By December 31, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

Child’s-eye Perspective

I happen to love a good coming-of-age novel. A bildungsroman, as the German call it. Coming-of-age novels can also be wonderful for discussion. But I got to thinking why I love them so much.

For one, there is nothing so transformational in life as the journey from childhood to adulthood. So much can happen, so much is shaped. Secondly, I love reading from the point of view of a child, or a teen. There are writers who get it right, and some who don’t. It’s tricky, to reimagine those states of being, to capture an authentic voice and sensibility.

But I am going to shift focus a bit here to talk not just about coming-of-age novels, but novels written from the perspective of children.

Now, there is a difference between bildungsromans and novels narrated from a child’s point of view. Sometimes a book can be both, but not always. What the reader experiences in both is the author as advocate, the author as they represent a child’s thoughts and feelings and voice. This is what made William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows so powerful–how he captured the minds and hearts of his younger characters, alongside and in juxtaposition to the adults.

I just discovered another author who did this beautifully, who represented and even advocated for children’s unique, individuated lives and perspectives in her writing. That author is Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879-1958). An American writer who lived in Vermont, Fisher wrote fiction for adults and children and nonfiction primarily on Montessori education. I just read The Home-maker and the children’s book, Understood Betsy.

Consider this scene from The Home-maker, in which Stephen’s father, Lester, who has recently become the stay-at-home parent, realizes that his child has been acting out–some of it due to his mother’s lack of emotional sensitivity, as she keeps stealing away his beloved teddy bear away from him in the night so she can give it a wash. Stephen pleads with his father to protect his teddy from his mother’s designs.

Lester was horrified that for a moment he could not speak.  He was horrified to see Stephen reduced so low. He was more horrified at the position in which he found himself , absolute arbiter over another human being, a being who had no recourse, no appeal from his decisions. …shamed to the core by Stephen’s helpless dependence on his whim, a dependence of which Stephen was so tragically aware, all his stern bulwharks of anger and resistance broken down by the extremity of his fear–fear for what he loved! Fear for himself would never so have transfigured Stephen, never! (pg. 142, Persephone Books edition)

In this moment Lester realizes, 13 years in to his life as a parent, that what it means to be a parent is to have power over another human being. He realizes the import of this role, and how it requires careful stewardship and consideration of the child’s thoughts and feelings.

Later, there is the moment when the ‘problem-child’ Stephen hears from his father that he will be sorry when he goes to school:

Stephen felt very queer inside, sort of shaky and trembly. He had never felt like that before. …The first thing to do was to get away where nobody would see him. …He said to himself so low that there was no sound, ‘Father will miss me when I go to school.’ Then, lower still, ‘Father likes to have me around.’ And suddenly Stephen’s eyes overflowed and his cheeks were wet, and hot drops fell down on his dusty hands. (202-203)

There are many more scenes and incidents in this book, and I think its explorations of gender roles was ahead of its time (it was published in 1924) and would be worthy of a full discussion today, but it is Fisher’s ability to communicate the child’s-eye view that impressed me the most.

Understood Betsy is one of Fisher’s most well-known books. It tells the story of Elizabeth Ann, an orphan who was raised by two aunts who coddled her, until she suddenly must go to Vermont to be cared for by the Putney family in Vermont, a family her aunts had despised. There Elizabeth Ann is not treated as a child, but as a member of the family. She is given responsibilities, and is folded into the daily chores and activities of the household. At first, it is a shock to her delicate sensibilities–for she had been previously raised to have everything done for her. But slowly it builds her character and her confidence in ways that her old aunts had not, as well-meaning as they had been, thought to do.

Elizabeth Ann becomes known as Betsy and slowly begins to learn self-reliance and confidence, and over the course of the book becomes more her own person. Certainly, Fisher communicates her parenting and education philosophies throughout the story, and is quite the active narrator, but in other ways the story has subtle, shown moments that communicate even more. This would be a great book to revive for a mother-daughter book group with younger girls.

So if you are looking for an author who writes from the child’s-eye perspective, try Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

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