is that the writer has successfully captured the voice of the narrator Mandy. The simple syntax and apt word choices conjure up a five-year-old who is beginning to assert independence and wants to be seen as older. I like the line about weather that her aunt called “iffy.” Kids are aural magpies — they pick up on the odd things adults say. I like that Mandy is worried about the animals. All nice telling details! I think the writer does a spot-on job of creating a believable and winsome 5-year-old girl.
If we are reading crime fiction intended for an adult market (I am assuming here), then I question the wisdom of opening from a very young child’s point of view. The opening scene or chapter of your book is critical to getting your reader to bond with the character, and who you choose to put in the spotlight in the early going tends to signal to the reader that this is your protagonist, the person whose journey they are about to share. Is Mandy the protagonist? I don’t know. But the spotlight is square on her in this scene.
Which leads to the next question. Can Mandy carry an entire book on her tiny shoulders? Few child narrators can. And few writers can successfully pull off an entire novel written only from the point of view of a very young child like Mandy. Child narrators are common in kid’s literature. But not so much in fiction for adults. It can feel very liberating to write from a child’s POV. They usually don’t have an ax to grind and they see the world in matter-of-fact ways. But because they are limited in experience and sophistication, they can’t be a truly reliable narrator.
When I read this submission, I wracked my brain for examples of similar-aged narrators but came up short. The only example I could remember is Room by Emma Donoghue (2010) It is narrated by 5-year-old Jack who has been confined to a single room all his life, knowing only his mother (who was also captured and confined at an early age). His vocabulary and understanding of the world is very restricted. Room has been roundly acclaimed. I couldn’t finish it.
I book I did love was Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980). It opens with an unnamed 5-year-old girl running scared through the woods, separated from her cave family during an earthquake. She survives a bear attack and is found, near death, by another clan. But Auel used a third-person omniscient point of view, so the reader can trust exactly what is happening.
Then there’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout Finch, the first person narrator, is only six years old when the novel begins, and eight years old when it ends. But the narrative has almost a memoir feel to it, as if we’re listening to a much older Scout telling us a story about what happened. It is a masterful sleigh-of-hand on Lee’s part that we believe we are hearing the blended voices of a 6-year-old (who, very childishly, calls her 50-year-old father “feeble”) and her older more knowing self.
Back to our writer’s story: As I said, given the small sample here, we can’t know if Mandy will remain the sole narrator. My instincts tell me she won’t. But if she is not meant to carry the story’s narrative weight, then I question the wisdom of opening with her voice, as sweet as it is. Where can you go from here?
Some things to remember if you’re contemplating using a child’s point of view:
- You need a compelling reason why a child is the right person to narrate your novel.
- You need to make sure the child is old enough to reliably convey information and events for the reader. Children younger than six aren’t developed enough for this. Even teens have their limits. (There’s an understatement!)
- Do some research to get the child’s voice tone-perfect. Many of you have kids, so this is easy. The rest of us, well, we need to hang out at Chuck e Cheese maybe. And keep that voice consistent over the course of the story.
If the writer is available, I would appreciate hearing from him/her as to why they chose to open with Mandy as narrator and whether she will continue on into the book. The rest of us — what say you?