The Kids Are Alright…or Are They? How Child Protagonists of Adult Fiction Blow Our Minds and Break Our Hearts

Birthday party favors, first snowflakes, first kisses. Learning how to pitch a ball, toast a marshmallow, ride a bike.

As much as we wax nostalgic about our wonder years, let’s face it: most of us didn’t have it that easy. The early joy of discovery and untamed enthusiasm sits right alongside the precariousness of being dependent on far-from-perfect grownups in a far-from-ideal world. The very same openness that can prompt million-watt smiles makes kids particularly vulnerable to cruelty, confusion, loneliness, and powerlessness (or what the young protagonist of my novel The History of My Body calls “the void”).

Which is where the catharsis of fiction written for adults with child protagonists comes in - offering us a chance to revisit our early years with imagination and wisdom and see the world and our own lives with new eyes.

Whether the heroes and heroines of these books are precocious or tentative, suicidal or resourceful, disconnected or endearing, each of them bumbles along as we all did - as we all do! - without a handbook. Almost all of them suffer the mixed blessings of uniqueness and otherness, and a number of the current crop view life through the lens of autism - an apt metaphor in this age of preoccupation with iEverythings, where researchers are telling us our kids are losing the capacity to read facial expressions and social cues.

When these varied young protagonists lead us to a little piece of redemption, it’s invariably through their flaws and woundedness, just as in fairy tales it’s the fools who solve the riddles, save the kingdom, and find the way home. Here are seven very novel novels that turn back our clocks and lead us forward into futures we might never have imagined, capturing our hearts and stretching our minds along the way.


A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle:
L’Engle’s adult-targeted blend of science and spirit was rejected by 26 publishers as “too different” before finally being picked up as a children’s book that went on to win a Newbury Award and the loyalty of generations to come. Teenager Meg Murry is the ordinary, if earnest, foil to her intuitive genius of a five-year-old brother Charles Wallace, who is kidnapped by an evil force called “It” that wants everyone’s mind to become a clone of its own. Was L’Engle prescient about our web-addicted times?


Ordinary People by Judith Guest:
When we first meet the teenage boy who calls himself “Conrad Jarrett the Anxious Failure,” he’s already lost his only sibling in a drowning accident and spent months in a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt. When a seemingly ordinary family is subjected to extraordinary tragedy, the ties that bind are sorely tested, and Conrad’s self-doubting father and ice queen mother leave their guiltily surviving son flailing to find a foothold. Guest initially imagined this as a short story, but her characters wanted her to go deeper, and she did – with an unerring eye for the agonies that sit just under the surface of picket-fence lives.


The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:
While published as a children’s book, distinguished pilot and poet Saint-Exupéry's fantastical novella reads a little like an acid trip -- no wonder it’s been a hit with generations of college French students the world over. Charmingly illustrated by the author himself, the story tracks the Saharan encounter of a crashed pilot and a homesick child from a baobob-ridden asteroid. Tripping, er, traveling from planet to planet, the eponymous hero learns how not to live from a railway switchman, a number-crunching merchant, and a fox, but – what’s new? - it takes a tempting snake to drive the deepest message home.


Haddon was probably the first author to fictionally explore what looks and smells like autism in this twist on the traditional whodunit, though he’s said to be irritated that the book is touted in that way. Phobic about being touched, young math whiz Christopher John Francis Boone hits a policeman investigating the death of a murdered dog he’s discovered, before going on to touch us all as he tracks down the murderer and begins to carve out his own fascinating, not-so-normal life.


The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold:
Sebold’s novel is about the unloveliest of topics: a teenage girl is raped and murdered while taking a shortcut through a cornfield. As the spirit of Susie Salmon speaks to us from her own version of heaven, Susie herself, her mourners, and a detective on her case struggle to find some semblance of hopefulness after being touched by violent death. That Sebold finds a way to inject tenderness and lightness into such a sorrowful tale is no mean feat.


Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer:
Foer’s second novel, the source material for one of this year’s Oscar-nominated films, is the story of brilliant nine-year-old Aspie Oskar Schell’s quest to find the lock that fits a key belonging to his father, who died on 9/11. Oskar’s story is offered up like a journal or  scrapbook, replete with photos, graphics, codes, and highlighted and overwritten text that may or may not be distracting for the reader. Foer uses this unique book to deftly explore the topic of multi-generational trauma, which he also plumbed to considerable acclaim in 
Everything Is Illuminated.



The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery:
An elegant book, indeed, Hedgehog is full of the literary allusions and philosophical excursions you would expect from an author who is also a philosophy professor. If you like your young geniuses with a generous serving of angst – think of her as the French anti-Eloise - Barbery’s Paloma Josse is your girl. Paloma hides her considerable intellect, simmers with contempt for her bourgeois family, and plots her suicide until she finds a kindred spirit in her building’s Tolstoy-reading concierge Renée. Enter a distinguished new Japanese tenant, and potential tragedy becomes…well, I’m not going to be a spoiler! You’ll just have to read it for yourself.


Better yet, read them all yourself!


(This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.)

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