Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Child narrators

Jason O'Mara and Stephen Lang
I watched the season finale of Terra Nova yesterday. Check out the original script of the pilot episode. Or better yet, this summary. It started out as a darker show. Less-admirable main family. Less "shiny" colony camp. No watered-down plot to attract a general audience. Harsher premise that was, IMO, harder to mess up with lame dialogue.

Still, they're doing many things right - a science fiction premise, lots of minority and female actors, and Stephen Lang looking even more kick-ass and science-fiction-y than he did in Avatar. And dinosaurs; don't forget those.

But there was a point where the little girl asked if she could shoot the gun if their camp was attacked. Her mother laughed and said no. Like every third line or so in Terra Nova, it struck me as a missed opportunity. I wasn't sure if we were supposed to be surprised that Zoe wanted to shoot the gun or defend her family or what. There's nothing remotely surprising about that. When girls are allowed to be themselves, some like dolls, some like guns, many like both, and most love their families. I had hoped they'd set up the question for a slightly more imaginative reaction from her mom.

Which (very loosely) leads me back to
The Rich Part of Life by Jim Kokoris

I'd forgotten how funny and poignant this book is, and in rereading it I never once got that deflating feeling of seeing a potentially great setup followed by the most predictable result, which is what Terra Nova has done all season (I'm still watching it, though - there's almost no science fiction on television, and beggars can't be choosers).

Quick recap from my earlier post on The Rich Part of Life:

Genre General fiction

How it starts Teddy's mother played the lottery for years before she died in a car accident. On a mournful whim, Teddy's father plays her lottery numbers - and wins $190 million. Eleven-year-old Teddy starts planning out what he wants to buy, beginning with two mountain bikes for himself and one for five-year-old Tommy, and a farm in Wisconsin.

General premise Teddy's father, a civil war historian, hasn't yet recovered from his wife's death, so Teddy takes care of little Tommy and keeps an eye on his dad. When they win the lottery, in swoop his uncle (a director of failed vampire movies), and his great-aunt (who constantly exclaims in Greek even though she's lived her entire life in Chicago). Everyone in the small town wants a share of the money. Since his father isn't around much, Teddy gets the requests, including those from a classmate who regularly writes his African penpal to ask for money; the school officials who want a new furnace; and the hot woman across the street, whose son has warned Teddy that if their parents sleep together, he's going to kick Teddy's ass.

(Ordinarily I'd consider this a spoiler, but it's mentioned in the official book description on Amazon, so I'll use it as a "good writing" example.) Once the family wins the lottery, people crawl out of the woodwork to ask for money - including Teddy's biological dad, a wife-abusing low-life. Teddy's recently learned his mother was in the process of divorcing his absent-minded-professor-dad when she died, and hadn't even known he had any father other than the professor. In the background, Teddy's professor-dad and uncle are frantically dealing with lawyers and phone calls, but no one actually tells Teddy what he needs to hear - the only father he's ever known wants to keep him.

Anyway, he has this conversation with his five-year-old brother, Tommy:

Page 252 Quote
After I finished and was getting in bed, Tommy asked me if I was still his brother. He was sitting on the floor, sucking his thumb and hugging his candy bag with his free arm, like a life preserver.
"Jerry Ryan says you're just a half-brother."

"I don't know," I said. Tommy's question made my heart drop. "I guess I'm your half-brother."

Tommy continued to suck his thumb, a sure sign that he was deep in thought.

"What half of you is my brother?" he asked.

Child narrators

This book surprised and amused me over and over. It's cringe-inducingly realistic - adults can be shameless in the presence of money, and so often kids say exactly what they shouldn't, and keep to themselves the things that need to be asked or said. Oh, and then there's the civil war battle re-enactment they get dragged into, where, God help us, the organization paid black actors to be the slaves (because, they said, they didn't have any black people in their organization). Oy.

I wonder how this book would be different if it came out today. Teddy might be older, to draw in the YA market. Or Uncle Frank, easily the snarkiest and most outrageous family member, might be the narrator. Actually, I don't know what sorts of things people who write literary fiction are told - most of my reading about what every writer has to do this week is in genre fiction.

I miss child narrators. I've read more than one agent blog that suggests burying the age of an under-21 narrator unless you're writing YA. I'm assuming thousands of writers have heard this advice, too, because I can't remember the last time I read a newly-published adult book narrated by a kid. Such a missed opportunity for unique viewpoint.

This is why I profile old books as well as new ones - some things are just different from anything being published today. Different, and sometimes better.

More child narrators:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Genre: YA-ish

I don't have much to say about this. It gets lots of attention, many people think it's a great book, and you probably read it in school.

I find Harper Lee herself really fascinating. Just one book? Apparently she wrote short stories before this one, and has some half-finished pieces she's abandoned because they weren't turning out like she wanted. I understand the success of her first book would be impossible to top, but still. Maybe she has a million stories stashed in her drawers that relatives will publish after her death and other writers will be outraged by because if she'd wanted them published she would have done it herself.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Genre: historical

Unlike the one above, this is a book I keep meaning to go back and reread, partly because of how I felt about it when I read it, but also because in reading the reviews I'm wondering if I would get even more out of it now. Is this school-reading, too? I think I read it on my own.

This coming-of-age story starts in a Brooklyn tenement in the early 20th century, and follows 11-year-old Francie Nolan as she grows up.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
Genre: MG?

Technically this doesn't belong here, as I'm profiling books I think were meant for an adult audience, whether or not they're sold as YA or assigned in school. But Diary of a Wimpy Kid, about a boy navigating the pitfalls of middle school,  is entertaining at every age level. It's also managed to offend people who think kids should only read about people who change for the better. Oh, well. I think Greg is sharp, lazy, sarcastic, self-centered, and totally hilarious.

More child narrators?

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