8 Grown-Up Books with Young Narrators – Chicago Review of Books


When I began querying agents about my first novel, Plan Z by Leslie Kove, I faced a wall of “No!” And usually the reason included the phrase, “If J. D. Salinger were trying to sell The Catcher in the Rye in this day and age . . .” (the late 1980s), it would never be published—because of the youth of protagonist Holden Caulfield, this great American novel would fall into the Young Adult genre and therefore be unsellable to its intended audience: everybody. Sadly, this is still common thinking in the U.S. publishing industry. But the following eight books with young first-person protagonists are definitely stories for adult readers who love literary fiction, and for various reasons, they found their publishers.

Waiting for Bojangles 
By Olivier Bourdeaut
Translated from the French by Regan Kramer
Simon & Schuster

A young boy lives with his madcap parents in Paris. But craziness escalates, leading to tragedy amid a vibrant love story. Love and madness: one person is mad by default; another chooses to descend into madness for love; and a child is left in the void. 

Would an American publisher have accepted Bojangles? A rhyming verse story written in the voice of a child by an unknown author with no literary “platform” or qualifications for anything? I think his success in the USA would have been doubtful. But thank goodness, somebody in France said yes.

The Life Before Us
By Romain Gary
Translated from the French by Ralph Manheim
New Directions Publishing Corporation

Set in the slums of Paris and told in the voice of 10-year-old Momo, an Arab orphan, this novel makes us experience this child’s devotion to Madame Rosa, a dying, 68-year-old, 220-lb. survivor of Auschwitz and retired “lady of the night” who cares for the children of prostitutes.

In the U.S. in 1975, this novel would have been “mid-listed”—deemed as not fitting any genre because the young protagonist clashed with the adult perspective of the story. And it is a sophisticated adult perspective: The Life Before Us not only conveys Momo’s experience, but finally it invites us to empathize with Momo’s mission to help his caretaker, Madame Rosa, die at home rather than have her life usurped by a medical system that would keep her alive beyond her capacity to be herself.

Reasons She Goes to the Woods
By Deborah Kay Davies
One World 

This is the story of a child named Pearl who seems sociopathic—all the more upsetting due to the simple, yet gorgeous poetic narrative of actions, such as putting her infant baby brother (“The Blob”) at the top of the stairs and watching him tumble down. This is a physically and emotionally violent story of being crazy and beholden to a crazy situation. 

This book in a child’s voice is for adult readers. They may love or hate it, understand or be baffled. It is brilliant and sensual imaginative writing that will haunt you while you’re reading and maybe long after.

Lullabies for Little Criminals 
By Heather O’Neill
Harper Perennial

Told from an adult perspective, looking back at herself as a 12-year-old, first-person protagonist Baby intrepidly follows her drug-addicted father around Montreal as he gets clean but becomes increasingly paranoid. She bounces from him to a foster home to other caretakers. And what gives this book an authenticity that will be applauded by anyone who grew up in an insane family is her dealing with it as if it is normal. Because for her, it is. Also, the required responsibility of the young protagonist takes it into the realm of adult fiction.

The Swallower Swallowed 
By Réjean Ducharme
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray
Vehicule Press

Considered a Canadian classic, the novel’s language (in the 1968 translation) is so erudite that most readers will need a dictionary by their side, as well as a mind wide-open to poetry and metaphor, as the hallucinatory leaps in thought make no linear sense.

Young Berenice Einberg feels trapped and bursting with hate for her dysfunctional parents. She plans to run away but instead is sent to New York City, exiled with her father’s religious relatives. Her final actions are so shocking, I can call them up viscerally years after reading this book.

By Giacomo Sartori
Translated from the Italian by Frederika Randall
Restless Books

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A wild and completely original novel. Sometime in the future, when bees are being poisoned even more than they are right now, an unnamed deaf 10-year-old dictates this story to his helper, Logo, about living with his family in a renovated chicken coop with his genius 12-year-old brother, IQ; a grandmother who is a lemon plant; Grandpa; and Mamma in a coma and Papa who works for Nutella. There is also an AI character who wreaks havoc. 

With its wicked humor and imagination, Bug combines family dysfunction, (dis)ability, intelligent robots, bees, and a family of misfit savants living off-grid, and is definitely a story for adult readers.

By Ian McEwan
Anchor Books

Narrated by a modern, but terribly highbrow and poetic in-utero Hamlet, whose mother Trudy is having an affair with a banal lover named Claude, the fetus moans, judges, and (sometimes drunkenly—his mother and he are wine connoisseurs!) waxes poetic about everything from the injustice of his lot inside his mother’s womb to her slovenly housekeeping and her sexual exploits.

Not only is this book funny and wildly imaginative, but it conveys the convolutions of relationships (mothers and sons, mothers and children, mothers and fathers) and growth of personality and ego brilliantly and in a visceral way that makes more sense than almost anything I’ve ever read.

The Bluest Eye 
By Toni Morrison

This is a Depression-era story of the daily life of racism, humiliation, chaos, and unrelenting oppression endured by two young girls, one of whom is so beaten down that her greatest fantasy is to have blue eyes.

Morrison wrote it because it was a book she wanted to read and she couldn’t find it. The writing vibrates with a ferocity to expose this life of oppression—make readers feel it—and she resoundingly succeeds. My book club of women over age 60 chose The Bluest Eye a few months ago, and we were all profoundly depressed by it. But sadness is no reason to ban a book, just as the youth of the characters is no reason to segregate it to the YA category.


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