Grownup fiction, especially literary fiction, with child protagonists is a sub-genre of its own and rather difficult to write well. But, when it’s done well, it can be riveting reading. It immerses us deeply in our own childhoods or brings out the inner child in us so that we experience all those old, submerged fears and joys all over again. Quite the experience.
My personal favorite grownup fiction with child protagonists below:
1) What Maisie Knew by Henry James: Short-lived in the theaters, this is now on DVD. Read the book before seeing it, please. There isn’t a director or actor yet who has done justice to any of James’ works. So, while I do think the world of the cast for this one, I do not have high expectations for this adaptation.
2) The Go-Between by L P Hartley: Another one that had a fine movie made years ago. Set shortly after Henry James’ time, it is of rather different sensibilities and Leo, our protagonist, is a bit older. This particular edition has a lovely introduction by Colm Tóibín, so I’ll let him explain what I mean — he does it so much better, you’ll see.
3) The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen: Really, quite a beautifully-told and highly under-rated book. Set in 1930s London too. One of those rare ones (at least on this list) that has a girl protagonist: Portia.
4) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: The movie with Gregory Peck is an all-time favorite for many. But the book, I promise you, is better, because you get a fuller pleasure of Scout’s first-person narration. And it is the only book Harper Lee has written. An American masterpiece.
5) The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne: Here’s our WWII/Holocaust story from a kid’s perspective. You know what I’m coming to next, don’t you? Yes, there’s a movie too, which won a few awards. But, really, read the book first and judge for yourself whether it towers over the movie. You ought to know my opinion by now.
6) Kieron Smith, Boy by James Kelman: Set in 1960s working-class Glasgow, this is a gem of a novel. It’s got shades of the next book on this list but this one is, well, more than a story about a boy’s coming-of-age.
7) Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle: I’ve only read one other Doyle book and need to get to the rest of his stuff one of these days. This particular one is funny as hell about a 10-year-old boy in Ireland. Irish writers, all the ones I’ve read, have the gift of storytelling from the time they’re conceived, I think, or they’ve all kissed the Blarney Stone.
[A courteous nod to the wonderful Angela’s Ashes, a memoir of growing up in Ireland by Frank McCourt. The only reason it’s not officially on this list is that the child protagonist comes to adulthood in the book. By the way, another movie that disappointed.]
8) Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud: Another 1960s book and this one is autobiographical. Oh yes, the author is descended from the great Freud himself. With a five-year-old narrator like in Room, this story is set in Morocco. Another movie resulted. And, while Kate Winslet was beautiful and all that, she could not match the charm of the kid in the book, trust me.
9) Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer: A 9/11 story told by a precocious nine-year-old. No, don’t even bother with the movie, please. The book is that amazing. Deal with it.
10) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon: An autistic boy trying to solve a mystery. This one haunted me for days after, like Room did. There is humor here, but it’s sort of ironic, dark.
Oh, alright. I’ll give you one more as a bonus for getting through two lists in one post. Adrian Mole Diaries by Sue Townsend. There are a lot more books as Townsend follows Adrian Mole into adulthood, where things start to get a bit darker. These earlier diaries, however, had me laughing out loud in public places, quite unable to control myself.
If you’ve got suggestions for this theme of “grownup fiction with child protagonists”, please do add them in the comments below, particularly, if you’ve got any with girl protagonists. I’ve just realized that my list is rather boy-centric (7 of 11). Goodreads has this ongoing list as well.