It’s the big thing everyone’s looking for, from Picture Books to Young Adult right now: a standout voice. If characters, plot, and everything else are the bricks, voice is the mortar. But what makes a voice stand out? I think the best way to get a feel for it is to read, read, read! Here are a few things I’ve been pondering in my reading concerning what makes a narrative voice POP!
A strong voice has idiosyncrasies.
Shall we begin with a picture book? LOVE MONSTER by Rachel Bright is not only a visual delight. It’s a delight to read aloud, too…..
You might have noticed that everybody loves kittens…and puppies…and bunnies. You know. Cute, fluffy things. But nobody loves a slightly hairy, I-suppose-a-bit-googly-eyed monster. (Poor Monster.)
Moving up to chapter books, let’s think Junie B. Jones. I love to read these books aloud to my girls. And the other day, my six-year-old was pondering her love of books. She said, “Mommy, you know why I love Junie B. more than Ramona? It’s because Junie B. is telling her own story, like it’s her own voice in there. But Ramona has someone else telling her story.” Now, not to knock Ramona or Beverly, but I have to agree with my girl that there’s something magical about a standout first person narrative. Plus, we keep cracking each other up by asking, “Am I a nutball? I’m not a nutball, am I?” And whenever Adam Levine starts singing, we can say, “What a chunk!”
A strong voice has inside jokes with the reader. SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson pulls this one off with heart! Since we, as the readers, are the only ones privy to Melinda’s voice–the voice in her head–we have a special relationship with her. The names she has for her teachers (Hairwoman, Mr. Neck), for “It,” and her interpretations of the actions and events around her are often hilarious and heartbreaking at once.
A strong voice can hook a reader, even if there are some plot holes: MAGGOT MOON by Sally Gardner. I read this Printz-winner last year, and I was really torn about it. It had these breathtakingly beautiful moments, and even more moments where I screamed, to use protagonist Standish Treadwell’s favorite (if overused expression), “What the frick-fracking hell is going on here?” Even though I had a lot of issues with this book, the beauty of the language, the amazing metaphors, the darkly hilarious, sensitive, and distinctive narrative voice made it worth it….made it unforgettable. Just read Standish’s gorgeous quote, one of my favorites that has stuck with me:
“You make sense of a world that is senseless. You gave me space boots so that I could walk on other planets. Without you, I’m lost. There’s no left, no right. No tomorrow, only miles of yesterdays. It doesn’t matter what happens now because I’ve found you.”
A strong voice has a unique mode of expressing emotion and making comparisons. Does your character think in metaphor? Does your character compare all of his or her feelings to sports? To the ocean? To the sunset? What captures your character’s soul, and how does he/she relate one thing to another? Let’s talk about THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak! The narrator is Death. A YA novel narrated by Death? And a darkly funny and sensitive Death at that? Death that gives commentary like this….
“A DEFINITION NOT FOUND
IN THE DICTIONARY
Not leaving: an act of trust and love,
often deciphered by children.”
It works. I was absolutely hooked on this book. (until Death told me what happened to Rudy halfway through the book. Then I was mad at Death and threw the book across the room.) But that narrative voice…wowie wow wow! (Yes, I did just say that like Junie B.)
A strong voice knows when to keep it clean and when to get a little dirty. Some characters curse. A lot. And others never utter foul. A totally different character might rarely swear, until pushed to their breaking point when their one and only (powerful) bad word slips.
So what narrative voices have wowed you? Do tell!!