Reading, ’Riting, Rambling (Our 3 Rs?)

November 2, 2010 @ 1:17 pm | Filed under: , ,

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.

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8 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. MelanieB says:

    Oh what a delightful rambly post. I think this kind might really be my favorite because it feels so much like a cozy chat over a cup of tea.

    I really want to see that poem fleshed out. Ben is in love with the stroller and crashes it into everything. Round here it would also have to include a verse about rearranging the dining room furniture, one about tossing the peanut butter jar into the sink, and one about sticking the sippy cup into the bowl of yogurt.

    “The Cremation of Sam McGee” is one of my favorites, I think in part because along with Carl Sandburg’s “Fog” and Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” it makes me think of my dad. It’s fuzzy but those might be the only poems he ever shared with me and thus are gems.

    What a fun discussion of narrative voice and person. I think I tend to prefer the close third person narrator too. Though unreliable first person narrators can be fun. I think my absolute favorite narrative voice might be the one Dorothy Dunnett uses in the Lymond Chronicles.

  2. patricia says:

    Why, hello! It’s been a long time since I’ve commented here.

    Aren’t discussions about literature like this just the best? I’m in the beginnings of writing a book for homeschoolers on writing, and one of my premises is that homeschoolers can learn an awful lot about writing simply by reading together and having the natural discussions that follow. I’m often floored by the insight into writing that my kids have shared in casual discussions like these. They’re like impromptu book groups!

    And I’m also a fan of close third person. You pretty much named my favorite three childhood writers: Maud, Laura and Beverly. I imagine that they had a big influence on my perspective preferences. And you’re right: it’s fascinating that they chose close third for mostly autobiographical tales. Although I suppose close third was more in vogue in their times, while first person seems more trendy now.

    Good stuff!

  3. Hannah says:

    This reminds me of a talk I just listened to from The Teaching Company’s The Art of Reading series, on “narrators: real or imagined.” It definitely has me thinking.

  4. sarah says:

    I love your rambling posts. I also love having conversations like these with my students.

    My preference as a reader is definitely for third person. It allows me to impose myself on the story – to imagine I could be a character in that world – whereas first person makes the story seem like it belongs only to the character in the novel.

    But the weird thing is that I far prefer writing in the first person! It’s just easier somehow.

    Terry Pratchett does a wonderful narrative voice. So does Jane Austen, especially in her comedies.

  5. Melissa Wiley says:

    Melanie, the cup in the yogurt: YES! Huck too!

    Patricia, nice to see you here again. 🙂 Your book sounds interesting. Looking forward to it.

    Hannah, ooooh, that sounds intriguing. We love The Teaching Co lectures. Though Jane tends to choose the math and sciency ones. And I go for art and music. Might have to check out this Art of Reading one though. Thanks for the tip.

    Sarah, Austen does come readily to mind when we’re thinking of engaging narrative voice, doesn’t she! There’s no one quite like her.

    Would you believe I’ve never read any Pratchett at all?? Dunno how that’s possible, exactly. Maybe after the CYBILs, and after the Connie Willis binge I’ve promised myself.

  6. MelanieB says:

    Lissa, I think Huck and Ben need to get together sometime. They’d be great pals and get into wonderful mischief together. And Bella and Rilla too, come to think of it. Too bad we’re on opposite coasts.

    You’ve never read Pratchett!!!! Oh my you MUST. I had a dear friend my freshman year in college who used to feed me Discworld novels regularly. It kept me sane.

  7. Karen Edmisten says:

    Love the rambly stuff. And love your 3 Rs — much like our 3 Rs.

    Also, so funny — I remember posting about Sam McGee a few years ago. Just went to find the post … which mentions Kelly Herold, who’s mentioned in your next post … I just found that amusing, but then I’m easily amused. 🙂

    That old post is here:
    and it refers to a picture book about Sam McGee.

  8. Bethany C says:

    Sarah, Pratchett and Austen were the first to come to my mind!

    Melissa, you have never read Pratchett?! He is wonderful. The first books in the discworld series are (in my opinion) good but not great– then, beginning with _Equal RItes_, they just get better and better. The Tiffany Aching series and _The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents_ are also good… Finally,_Nation_. It is one of my favorite books, and I cry every time I read it.