Last week, on October 11, was UN International Day of the Girl. Its aim was to focus “attention on the need to address the challenges girls face and to promote girls’ empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights”. More than that, the day, says the UN, also marked “the beginning of a year-long effort to spur global attention and action to the challenges and opportunities girls face before, during, and after crises.”
With literature being such an important part of how many of us learn about the world, my thoughts turned to books about girls – not to pure-YA, which is not my area of interest, but to literary fiction for adults. Adult readers can be, I know, suspicious of books with child protagonists, but there are reasons for reading them – and the International Day of the Girl encapsulates many of them.
Child protagonists in adult fiction
So, what differentiates, say, a YA novel with a teenage protagonist from an adult novel with such a protagonist? Well I suggest it’s largely to do with intention. YA (and children’s) literature centres on young people’s lives – on their thoughts, their activities, their relationships with each other, and their needs. The intention of these books tends to be young people learning about themselves and the world they live in. In YA literature, this is usually about identity and/or coming of age. John Marsden’s Tomorrow, when the war began series is an obvious, if dramatic, Australian example.
However, adult literature featuring young protagonists is something quite different – though there are cross-overs. Nothing, when it comes to defining literature, is ever black and white. Quite coincidentally, two days after I started drafting this post, I went to an event in which Sofie Laguna was in conversation with Karen Viggers, and Sofie Laguna, as some of you know, has written adult novels with child protagonists. Naturally, the question of these protagonists came up. Laguna said that writing in a child’s voice – that is, a vulnerable voice – enables her to comment on the adult world in a more powerful way.
The child protagonist in an adult novel is (generalising here) the quintessential naive narrator. The child’s worldview – even if not exactly innocent – lacks the experience and knowledge of the adult’s, so readers will recognise that what the child sees is not necessarily how or why it is. In this way, the child narrator can throw new light on, force us to see another perspective on, whatever issues – psychological and/or societal – that they find themselves confronting. By contrast, child protagonists in children’s literature would normally be taken at face value because they are speaking for and to a similar age-group to themselves. Would you agree? Or am I drawing a long bow?
Anyhow, the point of all this is to say that there is value in reading adult books with child protagonists, because they can both expose truths about children’s lives to adults as well as truths about adult lives. Hence, this post.
Now, because this post is in my Monday Musings series and was inspired by the International Day of the Girl, my examples will be confined to adult Australian books featuring girl protagonists. The more I thought about this topic, the more examples came to me, so I had to keep it manageable. I have therefore decided to focus on contemporary examples set in contemporary times. This means excluding novels written in the past and/or historical fiction about a past, such as Emily Bitto’s The strays, Dymphna Cusack’s Jungfrau, Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight, Barbara Hanrahan’s The scent of Eucalyptus, Henry Handel Richardson’s The getting of wisdom, Madeleine St John’s The women in black and Christina Stead’s The man who loved children.
Also, I’ve decided to include memoirs in my list because they make a significant contribution to teaching us about the lives of girls. So, my small, but hopefully varied, selection (in alphabetical order by author):
- Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The hate race (my review): a memoir about Clarke’s growing up as an Australian-born girl of West Indian parents, and the ferocious racism she faced in the Western suburbs of Sydney.
- Brooke Davis’ Lost & found (my review): novel with three protagonists, one of whom is a seven-year-old girl whose father dies and mother abandons her, and who sets off on a journey to find her mother.
- Tegan Bennett Daylight’s Six bedrooms (my review): short story collection, mostly featuring young women from teens to twenties, dealing with outsiderness, lack of confidence, loss, sexual maturation.
- Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Too afraid to cry (my review): memoir about Eckermann’s growing up as an indigenous child with loving but non-indigenous parents, and the trauma she suffered by being dislocated from her culture while being ostracised (and worse) because of it.
- Kate Holden’s In my skin (read before blogging): memoir of an adolescent (and early twenties) girl who, uncertain, unconfident, ends up with a drug habit that leads her into prostitution.
- Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girl (my review): novel about a sexually precocious and internet-active young adolescent girl who’s more confident than her experience supports, and who gets herself into some tricky situations.
- Rochelle Siemienowicz’s Fallen (my review): memoir, that had its origins in a novel, about a sexually precocious girl and young woman coping with a strict religious upbringing.
- Tara June Winch, Swallow the air (my review): novel about a young indigenous Australian girl who, having suffered many losses, takes a journey to find her origins and herself.
I have been necessarily brief and therefore a bit simplistic in my descriptions of these books, but hopefully they give a sense of what such books offer to someone who’s interested in learning about girls and the challenges they face – from racism and cultural dislocation through family dysfunction and loss to coping with identity and sexual maturation. In some cases, the issues are not gender-significant, but in most, being female contributes an additional element to the challenges faced, which makes them particularly relevant to UN’s International Day of the Girl.
And now, I’ve love to hear your thoughts about young protagonists in adult books, and/or your suggestions for titles. Yours can be Australian or otherwise, but let’s keep the protagonists female.