Books from the shadow-lands

If a book has a child as the hero of the story, is it a children’s book? It’s pretty much a given that children’s books have child protagonists. But these days, an awful lot of successful adult novels feature child heroes.

Maybe all adults are really big kids trapped inside grown-up bodies. Or maybe, as life in the 21st century becomes more complex, the child hero has started to represent how small we all feel when faced by the big, messy modern world. This month I’ve read a bunch of novels written for adults that have child protagonists. One or two of them have left me wondering about where we draw the line between Adult and Young Adult novels. It’s a blurry, grey shadow-land between adolescent and adult fiction.

David Mitchell’s ‘Black Swan Green’ was short-listed for the Man-Booker Prize and has been marketed as an adult book but I would have loved this book when I was thirteen and I love it now. It felt true, which is always the hallmark of a good read, as well as being funny, poignant and vivid. What more can you ask from a book, whether you are 16 or 60? Jason Taylor is the thirteen-year-old hero of the story who suffers a tough year in school and at home but comes through it with integrity.

Another great teenage protagonist is Alma from Nicole Krauss’ ‘A History of Love’. It may sound like a soppy title but it’s a beautifully written book. Alma is fifteen years old but there is something about her spunkiness and compassion for other people that reminds me of Scout from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. There’s also a character in his eighties, Leo, whose story runs parallel to Alma’s. It’s a complicated structure but it makes sense in the end.
Jonathon Safran Foer has a slightly annoying nine-year-old protagonist, Oskar, as the hero of his book ‘Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud’. I haven’t made my mind up about this kid. I know the reader is meant to feel sorry for him but he is pretty aggravating and, for me, not 100% believable. But the book itself is intriguing, and I’m sure there’s a lot of people who found Oskar convincing.

The structure of each of these books is unconventional so they could prove challenging for reader’s who prefer a traditional narrative. But for the daring (older?) teenager, they could provide an engaging pathway to adult literature.

Kirsty is an Australian author of books for children and young adults.

“Every adult was once a child and the child inside them never completely disappears.”

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