The Adult Narrator in a Children’s Story

Last week I quoted Dallas Bradel and her support for my call to keep adults more present in stories for young people. I agreed, of course, with all she said.

But she had more to offer, and this is the way she continued her very articulate argument:

I applaud your understanding of the importance of supportive, likeable adults in the lives of your protagonists.  In Little Dog, Lost, Mark’s mother and the lonely old man give readers some insight into the value of adults as human beings and as allies in navigating the challenges of life. 

I will add, however, that I found the parenthetical comments from the adult narrator in A Very Little Princess and Little Dog, Lost to be distracting intrusions into the narrative. I kept wanting to say, “Hush, I don’t care about the dog park; you’re interrupting Marion’s story about Mark and the dog.” 

Could you possibly feel satisfied to be present as an adult voice strictly through your adult characters, without making sidebar comments to your reader? Just wondering. 

She and I carried the conversation on a bit further through e-mail and she clarified her position this way:

Hope that my view was expressed clearly though, as I am not opposed to the adult voice in the story, as a character or as a narrator telling her story. I am a huge advocate of the active presence of adults in children’s lives, both in reality and on the page.

In considering my negative feelings about the outside narrator whom I experienced as intruding via the parenthetical remarks, I think that that storyteller voice felt to me less like a comforting figure than like a benevolent know-it-all who thought I needed regular explanations in order to understand the story. Does that make sense? 

Yes, Dallas, it makes sense. She isn’t objecting to the looking-back-adult character through whom I told the stories in Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins—a stance that is still pretty much forbidden in stories for young people—but she is annoyed by the standing-outside-the-story and, I suspect even worse, the commenting-on-the-story narrative voice I’ve used in the two Very Little Princess books and in Little Dog, Lost. A voice I happen to love.

So who is right here? It’s easy—perhaps too easy—to say this is all a matter of taste. And in part it certainly is that. I’ve heard folks complain about the same thing in Kate D’Camillo’s use of a very intentionally old-fashioned-sounding adult narrator in The Tale of Despereaux, a literary device I enjoyed. (Again, we’re talking about adults who read and discuss children’s books. not the young readers who are intended to be the primary audience.)

I wonder if anyone has asked kids how they feel about having such an adult filter? I remember reading Little Women to my daughter when she was eight or nine. Soon after I started I thought, “Oh dear. She isn’t going to put up with this preachy, teachy voice!” But when I closed the book she wanted to know when we would read again.

The truth is that when I set out to use that adult narrator, I didn’t ask anyone, adult or child, whether they liked my storyteller’s voice. I used that voice because I needed it. It’s that simple. The wise, kindly adult providing a window into my children’s world was there for me because I found it comforting. I assumed, rightly or wrongly, that at least some of my readers would feel the same way. Where does that need come from?  No place very mysterious. This past decade has been a time of deep losses for me, ones I could do nothing to prevent, and that storyteller voice is what has come to me out of those losses  It makes me feel safe inside my own story.

Can I justify my decision in literary terms? No. I can only say again, I wrote those stories as they were given to me, as they sang themselves in my heart. They will—as all stories do—work for some readers and not for others. Not a very satisfying answer, I know.

It is, in truth, the only one I have.

2 thoughts on “The Adult Narrator in a Children’s Story

  1. marion dane bauer

    Thanks for your comment, Mary. Since I don’t go into schools any longer, I have little way to check in directly with young readers. It’s one of the oddities of this schizophrenic field that we can operate without any of us having contact with our intended readers. Even when I did have more contact, though, I found asking such questions difficult because kids are often too intent on saying what they think adults want to hear. What I operate on is my own instinct which says precisely what you have said here, that not every story reaches every reader and that if mine leaves me–the writer–feeling safe there are probably readers who respond the same way.

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  2. Mary Goulet

    Marion,

    If you, as the author, feel safe inside of your own story, perhaps there will be some children who also feel the same way when they read your books. No books reach all children and if some are touched, you have been successful.

    Is there a way to ask a scattering of your young readers? When all is said and done, their opinions are the only ones that really count.

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