Now that I’m an adult, I’m always a bit reluctant to read stories in which the main characters are children. This is not even arrogance on my part, I don’t think “Why would I want to read stories about children ? Children are not interesting people, good Lord ! They’re not even people !!!”
That being said, I try to push past whatever prejudices I may have, past whatever it is that makes me go “Yeah, no” when I read book summaries and find out that the main character is a kid, and sometimes, I even wind up with some really good reads.
In this context, what I seem to like more than anything is when young characters are placed in a story that is much bigger, much more serious, much more terrifying than the kind of stories you’d imagine them in.
I’m talking about downright horror shows kind of stories in which you’d never imagine a kid evolve in.
Death and all its friends
The first one that pops to mind is a short French novel called (in English) The Suicide Shop and written by Jean Teulé. It takes place in a future so awful people spend their money to find a sure way to kill themselves, and the story features a family owning this Suicide Shop (“Your life is a failure. Make your death a success !”). They’re all very depressed and sad characters, except for the youngest son, Alain, who’s a terrifying little ball of sunshine in this very dark world. Everyone wonders what the heck is wrong with him, why can’t he be depressed like everyone else ? But, little by little, he’s giving hope and happiness to the people surrounding him, and even changes his family.
To find a kid growing in this kind of environment and still remain untouched by its darkness brings a definite light humor and freshness in the middle of all this ‘humour noir’.
The book doesn’t exactly have a happy-ending, per se, but it’s just a detail, really.
The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel, also features a young character, Julia, faced with rather heavy topics : a huge change on the planet (the Earth starts to slow, a change with devastating consequences), her mother’s illness, her grandfather’s death, her father’s affair, and the uncertainty concerning what happened to her friend/crush/boyfriend, Seth, after he leaves for Mexico. While reading, I felt like I could never escape the somewhat stifling effect of the narrative, as if it was affected by the slowing of the Earth too. It puts so much more weight on Julia’s voice, an 11-year-old in the midst of all this, too terribly aware of what’s going on around her.
Finally, Craig Silvey’s novel, Jasper Jones, shows an entire main cast constituted of children : Charlie Butckin, the protagonist, Jasper Jones himself, and Eliza Wishart. The story shows the aftermath of Eliza’s older sister’s death, found hung from a tree, and the search to find the culprit. Along the way, they discover a more terrible truth.
It’s set with a background of “small-town mentality” : racial discrimination, prejudices, and a sort of “I’ll kick the dirty puppy because he’s the obvious choice” mindset that shows just how toxic this kind of environment could turn out to be.
In its center, though, you find Charlie, a kid way smarter than he ought to be, and whose expectations of the world always seem to fall short, as he learns just how awful and cruel this world can be.
Somehow, I think that putting these kids in such terrible settings, where they should, by all rights, not belong, works as a better initiation process. It’s a more brutal way to come to terms with the reality around them, but it also shows the strength that children are capable of, and while they’re only characters from novels, I think it goes to show that they shouldn’t be so easily dismissed and underestimated.