Children’s and YA novels that incorporate adult points of view are all the rage these days. I have a sneaky suspicion that much of the interest comes from the fact that 1 out of 3 adult novelists want to break into the YA market, and what better way to start than by writing from an adult point of view? The problem with this method is that it is often applied badly, and to books that aimed at an audience of far-too-young readers. Point of view—the perspective from which a writer chooses to tell their story—determines the voice of any book.
In children’s stories, the most common viewpoint is that of the main character. Who this character is—his or her personality, temperament, strengths and weaknesses—will affect how the story is told and understood by readers.
Can a children’s book really be effective if the story alternates points of view between two or more main characters? Since a book’s point of view is the key to who is guiding us through the text, would shifting points of view with multiple guides be confusing to young readers? And further, why would an author undertake this technique in the first place?
The books we read as children stay with us all of our lives. If we miss reading these books when we are young, we may never have a true appreciation of their content when reading them later in life. For this reason, it is sometimes difficult to evaluate as an adult reader, whether certain conventions in writing for children can be broken or skewed without sacrificing reader comprehension. It’s simply hard to recreate the worldview and level of understanding of an eleven year old. But let’s try.
For comparison, let’s look at two middle-grade novels that use multiple points of view, one the 1997 Newbery Medal winner, “The View from Saturday’ by E.L. Konigsburg, the other, “The Dead Connection,” a first novel by Charlie Price published in 2006. Both of these books include multiple points of view by numerous characters as well as the inclusion of one or more adult character’s point of view. After some study my conclusive answer is: it depends.
Konigsburg’s “The View from Saturday” is unique not only in point of view but also plot pattern. The story follows four sixth graders—Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian—and their middle school teacher Mrs. Olinski on their path to win an Academic Bowl, a scholastics competition. The four become close friends despite their very different personalities. By the end of the novel, Mrs. Olinski makes her own discoveries about her students and herself.
The bulk of Chapters 1-4 is told from the first-person point of view, with each of the four children telling his or her story. But the beginning of each of these chapters includes a third-person limited point of view, told through the eyes of Mrs. Olinski. Chapters 5-12 also end with Mrs. Olinski’s voice. Konigsburg’s story weaves back and forth in time throughout the book, repeating certain scenes but showing them from varying perspectives. When Konigsburg has Nadia and Noah both give descriptions of Alan Diamondstein (Nadia’s father), it is an effective example of how she wants readers to consider point of view in order to better understand each of the characters in the story.
To make things even more complex, Konigsburg’s plot sequence is also out of order. The story actually takes place in the course of one May afternoon at the Academic Bowl finals. But Konigsburg uses flashbacks—another technique seldom used in children’s books—disrupting the book’s normal time sequence. As each of the four students tell their story, the flashbacks offer a chance to recount some episode from their past life to reveal their character as well as point to connections with their teammates.
Although her voices seemed a bit stiff to me at times, there is much more story gained by these multiple perspectives than if it had it been told through the eyes of just one person. We learn almost as much about Ethan from Nadia’s point of view as we do from Ethan’s own storytelling. Konigsburg also takes advantage of the multiple viewpoints to ease transitions. For example, Ethan introduces us to Julian.
Is it confusing? Yes. Negotiating and integrating all this meandering requires an astute reader. With the exception of Julian, I found three of the children’s voices to be too similar to recognize quickly. Does it require a significant amount more “work” to follow the plot? Absolutely. And with so many characters, the actual “action” in the book is reduced, making for some fairly long narrations.
But for a book whose theme is cooperation and friendship, it seems natural that each character is an individual, each telling their own story. But without cooperation—essentially, without the multiple viewpoints—their combined success would not have occurred. The inclusion of Mrs. Olinski’s point of view was both the lens through which we view all the various characters and the magnet that, in the end, gathers the disparate perspectives together so they make sense.
One helpful visual clue I found in my copy of the book was a change in text layout to differentiate the flashbacks from the present. When the narration takes place in the present—during the Academic Bowl—the text is always indented.
“The Dead Connection,” the second book I looked at, begins with a good premise. Murray Kiefer can “hear” the dead talking to him in cemeteries. So can we. When Murray hears a new voice crying for help, he tells the caretaker’s daughter Pearl, and together they investigate. Police and several suspects become involved. Each of these characters gets their own chapter to tell their story from their point of view. Unlike “Saturday,” there is no repeating action; each new chapter moves the story forward and Price does a good job of creating very distinct voices for each character, especially the older teen Robert Barry Compton and one of the suspects Vern Billup.
This book’s use of multiple points of view pulled me both ways. I was drawn to some characters more than others and often this made me want to quickly skip over chapter devoted to characters I disliked. The book meandered in so many different directions—possibly with the intention to throw readers off track—that one result was the main character, Murray, remained sketchily drawn. We never really get to know him. The author teases us along with tidbits about his cemetery friends but they too are abandoned and the book ends abruptly with a disappointing resolution.
But because the book’s central theme was “voices,” including those of the dead, the missing, and a schizophrenic youth—essentially voices of people whom society often chooses not to hear—the author’s decision to include so many multiple points of view made structural sense. The adults’ points of view was essential to this very unusual plot since each offered a very different perspective on the story action and issues.
To my mind, two questions then need to be addressed by an author before deciding on whether to include multiple narrative voices: is the technique integral to the story they are telling, and can the author structure the shifts in such a way as to complement rather than confuse the advancement of the plot? If the writer cannot adequately justify these two points, perhaps they should reconsider whether the multiple points of view serve their purposes more than the needs and interests of their readers.
The technique appears to work best when entire chapters focus on one character and one viewpoint, and in books for younger children, when each character fills a very different role. Including an adult point of view may be the easiest decision of all, since adult voices seem generally easy to differentiate and their point of view provides a clear counterpoint to those of any children, with one caveat: authors need to be careful not to shortchange the development of child characters at the expense of any adults included in the story.