Aga Maksimowska: The Weird and Wonderful World of Kid Narrators

School’s out for the summer, so why not spend the hot and sticky months of July and August with some of CanLit’s most outrageous, funny, and perceptive kid narrators? To compile this list, I have chosen eight of the most memorable and charming kid narrators that I have spent time with. These eight have made me spurt soda in fits of giggles, cry until I gave myself the hiccups, and highlight their books until the pages turned parking-ticket yellow and tacky with fluorescent ink.

It’s not only because I’m a teacher of adolescents and an author of a coming-of-age novel that I am drawn to books with kid narrators. Young people and children have a way of seeing the world that adults are missing. Our days are short, mundane, expected, frazzled, whereas children experience things for the first time much more often than we do. They are surprised, shocked, amazed, scared, bewildered, overwhelmed, and stumped infinitely more often than we are. All of this newness produces wonderfully weird and often outrageous commentary on everything from the ordinary to the extraordinary that life throws their way. Who better to learn from about the world anew than someone who is old enough to know that that over there is a bad guy, but also notice that the bad guy is vulnerable andlost himself. 

Book Cover Lullabies for Little Criminals

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill: Twelve-year-old Baby, via the incredibly skilled hand of Heather O’Neill, is full of mind-blowing metaphors and similes about the most ordinary occurrences in life. Although Baby’s circumstances are horrible, she manages to relay her story without even the slightest bit of schmaltziness.

When we got into the alley, I got up on the bike and cycled through all the garbage. The cats scurried out of the way. Jules had been borrowing my bike for his so-called work, so I hadn’t had a chance to ride one in a while. I had forgotten how good it felt to get up on one, sailing along. It made me feel at peace. A crowd of boys called out to me that my bike was ugly and I waved happily to them. As I rode faster, I imagined that I was a stunt man and that I was about to jump over a chasm with thousands of people watching.

Room by Emma Donoghue: Five-year-old Jack is the youngest kid on this list. The reader has a steep learning curve while negotiating Jack’s syntax and diction, adeptly crafted by his writer-mama, Emma Donoghue. Donoghue does not shy away from humour, as in Jack’s many recurring Silly Penis references, “Silly penis is always standing up in the morning, I push him down,” and other astute life observations.

Lunch is bean salad, my second worst favourite. After nap we do scream every day but not on Saturdays or Sundays. We clear our throats and climb up on Table to be nearer Skylight, holding hands not to fall. We say “On your mark, get set, go,” then we open wide our teeth and shout holler howl yowl shriek screech scream the loudest possible. Today I’m the most loudest ever because my lungs are stretching from being five.

Book Cover Lives of the Saints

Lives of the Saints by Nino Ricci: Seven-year-old Vittorio Innocente is an aptly named narrator. He vacillates between being shy and innocent to moments of impressive chutzpah and even glory. He can also be funny without knowing it, which of course is the best kind of funny.

And so I sat, on the stone bench in front of my grandfather’s house, a book called Principi Matematici open on my lap to page 3. But I was not attending to it. I had slipped instead into a state of indolence which was very common at that time of the year, especially when it was one o’clock and the sun was shining and the whole world seemed wrapped in a warm, yellow dream. Nearby, a swarm of flies hovered around a cluster of droppings on the cobblestone, the braver ones alighting and calling out to their friends.

Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King: Fifteen-year-old Tecumseh narrates this strange yet magical journey penned by Thomas King. This is a story of friendship, family, community, identity, and adventure, as only a teenager with his two best friends by his side—a dog and a cousin—can tell it.

Soldier is waiting for me by one of the bridge abutments. I’m a little disappointed that he wasn’t harder to find, or that he didn’t try to jump out at me from ambush or, at least, give me the chance to lasso him. Instead, he’s lying in plain sight on a blue pad, and at first, I think he’s found another one of those hospital things and dragged it out of the river.

Mouthing the Words by Camilla Gibb: Camilla Gibb’s narrator begins the story at age six and ends it as an adult. In a narrative as dark as Mouthing the Words, it is the original and quirky voice of Thelma that captures and nourishes the reader. Thelma can also be a riot, even in such a disturbing story.

But I didn’t want any real friends. I’d tried real friends recently. After Daddy went away, the two roly-poly girls, Jossie and Pinge, started to come running up the drive to take me with them in the red Volvo to Creative Movement Class. Their mother, Mrs. Toddie, was round, with a big face like a treacle tart and although I liked her, I didn’t like being squashed between her pink fat daughters eating squashed-fly biscuits in the back of the vomit-smelling Volvo.

Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai: Arjie is seven at the start of this excellent coming-of-age novel, and a teenager at its conclusion. His story is as compelling as it is memorable, due in great part to Arjie’s gentle and wise voice. In a later chapter, he reflects on his experiences in a prestigious boarding school:

As I gazed at the idyllic scene, the refrain from “The Best School of All” came to me: “For working days and holidays, / And glad and melancholy days, / They were great days and jolly days –” what foolish lines they were. Still, as I looked at the Victoria Academy, a voice in me said that this was how I would remember the school when I was no longer its captive. This was how my father must remember it, washed in the coral pink of memory.

Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis: In the title story of David Bezmozgis’s debut collection, his narrator, Mark, is an introverted 16-year-old who smokes drugs in his parents basement and is awkward with girls. Bezmozgis creates exceptionally layered and believable adolescents with his dialogue, as in this interaction between Natasha and Mark:

—Do you bring girls here?
—Not really.
—Have you had sex down here?
—What?
—You don’t have to say if you don’t want to. I don’t really care. It doesn’t mean anything.
—You’re fourteen.
—So what? That doesn’t mean anything either. I’ve done it a hundred times. If you want, I’ll do it with you.
—We’re cousins.
—No we’re not.
—Your mother married my uncle.
—It’s too bad. He’s nice.

East of Berlin by Hannah Moscovitch: The writing in this play is so crisp, so clean, that if you’re not fortunate enough to see East of Berlin on stage, you can read it in one sitting, like a captivating short story. Our narrator, Rudi, is seventeen when he learns of his father’s role in the Holocaust. During the play’s flashbacks, he reveals himself as a quiet yet volatile adolescent, a likeable young man who does some unlikeable things. 

My parents’ bed was up against my wall and I would hear it creaking. It creaked sixteen times at exactly nine o’clock at night, my whole childhood, that’s how boring he was, sixteen thrusts once a week, and that was it. That was my father.

    I told him I wanted to know about the mistakes he made at the camps. He didn’t answer. He just… stood there and looked at me, with his… pink eyelids, and his well-manicured nails, and the slight stoop in his shoulders.

***

Aga Maksimowska

Aga Maksimowska’s short stories and creative non-fiction pieces have appeared in print and online in Australia and Canada, most notably in Kurungabaa, Soliloquies Anthology, The National Post and The Globe and Mail. Her debut novel, Giant, a story of an odd girl’s coming-of-age during the fall of Communism in Poland, was released by Pedlar Press in May. She teaches English and Creative Writing at a Toronto high school.

August 2, 2012
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