Yesterday we spent a long time exploring The Poem Farm, the kids and I. They loved Amy’s egg poem, and the dahlia one, and the haircut one—all of them, really. The mousetrap poem especially generated some good discussion.
(Huck was bashing the toy shopping cart into things all through this conversation, which, because we were reading poetry, inspired the following beginning of a poem called “House Rules for Toy Carts”:
Racing down halls is encouraged.
Ramming the walls is not.
The couch where your sister is resting
Is not the best parking spot.
There’s room for a verse about not using your big sister’s dolls as crash dummies, I think, and a reminder that the piano is not a gong and the shopping cart isn’t a mallet. I’m just saying.)
Today I read the middle girls “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which is terrifically cadenced and creepily evocative. A satisfyingly grisly narrative with a surprise at the end. Went over big.
And that led to a discussion about narrative voice and person (1st, 2nd, 3rd). Rose says she likes first-person books best because she feels like the story is really happening right that minute (which I enjoyed because that’s what writers talk about choosing first person for, the immediacy). Beanie agreed but said she wouldn’t have wanted the Rowan of Rin books to be in first person, she isn’t sure why, she thinks the stories are better in third person so you can see everything that’s happening to Rowan from the outside.
“That’s true,” said Rose thoughtfully, and then she told me all about why Shannon Hale likes to write in third person. She read this in an interview in the back of Enna Burning.
Shannon Hale: “I spent eighteen years writing unpublishable stuff, and I now realize it was all in pursuit of my voice. I found the kind of story that I love to read and the type of narrator I feel I can do well. I’m in love with the ‘close third person’ narrator, a narrator that knows only as much as the main character and yet can step back just a tad and tell the story in a slightly different voice. This allows me freedom of language I wouldn’t have in a first person narrator but lets me keep close to one character and follow her through the entire story.”
I feel exactly the same way, I told Rose. Almost all my books are in close third person. I have some poems and short stories in first person, and I’m playing with a novel right now that wouldn’t work at all in anything but first person. But as a reader, I am drawn toward the third-person narrative—with certain notable exceptions, like To Kill a Mockingbird and David Copperfield; and of course there are some books in which first person is imperative, like Kathy Erskine’s Mockingbird (speaking of mockingbirds), or Huck Finn, or Feed, or The Hunger Games. We need Katniss to be the one telling the story, need to be inside her head feeling her terror and anger and anxiety. A third person narrator would have been absolutely wrong for that story, would have felt like the totalitarian powers-that-be were filtering and controlling the story. We needed to hear it from Katniss, person to person, and to be as in the dark as she was, as confused, as trapped.
So: it’s a book by book decision, not something to make a blanket statement about. But the books I love the most and reread obsessively have tended to have (and it may just be a coincidence) third person narrators. Sometimes close third person, like the Maud Hart Lovelace’s books, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s, and A Wrinkle in Time. (And how interesting that both Laura and Maud chose third person for their very autobiographical stories. Beverly Cleary, too.) Other favorite authors use omniscient third person, shifting POV from time to time—L. M. Montgomery is brilliant at this. Tolkien, obviously. Elizabeth George Speare. Elizabeth Goudge. Edith Nesbit.
I’m also fond of books in which the narrative voice is not a character in the story yet has a distinctive and quirky personality, usually quite an opinionated one, like the ones in Peter Pan and The Anybodies. Hmm, what are some other examples?
This post went all a-ramble on me. They do that, sometimes.