Mindy Hardwick's Blog

Author Mindy Hardwick Muses about Writing

Unreliable Narrators in Children’s Lit

on May 3, 2011

I have been working on a young adult manuscript for a long time. It is a young adult romance told in alternating voices between two teens, Shantel and Christopher.  One of the comments I have received is that the girl character didn’t quite have a character arc. While, my teen boy, Christopher, had a lively journey in recovery from addiction, Shantel seemed like the quieter character. So, after awhile, I went back to the drawing board, and did some re-visioning. What I came up with was that Shantel is an unreliable narrator. She is using a lot of denial and romantic fantasy to avoid dealing with her Mother’s death.

Unreliable narrators tell a story in a way that is misleading or distorted. The unreliable narrator’s version of the story is skewed from the true understanding of the story. For example, in the novel, Afterby Amy Efaw, Devon is unable to come to terms that she has just had a baby and left the baby in a dumpster.  In the novel, Lost by Jacqueline Davies, Essie denies that her beloved younger sister, Zelda, died when she was run over by a horse on the streets of New York in 1911. And in Chris Lynch’s story, Inexcusable,  Keir denies he has raped Gigi.

Unreliable narrators can also be found in picture book stories. One of my favorites picture book stories is Dear Ms. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School by Mark Teague. In the story, Ike sends letters home to his owner, Ms. LaRue. He exaggerates and tells her all of the awful things happening at obedience school.  Each page spread is split between what is really happening done in color, and what Ike is imagining done in black and white.

One writing exercise to explore if you are considering an unreliable narrator is the following:

1). Create a character with a secret. What is the secret? Why does the character have this secret?

2). Place this character in a scene with someone who is trying to expose that secret. Is it a family member? A friend? Why does this character want the main character to tell the truth? What happens when this character confronts the main character about their secret?

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4 responses to “Unreliable Narrators in Children’s Lit

  1. mrjakescott says:

    I came to this post by searching for childrens books featuring unreliable narrators. My 4th grade students just read “Dear Mrs LaRue” and I’m looking for other examples. The two others we’ve read are “When I Went to the Library” and “The True Story of the Big Bad Wolf.”

    Do you have any other favorites?

  2. My favorite picture books are also the Dear Mrs. LaRue stories and The Story of the Big Bad Wolf! I have a reading list which includes books for upper middle grade and young adult, but not very many picture books! If you’d like a copy of the reading list, e-mail me mindy @ mindyhardwick com

  3. My Homepage says:

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  4. […] “Unreliable narrators tell a story in a way that is misleading or distorted. The unreliable narrator’s version of the story is skewed from the true understanding of the story.” Read Mindy Hardwick’s tutorial on wrestling with the unreliable narrator. […]

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