trusting kids with unreliable narrators

cover of Junie B bookMy daughter and I loved the Junie B. stories. They’re chapter books for young kids about a rather wild first-grader, and importantly, they’re narrated by Junie B. herself. She gets her grammar wrong, sometimes, and so it’ll sometimes say “I runned” instead of “I ran”, but what kid doesn’t? When we got to those points, my then-five-year-old daughter would grin knowingly and say “she should have said “I ran”, shouldn’t she? And Junie B.’s faulty grammar goes along with her frequent misunderstandings of the world. She’s a classic unreliable narrator, though she’s very lovable, and as such she teaches kids a lot about narrative, empathy, relationships and yes, even grammar.

I was surprised to read that a lot of parents want to ban Junie B. Apparently, they worry that the minor grammatical errors of a five-year-old in print will stop their children from learning correct grammar. Here’s an extract so you can see for yourself:

I put my hands on my waist.

“Yeah, well too bad for you,” I said. “‘Cos I saw all about ponies on TV. And ponies buck you off their backs. And then they stomple you into the ground and kill you to death. And so I wouldn’t even come to your stupid dumb party in a jillion billion years.”

“Good” shouted that Jim, “I’m glad! ‘Cos my birthday is this coming Saturday! And tomorrow I’m bringing invitations to every single person in Room Nine! Only not to you! You’re the only one in the whole class I’m not bringing an invitation to! So there!”

Then he did a big HAH! right in my face.

And he sat back down in his seat.

Meanwhile, I just kept standing and standing there.

‘Cos something had gone a little bit wrong here, I think.

cover of True History of the Kelly GangI wonder whether the Junie B.-haters would also ban Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, a wonderful novel narrated by Ned Kelly, Australia’s beloved bushranger, our Robin Hood, our downtrodden convict’s son turned rebel, the man who almost started the Australian Revolution that never happened. Ned Kelly was illiterate, but dictated some of his life story to a friend.

I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.Excerpt from The Guardian

I loved that book. Sure, it was hard reading for the first few pages, but then you forget about the language and just sink into the story. But the punctuation is terrible, and the grammar, oh dear.

Why, though, should we assume that adults can handle something like this while five-year-olds can’t? I tend to have more faith in five-year-olds.

11. August 2007 by Jill
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