The best contemporary adult novels with young narrators

The Books I Picked & Why

What I Did

By Christopher Wakling

What I Did

Why this book?

Billy’s family gets caught up in the care system when the six-year-old narrator is smacked by his father. An only child surrounded by adults, Billy emulates the talk of others but mishears and repeats language incorrectly with hilarious results. Malapropism sees Billy using the word copulating instead of cooperating, he loves sayings but transcribes them incorrectly giving us a different cuttlefish rather than a different kettle of fish. Through Billy’s voice, readers are securely within the mind of a child. Extended periods of internal monologue and interrupted using an em dash to indicate speech. Questions directly to the reader add to the sense of intimacy created in this fine novel.


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Room

By Emma Donoghue

Room

Why this book?

Five-year-old Jack knows no existence beyond the space where he’s been imprisoned with his mother since birth. Outside is nothing more than pictures flickering across a television screen. Jack’s isolated upbringing is exemplified by his voice. Omission of articles a or the (as in the title) elevates everyday items into proper nouns as if they are friends and have personalities. The use of capital letters heightens the visual experience of reading and enhances the audible quality. It’s as if readers can hear the cogs of a young child’s mind turning. Following Jack’s dramatic escape, the challenge for mother and son lies in their ability to adapt to the big bad world. 


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Pigeon English

By Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English

Why this book?

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and currently an AQA English Literature GCSE text, Pigeon English is a debut novel that captures the experiences of eleven-year-old Harrison Opuku. A new arrival from Ghana, he lives with his mother and sister amongst the gang culture on a south London housing estate. Harri is an appealing narrator who uses a mixture of West African slang and a rapidly acquired local vernacular. The text is enlivened by dialogue presented in the form of a playscript with illustrations and lists promoting the visual quality of the story.


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In Search of Adam

By Caroline Smailes

In Search of Adam

Why this book?

Jude grows up in an abusive home following the suicide of her mother. Life is continually perplexing for Jude who tries to make sense of what’s happening in her home, school, and community life. The understanding that slips through her fingers is represented by the use of a range of typography including varied fonts and sizes, print from pale to bold, left and right justified margins. Jude’s vulnerability is juxtaposed with anger and hatred which makes for a heady mix of emotions. One can’t help but respect this young narrator for her ability to withstand.


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The Night Rainbow

By Claire King

The Night Rainbow

Why this book?

Five-year-old Peony narrates the story of her life in Southern France and the imaginary world which she creates with the younger Margot. Known as Pea, she lives in a rundown farmhouse, where her recently bereaved and heavily pregnant English mother sleeps most of the time. Bold and brave, Pea’s ability to cope with absent parenting is beautifully imagined. She looks after herself and Margo and makes forays into the community her mother has rejected. The language she uses and her understanding of the world is delightfully quirky.


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