Friday, June 6, 2014

In Her Own Words: First Person Storytelling in YA Lit

So, like I said a few times, I spent the early part of this week (and several weeks before that) working on a paper on young adult dystopian fiction. It's a fascinating topic, and one of my favorites. In fact, I like it so much that I'm currently writing another paper on the subject, because I just can't help myself.

But while I've been doing research (which mostly consists of reading and re-reading every young adult dystopian novel I can get my hands on, whoo!), I've noticed something. Not really something particularly weird or bizarre, but more something universal and accepted, that I think we should take a second to recognize. So.

Hey, guys, did you ever notice that almost all young adult novels are written in first person?

I assume that you did. It's kind of noticeable. It's even more noticeable when you factor in how this is true of almost no other genre (except like detective novels, I think). Nope. Just young adult fiction. And of young adult fiction, it's not quite universal, but it is very common. And it is most common in stories with a female protagonist. I'm going to name a few, and stop me when you start to see a pattern:

The Hunger Games, Divergent, Matched, The Selection, The Fault In Our Stars*, The Only Alien on the Planet, Percy Jackson, Ella Enchanted, The Beka Cooper Series, Speak, The Lovely Bones, etc. I could go on, but you get the picture.

Now, admittedly, not all of those are female protagonist stories, but the majority are. And in a couple of those, the story eventually goes to a multiple first person narration system - but it does that later in the series, and starts out just in the head of our lead girl. Why is this? This is weirdly specific, right? Why is it so particularly common in this one genre to have the protagonist narrating the action?

Well, I'm not an expert (not yet, anyway) on the subject, but I would like to hazard a guess. An extremely well educated guess. My hunch is that the reason first person narrative is so popular in young adult fiction because it gives the readers a chance they get almost nowhere else: the opportunity to hear the story of what is happening to their teenage, female hero in her own words.

That seems really small, but it's actually really important and huge and massive and awesome. You see, almost all of those narratives that I listed actually wouldn't work if they weren't written in first person. They need to be in the heroine's own words for the simple reason that only by knowing precisely how she sees it can we fully understand the story. If they were written in third person, or even written in first person but from someone else's perspective, they would lose a huge amount of their power.

I'll be specific. You know the novel, Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson? That book messed me up. I read it in tenth grade, just the year I was starting to become aware of the world outside of myself and my little bubble of friends and family (also the year my English teacher, who assigned this to us, was fired for sleeping with a student, so there's that). Anyway, Speak is written in first person, and there's a very good reason for that. Simply, there is no other way this book would work.

The premise of the book is simple and devastating. After being raped at a party right before she starts her Freshman year of high school, Melinda loses her ability to speak. Not in a physical way, but simply because she realizes that no one will listen to anything she has to say. She called the cops after being raped, but all that happened was that the party got busted, and now she's a social pariah, and the boy who raped her is really popular and older and no one would believe her anyway.

It's not even all in Melinda's head, either. The book shows clearly that even though Melinda stops talking, no one notices for a very long time. And that's part of the tragedy of the story. The other part is that because she can't let the words out, they fester inside her head. They poison her. 

It is vital that this story be written in first person, because it's crucial that we, the readers, know. We have to know what happened to Melinda. We have to know what's tearing her up inside. We need to be inside her head to do that, because that's where the information is. That's where the story is. The entire plot of the book is about Melinda's relationship with herself. And you don't understand that if you're not in her head.

There's more to the book than that - I'm simplifying wildly - but you get the idea. Melinda's journey has everything to do with getting the courage to tell your own story in your own words. It has to be in her own words to have the impact it does. 

Or what about The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold? Also a dramatic and intense book (also one I read in tenth grade, which is interesting), this book is about Susie Salmon, a sweet thirteen year old who was murdered in 1973. It's written from her perspective, in first person, as Susie narrates the story of her life from heaven. She remembers her death, which was gruesome, and then watches her family fall apart and come back together, all with the quiet grace of someone who is finally at peace but watching things that are decidedly not peaceful.

This story also only works because it's in first person, but for a slightly different reason. If anyone other than Susie were narrating an account of Susie's death, it would feel weirdly intrusive, you know? It would feel manipulative. Voyeuristic. Opportunistic. If anyone other than Susie were to tell her story, it would feel like they were trying to add their own narrative to her pain. And that isn't what we need.

Instead, Susie herself tells us what happened, and how she felt during it, with the calm matter of factness that gives way to quiet devastation. It matters that Susie is the one telling us, because it's her story. And she deserves to be the one who determines how it is remembered.

That brings me all the way back around again to The Fault In Our Stars and Hazel Grace Lancaster. Again, this story wouldn't work if it weren't told from Hazel's distinct perspective in Hazel's distinct voice. Why? Because then it wouldn't be Hazel's story. And the fact that it is Hazel's words and Hazel's story is what makes all the difference.

Characters like Hazel and Melinda and Susie don't usually get to tell their own stories. If you think about it, people like them don't usually get to tell their own stories. We hear about them on the news, about the poor murdered little girl, about the traumatized rape victim, about the cancer kid, but we never hear from them. In some cases we just straight up can't, because they're dead, but in others, it seems like the media puts up huge walls to make sure that the story we hear is the story they've made, not the one the girl in question would tell.

So it matters.

It matters that for once we're hearing these girls (women) speak without any filter or flavor on top. Third person narration is supposed to be neutral, but it really isn't. It becomes a way for us as readers to add our own inflections. But first person doesn't let you do that. It forces you to listen. To reckon with. It forces you to sit the crap down and hear what these women are trying to say. In their own words.

Before I go, one more point. There's this article on Slate right now which is making me sad (a bummer because Slate is usually pretty awesome). The article is about how adults really shouldn't read young adult books because they're immature and we need to grow up. I think this is a terrible perspective. Not just because it's unnecessarily discriminatory towards a whole genre of books, but also for this simple reason: "grownup" books are rarely written in first person, and therefore are rarely stories told to us in the insistent and unavoidable voice of their protagonist. Grownup books are afraid to use first person, and that means that instead of amazing narratives of loss and grief given to us by the people whose voices are so little heard, we get more opportunities to impose our own beliefs and narratives on them.

That's crap. And honestly, I would argue that first person narrative is a massive reason why young adult books are so successful and necessary. I want that. I want stories about teenage girls written in their own words. Because their words matter.

*Incidentally, I am aware that this movie came out today, and I am super pumped to see it. You can read a quick view of how much I love Hazel here, and we'll be talking about this movie as well as young adult fiction in general on Sunday on Crossover Appeal. My review should be up on Monday. 


  1. Hey, just wanted to say thanks for the book recs. I'd been looking for stuff to read and so bought Speak and Divergent. Both books were amazing.

    I wish so much I had come across Speak when I was a teen. Would have helped a lot with all the creep-tastic, not-rape-but-probably-definitely-assault incidents. The idea that you could say no to things and have that "no" respected was sorely lacking in my education.

    Divergent really got inside my head and I cannot wait to go see the movie. I still need to read the third in the series. Waterstones only had it in hardback when I went in the other day so I don't own it yet! Can't wait to see how the story ends, and I sincerely hope it's as haunting as the end of the Hunger Games trilogy.

    1. I'm so glad you love these books! They're good. Very good. And I think they're important too.

      I think you'll be haunted by them for a very long time, and that's a good thing in my book.