Note: This is the third in a series of articles on demystifying viewpoint. The originals will appear first as posts on my Spontaneous Combustion blog, then be archived on my website as downloadable PDFs.
by Nancy Butts
The POV Puritan is back—and I think I may have experienced a conversion. In part 2 of my series on demystifying viewpoint, I stood up loud and proud and gave my testimony as to why I thought single viewpoint was best, both for readers and writers. Nevertheless, at the end of that piece I promised to give multiple POV a fighting chance to defend itself.
But the more I tried, the more I struggled to find anything good to say about multiple viewpoint—that’s how much I dislike it as a reader. Months dragged by. Every once in a while I would sit down and try to write this post, and every time I’d draw a blank. Finally I had a brainstorm: I realized that I needed to let proponents of multiple viewpoint speak for themselves. I would find four well-reviewed middle grade novels that used several viewpoint characters, then let them speak on behalf of multiple POV everywhere.
And despite my Puritan prejudices and preconceptions, I found myself enjoying the books. I’m not a complete convert, but after reading these books, I think I’ve come to appreciate that in the hands of a capable writer, multiple viewpoint can work well.
QUICK BREAKDOWN OF THE FOUR BOOKS
Wonder [Knopf, 2012], by RJ Palacio
What’s a wonder about this book is that it didn’t get a Newbery nod. Can you tell I loved it? This contemporary drama is about a ten-year-old boy named Auggie who was born with severe craniofacial dystopia that even after dozens of corrective surgeries makes him look like ET. Homeschooled all his life, the book follows fifth grader Auggie’s first year at a private school in Manhattan. Although there are many painful moments for Auggie, the theme of this book is that kindness can triumph over anything.
The book has six main viewpoint characters—and that’s not counting three other viewpoints that are briefly presented, in epistolary fashion, as emails in one chapter. For me, the reason why the multiple viewpoint works in this book is due to Palacio’s brilliant evocation of the kid-like voice of Auggie, his on-again off-again best friend Jack Will, and his classmate Summer. Palacio captured the hearts and minds of these three characters beautifully.
I can also see why the author chose to include the viewpoint of Auggie’s sister, Via. That is important to show that things in Auggie’s life aren’t always the way he sees them; and also to show that as much as Via loves him, her brother’s disfigurement has burdened her life as well.
However, I think Palacio could have dispensed with the viewpoint chapters written from the perspectives of Via’s boyfriend and Via’s best friend. And I also think it would have been possible to show the sister’s side of things without getting into her head. It could easily have been done through dialogue instead.
Because of Mr. Terupt [Delacorte, 2010], by Rob Buyea
I thought it a bit odd that this book features adult novelist John Irving so prominently. There are blurbs from him on both the front and back cover, Buyea singles him out in the acknowledgments, and Irving even wrote a foreword to the book. You almost never see a foreword in a middle grade novel. It made me wonder who the publisher saw as this book’s primary audience: kids or adults?
In any case, I did enjoy this book, though not as much as Wonder. It’s another book about a year in fifth grade, this time at a small school in New Hampshire with a new teacher.
It is told in the constantly alternating voices of seven fifth grade students, which didn’t always work for me. I found that often I had to flip back to the title page of each chapter to remember which student was talking. Also, no one character had very long to speak, as each chapter was only two to three pages long.
But I can see how this multiple viewpoint might work well in a book that was being studied in a classroom setting. No matter what role a child may have assumed in school, or what label they may have acquired—joker, troublemaker, bully, mean girl, bookworm, nerd, fatso, or the Invisible Kid—they can find a viewpoint character in this book who speaks for them. That is what is so lovely about this book. I think it might be great for a group of students to read it together, almost as if it were a play and each reader took a part.
Every Soul a Star [[Little Brown, 2008], by Wendy Mass
Of the four books I read, this one about three kids coming together at a remote campground to watch a solar eclipse was most successful for me in its use of multiple POV. I think that was for two reasons. First, there were only three POV characters. Second, the author spent a significant amount of time in each character’s viewpoint before switching away to another. To me, this is crucial. The longer you spend with each POV character, the more a reader can settle into his or her head. If you are constantly jerking readers from one character to another every couple of pages, it’s bound to be both distancing and disorienting.
[And I should note that when I was twelve, I went through a serious astronomy phase myself, so I may have connected with the story more because of that.]
A Tangle of Knots [Philomel, 2013], by Lisa Graff
This whimsical, light-hearted book about how we are all tied together by fate is like a rainbow-colored version of Neil Gaiman, which I mean as a compliment. It was the only fantasy of the four, and since that is my favorite genre, I expected to like it the most. And it did have a lot of charm. Nevertheless, I think it was the least successful in its use of multiple viewpoint, primarily because it had nine—count ’em—NINE viewpoint characters. Aiyee!
That doesn’t even count the prologue, which is written in omniscient narration that dips periodically into the head of an 18-year-old man who shows up later in the book as a viewpoint character. There is also some second person narration early on, and then there are nine other viewpoint characters: the heroine, Cady; three other children; and five adults.
This parade of characters made it difficult for me to say that Cady is the true protagonist of the book. Rather, I would describe her as the hub around which all the other characters revolve. But with so many characters to read about, I never felt that strong a connection to her. Although perhaps that was Graff’s point. She may have deliberately written a book in which no one character predominates in order to make her point that each of them got where they were through the tangled actions of many others.
WHAT THE FOUR AUTHORS DID WELL
Unlike adult books with multiple viewpoint, where authors feel free to change POV characters in the middle of a chapter, a scene, or even a page, all four authors were very careful to make it clear for young readers when the viewpoint changed, and whose viewpoint it was. They always changed chapters when they changed viewpoint characters, and they flagged this in multiple ways. The viewpoint character’s name was prominently displayed at the start of each chapter, and sometimes in a header at the top of each right-hand page as well. In addition, different fonts were sometimes used to distinguish each POV character.
And in some cases graphical elements were used to help readers remember which viewpoint character was speaking at any time. In Every Soul a Star, each character had an astronomical symbol: crescent moon [my favorite, as in my own novel Cheshire Moon] for Ally; the planet Saturn [also my favorite planet] for Jack; and a star for Bree.
I especially liked how this was handled in Wonder. Each viewpoint section had a sketch of a face. For every character other than Auggie, there was only one eye in the face: the character’s left eye. For Auggie’s three POV sections, the graphic changed. In Part 1 he had no eyes; in part 6 he was wearing an astronaut’s helmet with one eye—his right—and a hearing aid. And in part 8, he too has one left eye represented, just the like other characters—as if to signal that he now sees the world as a more welcoming place. Clever.
WHAT THEY MIGHT HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY
1. In each book but Every Soul a Star, I think the writers simply used too many POV characters. There were six in Wonder, seven in Mr. Terupt, and nine-plus in A Tangle of Knots. Even with all the effort made to distinguish which character was speaking when, I frequently got confused. And if a professional writer and editor couldn’t keep all the viewpoint characters straight, I doubt young readers would fare any better.
2. In Wonder, I think the author veered away from Auggie for far too long. He appears in Part 1, and then doesn’t reappear until the final quarter of the book, in parts 6 and 8. That’s far too long to stay away from the character you want your readers to empathize with the most.
CURMUDGEONLY ABOUT MULTIPLE POV NO MORE
Despite my strong Puritan prejudice against multiple POV, I now have to admit, however grudgingly, that there is a place for it in children’s literature. How could I deny that after reading these four delightful novels by such talented middle grade authors?
But why use multiple POV at all? Remember the first article in this series, the one in which I compare viewpoint to wearing glasses? Well, on her website, Palacio says that she didn’t initially intend to write Wonder in multiple POV. But after she started the book, she got interested in Via and the different way she viewed Auggie and his problems. In other words, Palacio wanted kids to put on Via’s glasses for a while and see the world through those lenses. Then Palacio says she got interested in Summer’s glasses, and so on.
In an NPR interview, Buyea said that all seven characters in Mr. Terupt suddenly appeared to him one day while he was working his mother’s garden. So in his case, it wasn’t a conscious decision—this was simply the way the Muse decided to deliver the gift of this novel to him.
What does multiple POV accomplish that single POV cannot? I think Palacio says it best. It’s a way to help young readers see many different sides of a story. Kids tend to be very ego-centered. I don’t mean that they are selfish; I mean that they tend even more than adults to see other people as reflections of themselves. That is probably why single POV is so effective in gaining young readers’ attention, because it mirrors their own experience of life.
But that may be precisely why a multiple POV book is a refreshing change of pace for kids. It knocks the glasses they’re used to wearing off their noses, so they are forced to look through someone else’s lenses and discover that not everybody sees the world the way they do. There aren’t just two sides to any story; there are a thousand. Shifting between several different viewpoint characters encourages readers to imagine how one event can be experienced in unexpected ways by a variety of different people.
And that may be the best reason to use multiple POV in a middle grade novel.
However, as I said above, I’m only a partial convert. I stubbornly maintain that multiple POV is not to be undertaken lightly. It is very, very difficult to pull off—even as much as I liked these four books where the authors handled it well, I still had some issues with how they used it.
And unfortunately, I’ve also read many books with multiple POV that were not done well. I’m not going to list those here, because that would be mean-spirited.
Like so many things in writing, there is no one right way to craft a book. I hope I’ve been able to step far enough aside from my own aesthetic preferences to allow multiple viewpoint a fair chance to duke it out against single POV. Even I have to agree that a compelling case can be made for using multiple POV in some books. There are always risks and trade-offs to doing that, however—a subject I’ll speak about in the last installment of this series.
In the meanwhile, with writers as gifted and skilled as Palacio, Buyea, Mass, and Graff as its champions, it’s clear that this narrative technique needs no help from me. Sometimes multiple viewpoint may be the best way to tell a certain story.
Next time, however, I am finally going to write about a specialized form of single viewpoint that is near and dear to my heart—something called Deep POV. I can’t wait!
[© 2014 This article is subject to copyright. Please do not use or reproduce without express written permission from the author.]
Next time: What Is So Special About Deep POV?