My all-time favorite books explore grown-up problems through the eyes of children. From Scout Finch witnessing racial hatred to Bunny Morrison
suffering from the Spanish influenza that will take his mother's life to Huck Finn
faking his own death in order to escape his abusive father, we see children come face to face with the harsh realities of our world.
Part of what draws me to the child's point of view is how dangerous an event can feel without the benefit of adult reflection. Think of a child walking down a long black hallway to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. To that child, it can feel like an experience of life or death, an endless walk toward the fears that live in the dark. To hear a grown-up relate the same story — that it was only 9:30 at night, that the house was perfectly safe, and that adults were watching television only a few rooms away — has none of the child's truth in it. It says nothing of the terror.
In my novel, Up from the Blue, I explore depression and suicide from the perspective of eight-year-old Tillie Harris. To me, it's a different story when you hear it from her point of view precisely because she doesn't understand the larger picture. The gaps in her awareness create misunderstandings as well as surprises of compassion — Tillie has no expectations of what her mother should be and so is free to enjoy what others might condemn.
It was important for me to give voice to this child. Before I was a full-time writer, I worked as counselor for sexual abuse survivors. My youngest client was four. And while my novel is not about sexual abuse, I had these survivors in my head as I wrote, urging me to bear witness to a child's experience of grief. I also wanted to speak to the assumption that children are unreliable narrators. Survivors are often asked, Are you sure it happened the way you're saying? Could you have imagined it? And I play with this in the book — setting up the reader to doubt Tillie's experience, just as she doubts herself.
A couple of months ago, I was speaking with the poet Jane McCafferty, who had used Tillie's narrative voice as a teaching device for her creative writing class. She'd asked her students to tell her if it was really a child speaking, or if upon close inspection, they were seeing something else. What she'd noticed was a bit of the illusion I tried to create, where the reader can see the world through the eyes of a child and yet the language can be lyrical and focused. I admit to borrowing the technique from Harper Lee, who opens To Kill a Mockingbird with a grown-up narrator reflecting about the year she was six years old. That more eloquent and insightful Scout is in your ear before young Scout begins her story, and there is an ever so subtle blending of the two voices that gives the author some leeway with the words. Because you're never truly writing from the point of view of a child. All the while, as you're walking into the dark with your young narrator, you're aware of the larger picture, not to mention the reader's desire for satisfying prose and depth of story.