Finding a Voice: First-Person Narration in Young Adult Literature and Coming-of-Age Adult Fiction

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Despite a lack of distance from events or the benefit of extended life experience and knowledge, teen narrators can make perceptive observations and startling claims about the world around them. Regardless of whether a novel is categorized as young adult (YA) or coming-of-age adult fiction, the reader will buy the adolescent’s understanding of adult concepts and accept mature realizations only when the diction and tone are age-appropriate. Informal diction, kid-sized figurative language, invented words, and slang can help capture the spirit of teen speech on the page. A confessional tone can also authenticate the teen voice, drawing the reader into the narrator’s inner life.

Adolescent narrators in YA fiction and coming-of-age adult fiction speak a similar language. In part, this is because creating a believable young voice requires that writers pay particularly close attention to diction. Besides socioeconomic status, ethnicity, educational background, culture, and gender, the teenage voice is shaped by limited life experience and the influence of peers. For the adolescent narrator, it seems that what is said can communicate just as much as how it is said.

Teen narrators claim a lexicon that is casual and conversational; they use what I call “informal diction.” In the following passage from Margo Rabb’s YA novel Cures for Heartbreak, narrator Mia Pearlman illustrates the differences in how adults and teens communicate:

I still wasn’t used to saying the word dead out loud. I felt half disgusted and half fascinated by the word, as if it was a new, forbidden curse: dead, the real and unreal sound of it, absorbing and repelling, like a horror movie. Night of the Living Dead. The Dead Return. My father used the euphemisms—she’s gone, she passed away—which my sister pointed out with her usual delicacy sounded like Excuse me, I just passed wind. “Say fart, Dad,” she’d demand. (459–66)

The diction here helps to indicate the ages of the characters. Generally speaking, adults, like Mia’s father, tend to be more formal, employing polite euphemisms to deal with unpleasant situations (“she’s gone” or “passing wind”). Teens are informal, from their style of dress to their speech. They are also intrigued by the grotesque and its shock value, as in Mia’s preference for “dead” over “passing away” and her sister’s inclination to use “fart” instead of “passing wind.”

As the example illustrates, some words simply belong to adult vocabulary while their less formal synonyms are used by kids. This probably explains why Jason Taylor, narrator of David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, won’t say the world “melancholy” in front of his peers. Jason says, “If I was speaking to another thirteen-year-old and said the world ‘melancholy’ to avoid stammering on ‘sad,’ for example, I’d be a laughing stock ’cause kids aren’t supposed to use adult words like ‘melancholy.’ Not at Upton-on-Severn Comprehensive, anyway’” (549–57). Word choice is always important to consider when crafting voice. But I would argue that it is particularly important with a young narrator—nothing smells of authorial intrusion more than the adolescent who tells a story with the formality and vocabulary of an adult.

In addition to informality of speech, the believable adolescent narrator makes different observations than an adult character would, and this influences figurative language. Mitchell maintains an adolescent’s limited worldview by creating kid-sized comparisons in his novel. When describing an old woman, thirteen-year-old Jason draws from his own life experience: “Her knuckles were ridged as Toblerone” (3197–205) and “she’s an unnumbered dot-to-dot” (3363–70). Instead of watering down the writing, these age-appropriate metaphors actually provide a departure from tired clichés and offer a fresh look at what it means to have arthritic knuckles or be a mysterious woman. Instead of reaching for heady poetic images, Mitchell opts for uncomplicated figurative language rooted in the landscape of childhood and popular culture (Toblerone candy, connect-the-dot puzzles, Coke, and Head & Shoulders shampoo). Kids have different priorities, responsibilities, and life experiences from those of adults. Accordingly, Mitchell filters the world through Jason’s eyes, incorporating pop culture in a way that manages to both authenticate the voice and elevate the writing.

Rabb also mines childhood to find comparisons befitting of her sixteen-year-old narrator, Mia. Given that the YA novel is set in the media age (Long Island in the 1990s), it makes sense that much of the figurative language references television or film. When Mia has to go shopping for a dress to wear to her mother’s funeral, for example, she notes that her “entire life had become a CBS Sunday Movie” (Cures for Heartbreak, 92–99). Mia is a product of a culture in which reality and virtual reality are almost indistinguishable. Her life is at once a CBS movie and “nothing like the way it seemed on the show.”

The media are among the largest influences on contemporary teens, who often favor screen time over face time. Any adult knows that movies are heavily scripted and real life often leaves us without the right words or proper stage directions. But Rabb’s teen protagonist, Mia, still wishes for her life to imitate what she sees television: “Sometimes I wanted to edit my life, run it all on a film monitor and instruct, ‘Cut this, cut that,’ and it would all piece together so much more smoothly” (1333–40). Meeting a young cancer patient in the hospital, Mia is reminded of “the whole soap opera traffic-accident scene of the young guy dying. But in a soap opera he’d get up at the end and walk away and live. If he died, it would be because he was a dispensable character, unimportant to the show” (953–60). Reality is harsher, more disturbing, than anything Mia has watched on TV.

To create a truly convincing young voice, the fiction writer must describe life from a developmentally appropriate context, without allowing her or his adult knowledge and experiences to intrude. Like Mitchell, Rabb does not seem constrained by this challenge. Similes and metaphors rise organically out of Mia’s world. Careful word choices from the landscape of adolescence help build comparisons that complement a young perspective and tell us something about what kind of narrator she is.

The young narrator is still acquiring language, and this can result in words being misheard or even invented. In Black Swan Green, Jason makes up his own words by combining two verbs or making a noun into a verb, as in the following examples: “Dewey cobwebs snaptwanged cross my face” and “The crows hang-glided” (1789–97, emphases mine). Nonsense words often imitate sounds, as when Jason calls the noise from a town hall debate “yackering yacker” (5127). Similarly, Mia creates new words by turning proper nouns into adjectives. She describes her caring gestures as “Florence Nightingale-esque” (Cures for Heartbreak, 1086) and a doctor’s sweater as having a “Liberace-ness about it” (1173–80). This sort of wordplay is believable, as adolescents often defy convention and experiment in other areas of their lives; language is, and should be, no different.

Slang also helps authenticate the young voice. According to YA author Scott Westerfield, “One of the most important things you need to know is that YA is voice and a voice is good when you get the feeling of being inside a world and being inside someone’s head. When you are a kid, there is less caution about verbal hygiene than in adult literature” (quoted by Candy Gourlay, “YA Voice”). I would argue that Westerfield’s advice applies just as much to coming-of-age adult fiction. Just listen to how Jason talks about listening to music in the coming-of-age novel Black Swan Green: “Next, in Julia’s bedroom I put on her Roxy Music L.P. Julia’d go ape. I turned up the volume, dead loud. Dad’d go so mental his head’d blow up” (1462–70). Slang is a language of exclusion and makes the world of adolescence inaccessible to outsiders, including adults. As the reader learns slang terms (“ape,” “dead,” “mental”), he or she becomes more immersed in Jason’s world. The reader comes to feel capable of decoding what the young characters in Black Swan Green say, even if the adults in the novel can’t.

Slang also signals a teen’s social status or group. When Jason uses the word “epic” to describe a television show, he is informed by a school bully: “Only total space cadets . . . say ‘epic’ anymore” (4674–81). Despite his best efforts to stay relevant and learn about fads, Jason continually struggles to fit in with the popular crowd and suffers mostly isolation and rejection. Part of the problem is that he is not fluent in the specific jargon of his peers. He says, “That stuff about shaking your dong’s a craze at the moment. There’s no one I can trust to ask what it means” (184–91). Adults wouldn’t know what the craze was all about, and asking another kid would be humiliating for Jason, who is already self-conscious. It is hard for him to gain acceptance from his peers when he is unable to communicate effectively with them. Teens pick up slang from one another, and like any language, it serves both to bind and to divide.

While slang can make a young voice sound more believable, most writers know that what is fashionable today will be unfashionable tomorrow. Because slang becomes outdated so quickly, some writers who want to invoke a convincing young voice may shy away from using it. But there are creative ways to make slang timeless. Old standards like “awesome” or “cool” can be substituted for more current slang (Gourlay, “YA Voice”). As Candy Gourlay notes, some writers even invent their own slang and use it consistently throughout the story as a sort of alternative language, as Rabb does in Cures for Heartbreak. One boy Mia has a crush on in the hospital becomes known “as the cancer guy. As in: Be quiet, the cancer guy is sleeping. And: I saw the cancer guy in the hallway, he’s looking better. And in my diary: I think the cancer guy is kind of cute” (Cures for Heartbreak, 958–65). This nickname permits Mia to talk to her sister and friends about the boy without his knowledge.

Language is paramount to making a young voice believable in both YA and coming-of-age adult fiction. Writers can create beautiful art using informal diction, kid-sized comparisons, invented words, and slang. Teen narrators are memorable not because their experiences of adolescence are unique but because they recount them in such a way that the reader revisits and rediscovers what it means to be a teenager.

Any discussion of the young voice would be incomplete without mentioning tone. In fact, tone is often what readers recognize as different about young narrators—the “attitude” that results from humor (or sarcasm) and reduced narrative distance. With a young first-person narrator, the tone tends to be confessional— “the character is talking directly to the reader, so right from the start the reader and the character have an implied relationship. This relationship might be one where the reader takes on the role of the confidant” (K. L. Going, Writing and Selling the Y.A. Novel, 101). First-person narration helps fuel the reader’s interest in the character and his or her fate.

Perhaps the inspiration for this narrative intimacy in coming-of-age fiction is the diary. Since the diary is ubiquitous during adolescence, it’s probably no surprise that it shows up in literature about that time in characters’ lives. Sherman Alexie’s YA novel is written as fourteen-year-old Junior’s diary and includes the narrator’s doodles and cartoons along with his thoughts. Similarly, Cures for Heartbreak protagonist Mia keeps a diary to help make sense of her feelings after her mother’s illness and death. Even in Mitchell’s coming-of-age adult novel there are graphics inserted in the text, including a log Jason keeps detailing incidents of his speech impediment for his therapist. Perhaps more telling than Jason’s entries, which are terse and factual, is his confession that the log is really a bunch of “truths I made up” (Black Swan Green, 619–27). In every case, the diary allows these teen narrators space to share very personal aspects of their lives, including the unsavory and unflattering.

A confessional tone seems to draw on the diary as inspiration and can be used to craft convincing first-person voices in YA and coming-of-age adult fiction. This tone lends an intimacy to narration and demonstrates the character’s active inner life. For example, in Sandra Cisneros’s adult coming-of-age novel Caramelo, the young narrator confides, “What I’ve never told anyone is this—I’ve wanted nothing more my whole life than to get out of here” (301), and “I’m a virgin. I’m fourteen years old. I’ve never kissed a boy, and nobody’s kissed me” (325).

I use the term “confessional tone” to describe this aspect of voice because it reflects the cross-hybridization between the genres of fiction and poetry. The narrative choices in Sylvia Plath’s 1963 classic coming-of-age novel The Bell Jar must have been influenced by her poetry. And like the work of her contemporaries Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, Plath’s poetry is often categorized as “confessional” because of its psychological depth and personal subject matter. Plath’s novel utilizes the same tone employed in her poetry to chronicle the young narrator’s descent into depression. Esther, the narrator, thinks about committing suicide but says, “The skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn’t do it. It was as if what I want to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at” (147). In this passage the reader is a voyeur, a witness to the most private of struggles—mental illness. Even as Esther locks the bathroom door to cut herself, publicly shutting out others, the reader remains inside with her, experiencing the psychological pain that comes from “somewhere else, deeper, more secret.” The narrator is startlingly forthcoming about her troubling emotional state and confides in the reader.

The confessional tone of Plath’s poetry and later her novel is frequently found in other first-person coming-of-age stories, whether adult or YA. Like Esther in The Bell Jar, Jason in Mitchell’s Black Swan Green contemplates suicide, and his voice possesses a similar nakedness:

Friday’d come round, sure. But the moment I get home, the weekend’ll begin to die and Monday’ll creep nearer, minute by minute. Then it’ll be back to five more days like today, worse than today, far worse than today.

Hang yourself. (4787–96)

Here interior monologue offers direct access to Jason’s thoughts. There is no distance separating the narrator and reader, and as a result Jason’s most private feelings are public. In Rabb’s Cures for Heartbreak, a similar tonal mode prevails. Mia admits to crushing on a young patient because he has cancer: “To think that I found his cancer appealing, that I felt attracted to his horrifying tragedy like a gnat to a light. . . . I’d been so mad at Melody Bly and those who’d wanted to crash my own grief party, and now I was doing the exact same thing” (1075–81). Mia reveals that “the thing I liked was his cancer” (1067–75), and her honesty and vulnerability regarding her unflattering feelings draws the reader nearer. In her brokenness, Mia becomes more human, more real. She can relate to the teenage patient in a way that she can’t relate to any of her peers, because both she and the boy have both experienced unthinkable tragedy: cancer.

While first-person narration always invites a reader close, a teen voice draws us even closer because she or he shares her interior life so candidly— working out personal and psychological issues on the page so that the reader experiences what the character experiences. In Sherman Alexie’s YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the confessional tone of the narration means that the reader learns about everything that goes through Junior’s mind— from masturbation to girls to his interest in books. There is a sort of impulsivity to his reactions to situations, the sort of “right here, right now” mentality common to teens. Alexie shows how Junior comes to believe that recent deaths in the family, including his sister’s, were caused by his decision to leave the reservation:

I blamed myself for all of the deaths.

I had cursed my family. I had left the tribe, and had broken something inside all of us, and I was now being punished for that.

No, my family was being punished.

I was healthy and alive. (173)

The mind of a teenager moves from one idea to the next quickly, with little room for reflection. Alexie imitates the teenage brain in real time, documenting Junior’s reasoning and then his corrections to that reasoning (“I was being punished for that. No, my family was being punished”). Since most teens are the center of their own world, it makes sense that Junior would feel he somehow had a role in the deaths of his family members. Junior’s vulnerability is believable, which adds legitimacy to the voice.

Reducing narrative distance even further, the first-person teen narrator sometimes directly addresses the reader, using second-person “you.” This sets up a relationship between the narrator and reader where the reader plays the role of confidant. In Melina Marchetta’s YA novel Saving Francesca, for instance, the narrator says: “I want so much not to do the teenage angst thing, but I have to tell you that I hate the life that, according to my mother, I’m not actually having” (48–56). There is a sense that the narrator is compelled to speak to the reader (“I have to tell you”) to confess what she feels inside. Similarly, in Cisneros’s adult coming-of-age novel Caramelo, the narrator tells of sneaking away with her boyfriend and comments: “There is only one bed in the entire Hotel Majestic that isn’t a single. Can you believe it?” (381). It is almost as though she wants to enter into dialogue and expects the reader to respond. The use of direct address makes the reader feel more invested in the story. Direct address removes the last boundary between the reader and narrator, inviting the reader to enter into a relationship.

Strategic use of interior monologue also contributes to the confessional tone that often permeates first-person coming-of-age stories. When readers hear a narrator’s thoughts, they are better able to identify with him or her. Through interior monologue, the reader is made privy to the adolescent narrator’s truest self. Since teens are still forming their identity, this sometimes means that the various sides of a narrator’s personality may clash or a narrator may act and speak in a way that contradicts what she or he really thinks and feels.

In Cures for Heartbreak, Mia’s thoughts often contrast with her censored response to a well-meaning comment. In the following passage, she returns from a concert with Jay, her crush, just days after her mother died:

He [Jay] smiled and turned to go, then stopped. “Hey, I wanted to tell you, I’m really sorry you’re so sad.”

“Oh. Thanks.” Sad? I wanted to tear my skin off or run screaming down the street.

I stared at the red concrete of our stoop. “I just want someone to tell me what to do.”

“What?” he asked.

I meant that I wanted to know how you dealt with this, with the worst thing. “I mean . . . Forget it. See you in school,” I said. (249–56)

There is an internal struggle (“I wanted to know how you dealt with this, with the worst thing”), but Mia’s spoken words give no indication of suffering (“see you in school”). The brave front seems manufactured to save others, like Jay, from the discomfort of talking about death. But it also arises in part out of a fear of stigmatization. Mia, a typical teenager, just wants to fit in with her peers and feels ashamed of her family’s “bad luck.” Exposing these thoughts, Rabb makes Mia’s interior visible, giving her depth and dimension. Mia’s words, which are often the opposite of what she feels, are much more poignant when coupled with telling interior monologue.

Fear of peer rejection often keeps a young narrator from truly expressing herself to peers or adults. This is why interior monologue becomes so important; it helps the reader get to know the teen narrator in a way that dialogue alone never would. In Melina Marchetta’s YA novel Saving Francesca, the young narrator is coping with her mother’s depression but doesn’t let on to her friend, Javier, that it is affecting her:

“You shy, Francesca?” Javier asks me later on.

I shake my head. “Not really.” I’m just sad, I want to say. And I’m lonely. (687–95)

Through the interior monologue, the reader comes to know Francesca more deeply than even her friends do. Her loneliness and sadness is something that only she and the reader are aware of.

*    *    *

Regardless of a book’s categorization as YA or adult coming-of-age fiction, voice is what draws the reader into the story. The confessional tone further reduces narrative distance, allowing the reader to identify profoundly with the narrator’s experiences. With phrases like “truth is” (Mitchell, Black Swan Green, 68) or “I had to admit” (Rabb, Cures for Heartbreak, 1662) or “to tell the truth” (Cisneros, Caramelo, 315), young first-person narrators bare their souls; this raises the stakes quickly, making the reader quickly become invested in the narrator’s fate. The kind of naked writing that we would expect to find in the teen narrator’s diary is often exactly what we find on the page.

Whether a book is labeled as YA or coming-of-age adult fiction, the success of its adolescent narrator relies heavily on appropriate diction and tone. When artfully crafted, the young voice can appeal to a broad audience—both those going through adolescence and those who have come out on the other side as adults. After all, some of the most memorable and celebrated narrators in literary fiction—from J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield to Sandra Cisneros’s Esperanza Cordero—aren’t even old enough to vote. But we listen.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown, 2007. Print.

Cisneros, Sandra. Caramelo. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. Print.

Going, K. L. Writing and Selling the Y.A. Novel. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008. Print.

Gourlay, Candy. “YA Voice: Slang and Teen Vernacular.”, 5 April 2006; accessed 20   
          April 2010.

Marchetta, Melina. Saving Francesca. New York: Knopf Books for Young Adults, 2007. Kindle edition downloaded
          30 December 2009.

Mitchell, David. Black Swan Green. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2007. Kindle edition downloaded   
          20 April 2010.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar.  71. New York: Perennial Classics, 1999 (orig. 1963).

Rabb, Margo. Cures for Heartbreak. New York: Delacorte, 2007. Kindle edition downloaded 20 April 2010.