The Unreliable Narrator (and why you might want one)

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In a recent conversation with an editor at a large-scale traditional publishing house, I had the opportunity to chat about a trend in children’s literature…that of the unreliable narrator. Now, let me clarify. Having an unreliable narrator is no new thing. However, the term itself has gained some momentum lately and has even become a “wish list” item for editors and agents.

So what does it mean exactly, besides the obvious concept of a narrator who isn’t completely trustworthy?

At its heart, the term encapsulates the idea that, especially in children’s literature written in first person perspective (and especially present tense format), the narrator sees the world a certain way, but it may not be the most honest representation. Through crafty writing, the author can give the audience the impression that although we may like the main character, his or her impression of the world isn’t exactly how things really are. The humanity of a the young character then comes across as genuine, because when was the last time you thought a ten-year-old had a handle on everything? It makes the main character seem his or her age.

Oy. A lot to swallow? I know. So here are a few examples that may be of use…

The unreliable narrator in children’s books – Aqualicious (Victoria Kann). With a kindergarten age daughter, I am now an expert on all things ‘alicious in the Pinkalicious picture books by Kann. What I love—and my daughter, too—is that Pinkalicious tells us her view of the world, but the pictures and outcomes don’t always match her statements. Not only does this create quite a bit of humor for both children and adult readers, but the illustrator can have a blast showing us reality while the character is “telling” us how things are. Genius.

The unreliable narrator in middle grade – Heartbreak Messenger (Alexander Vance). One of my favorite middle grade novels to date, this gem by Vance has a pretty solid character at the center of its plot, where a middle school boy is working as a breakup messenger for highschoolers to help his mom pay the rent. The situations that arise are so funny, but it’s the character’s voice that’s the true winner. Although he comes across as a mature 12-year-old, his complete cluelessness when it comes to the character Abby (and maybe girls in general), as well as his inability to think a few things through logically, contribute to the authenticity and likeability of an already entertaining story.

The unreliable narrator in young adultWe Were Liars (E. L. Lockhart). This was not an easy one for me to read, and the ending kept me up at night. Then I realized, if a work of fiction could keep me up at night, that was saying something pretty impressive about the writer. Main character Cady Sinclair is the ultimate unreliable storyteller, and when you finally get to the point in the book where you’ve figured out the mystery before she does, you want to shake her so badly. But I don’t think Lockhart ever intended for us to like Cady, a departure from the standard, “You must make your character someone people can root for.” When we don’t have to buy Cady’s version of things, there’s a freedom for the reader, and even though the reality hits hard in the end, the relief I felt at the end of novel (“Thank God this is fiction!”) was a unique sensation from most books, and I can appreciate that.

Well, those are my offerings for unreliable narrators. I’m sure there are other examples. If you have one, please comment and let the WWAT staff know your favorite undependable storyteller!

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