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Authentic Voice

In a recent blog post on the Booklist website, author Daniel Kraus listed many grievances against YA literature. Among these grievances was his annoyance with the use of the first-person present tense narrative voice.

I read this post on the same day that I was thinking about another issue with voice in YA literature. Specifically, why are some authors able to create an authentic adolescent voice while others seem so clueless? Further, what is it that makes some voices so real and others so phony baloney?

You know what I’m talking about. The character with a narrative voice that is obviously an adult trying to sound young and hip. It just rings hollow and silly.

For my generation and before the measure of an authentic adolescent voice was that of Holden Caulfied, the troubled narrator of The Catcher in the Rye. Reading that book, I thought for the first time, “here is someone like me, he gets it.” I don’t know if I could have articulated what “it” is that he gets, but I know I felt a bond with this character that I can still feel to this day.

A recent book with amazing narrative voice is The Absolutely True Diary of Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Arnie, or Junior, is one of the funniest, saddest, and most real characters in all of YA literature.

A recent surprise for me was Marcelo, the title character of Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork. After reading that Marcelo had an Asperger’s-like condition, I prepared myself for dialogue and narration straight out of a made for TV movie. Boy, was I wrong! I love this character, and I felt like the tone was natural and believable.

I think part of why these characters feel so real is that they are surrounded by other realistic characters to interact with and they live in the real world. Which leads me to another of Kraus’s criticisms of YA lit, that there are no adult characters in YA books. Or, when there are adults they are cardboard cutouts to represent the adult world. This plays into the realism of the two characters that I’ve mentioned. They do have to deal with real adult figures in their stories.

Who speaks to you in that authentic tone of voice? What do you think makes some narrative voices seem so real and others so fake?

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Joel Bruns

I am a librarian who lives and works in Indiana. I love all outdoor activities (running, cycling, skiing, kayaking...).

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