This may take more than one post. The one thing editors seem to agree about in the subfield of writing for that crucial 8-14 demographic is that the hardest thing to get right is voice. Voice, for my purposes, is point of view, tone, the index of the narrator’s relationship with the reader and one of the book’s most important guides to who the book imagines the reader to be.
First off, let me state the obvious. There are lots of different kinds of middle grades books so there are, necessarily, lots of middle grades voices. Some have that faintly Dickensian tone: omniscient third person, slightly wry, often dark, but touched with wonder and edged with moral authority. This is the voice of fairy story and its contemporary descendents. Here’s an extract from Adam Gidwitz’s wonderful retellings of fairy stories, A Tale Dark and Grimm:
Hansel and Gretel are coming to the hardest part now.
It’s true that they’ve been nearly eaten by a cannibalistic baker woman; and they’ve talked to the fiery sun and to the child-eating moon and to the kind stars; and they’ve journeyed to the Crystal Mountain; and that Gretel has cut off her own finger, and caused somebody to be boiled alive; and that Hansel has been turned into a beast and been shot and skinned and gambled away; and that he went to Hell and dressed up like the Devil’s grandmother; and that he’s been chased by the Devil himself and has held an old man’s hand as he died.
It’s true they’ve done all those things.
But sometimes, coming home is the hardest thing of all.
Wonderful, isn’t it? Clear and hard and precise, gloriously unadorned, uncluttered by character as omniscient narration always is so that story shines through, king of all. It also gleefully violates that literary sacred cow the injunction to show, not tell. True much of what Gidwitz writes here he has shown before, but the baldness of the facts leap out, presented as they are rather than revealed through action. It’s an effective device, I think, and one we should bear in mind, particularly when we finding ourselves meticulously spelling out the way our heroes brush their teeth in the morning. Sometimes telling is not just more efficient than showing, it has more weight. (Gidwitz discusses this device on his terrific website here).
But there are, as the proverb says, many ways to skin a transmogrified child. In the Harry Potter books, for instance, it really is only the beginning of the first book—when we see Dumbledore bringing the infant Harry to his aunt and uncle’s house the night his parents died—that comes close to this technique. Rowling uses the omniscient perspective here in part because the child who is to be the centre of the narrative’s limited third person point of view later is only a baby when “our story” opens. That “our story” is telling because it marks the story AS story, something being constructed and shared with a reader, not a slice of actual life glimpsed through a key hole. This version of story-telling breaks what in the theatre we call the invisible fourth wall.
Harry ages fast, but the voice retains something of its earlier omniscience, initially tracking not Harry but Vernon Dersley through much of the second chapter, shifting to Harry himself only gradually when his status as wizardling is clear. It’s a clever device, because as Harry starts to come into his own as an individual, he also takes over the narrative voice which gets increasingly limited to his perspective. By the mid point of the first book, virtually everything we see in the story we see through his eyes, and that’s how the series stays, showing us only his experiences from his viewpoint. We never ‘head hop’ from Harry to Ron or Hermione’s perspective, and their thoughts and feelings are revealed either through dialogue or Harry’s inferences. Glimpses of characters and events that Harry can’t literally see are virtually banished and where they do exist thay are shown through Harry’s dreams (such as the one at the old Riddle house which opens book four).
The shift is a move away from the fairy story and into something closer to more conventional, more adult fiction, and its one of the ways Rowling claims to root her story in reality, rather thanin the mythic landscape of fairy story.
My own book is closer to Rowling’s in tone, and is even more rooted in conventional reality: Darwen discovers another world full of strange and dangerous creatures which are all too keen to get out of theirs and into his, but that’s not a world he can live in. He still has to deal with the ordinary stuff of a real school, real friends, real bullies and so on, and at first I worried that the book would sound too adult.
But as I’ve already suggested, voice is about tone and attitude to both the reader and the content, and I found that the adjustment was easier than expected. Rather than point out what I THINK I did, let me offer up a sample here and then respond to comments and queries about the specifics. Next time I’ll extend the coversation about voice to issues of age-appropriate vocabulary. Till then, feel free to share thoughts about what you think characterizes the subgenre about the narrative voice of any middle grades books you’ve read.