Look Who’s Talking: First Person/Present Tense Narrative Voice
By the third page of See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng, I am absolutely hooked: not because it has an unusual narrative device and not because of the almost stream-of-consciousness, intimate, conversational tone, although both are immediately noteworthy. I am hooked by the book’s unique and affable protagonist Alex, a first person/present/immediate past tense young narrator. When Alex brings home a lost puppy, his mother’s absent-minded response informs me that something is not quite right: “she doesn’t care as long as I make us dinner and don’t bother her when she’s watching her shows.” I expect Alex to feel self-pity about his mother’s negligence. But instead, Alex just says, “She’s a pretty cool mom,” and goes on with his daily routine. His special perspective about the world contradicts and challenges my jaded perception. By page 5, I know I am in for a literary treat.
Unexpected and sometimes paradoxical views abound in this epic road trip of an 11-year-old boy on an eventful quest who serendipitously creates intimate bonds between his families and strangers.
Alex’s episodic recording as the narrative device retains its integrity and is used to build tension and build character depths. The often worrisome and sometimes quite humorous scenarios deliver subtle wisdoms that are not only just right for the book’s target audience, but also stretch young readers’ understanding of the world.
Cheng also handles the tricky first person/present/immediate past tense narrative style with grace. Even though this POV is very common in books for children these days, it is often not the best stylistic choice. When writers decide to portray young people with limited life experiences and literary practices using first person/present tense, they must refrain from letting themselves and their literary training seep into the minds of their narrators.
If I were on the Newbery Committee and both See You in the Cosmos and The Ethan I Was Before are on the table, I would emphatically argue that Ethan’s narration is much less convincing than Alex’s. Standish could not help but making Ethan too writerly, using phrases like “The next room which boasts a dining table…,” “a mischievous smile plays on her face,” “Shooting me a bemused look,” and “My gaze flits around the entry hall as though I’m expecting a 3rd shadowy figure lurking around the corner.” This last sentence gives me pause: why would a person’s internal monologue describes his own external action with such uncertain descriptor (“as though”)?
Unlike Standish, Cheng maintains Alex’s young voice and perspective consistently. His voice recording sounds authentic: “Every. One. Is. So. AWESOME. I’ve never met so many people who love rockets and space as much as I do.” His questions encourage both the older characters and the readers to ponder the meanings of readily accepted concepts (such as the many definitions of “retreat”) and the nature of love, like when Terra has to explain the “chemistry” between Ken and his wife. Cheng lets Alex describe his circumstances plainly and let the readers form clear images of the complex situations Alex has to confront without making Alex talk or think beyond his age – even his “responsibility age of thirteen.”
I am so pleased to have read this book by a first time author and look forward to reading his future work!
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Roxanne Hsu Feldman
Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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