Narrator in Picture Books

 

Confusions about Narrator

A Narrator is a simple concept. However, many get confused with different definitions. It isn’t merely discussing the definitions, it is about understanding the differences and expanding your storytelling toolset. Here I summarize some confusions I stumbled upon while reading blog posts.

 

The narrator is NOT the Protagonist

The narrator and the Protagonist can be the same person in most stories. However, their definition and their functionality in the story aren’t the same. The protagonist is the one who develops the story, makes the decisions, and determines the direction of the story’s plot.

To understand the difference better, remember the movie The Shawshank redemption (1982). In this movie, Morgan Freeman (as Ellis Floyed “Red” Redding) tells us the story of another prisoner; Tim Robbins (as Andy Dufresne). We get to know Andy as much as Red tells us. We don’t know what is going on in Andy’s mind. Neither we know what Andy has planned. At the end of the story, Red discovers Andy has escaped through the tunnel he made! Red (and we, watchers) realize that Andy never gave up hope!

In this movie, Andy is the protagonist and Red is the narrator. A question that may raise is why the screenwriter has selected a narrator different than the protagonist! Suppose, for a second, that Andy was the narrator; we would know he hasn’t given up hope, and he has been digging his cell’s wall for years! And this would destroy the entire story. Selecting a narrator different than Andy makes us emotionally distant from him because we didn’t get to know his feelings and motivations, but it is a crucial decision for telling this story. By selecting Red as the narrator, the screenwriter increased the tension and surprise in the story.

 

 

 

 

What about picture books? Why would you select the narrator different from the Protagonist?

In Back of the Bus (2010) by Aaron Reynolds, a boy and his mother ride a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. He plays with a pearl and greets a woman sitting in the front row where the white people were allowed to sit. Then the boy (the narrator) introduces briefly to us that woman; Rosa Parks. Rosa didn’t give up her seat, and the police came. Here is the crucial point to understand: we read about the stress the boy had when the police arrived. The story doesn’t tell us how Rosa felt or thought because the narrator didn’t know either! 

 

 

In this story, Rosa is the protagonist; she reacted to the Inciting Event (didn’t give up the bus seat), she developed the plot (discussed with the police and got arrested). What if the author picked Rosa Parks as the narrator rather than an anonymous boy?

If the narrator was Rosa, the story’s theme was different; the story would be Rosa’s standpoint and her worldview, not about how pressure and fear ruled in the society (we read the boy was frightened). The story would be Rosa’s movement, not her legacy which was handed down to the next generation (when she handed back the pearl to the boy and at the last spread, the boy holds the pearl against the sun).

When you separate the narrator from the Protagonist in your story, you distantiate the reader from the Protagonist’s world. However, you may win another aspect; increase the tension, or tell a different story, or change the story’s theme.

 

Picture books about Picture books about Rosa Parks are a good example to see a variety of narrators; even a bus can narrate that story: If A Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks (2003) by Faith Ringgold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is a good practice to doubt and rethink the initial inspiration: is the current narrator the best person to tell the story? If yes, why? If not, then who?

The narrator is NOT the Point of View (POV)

The other prevalent confusion you might have encountered is to mistake the narrator and the PoV. PoV can be first person, second person, or third person, etc (I will discuss PoV in detail in another blog post).

The narrator and the PoV are closely related and are inseparable and thus, for many, they become indistinguishable. When you select one of the story’s characters as the narrator, he narrates the story with “It was a winter day that I woke up, and my mother was gone.” When you select the narrator outside of the story, the narrator starts: “In a cold winter day, her mother left.”

As soon as you select the narrator, the PoV is determined. It is good to bear in mind that the narrator and accordingly, the PoV is far more than pronouns and descriptions; they determine the level of emotion in the story, and they influence the story’s Theme.

Types of Narrator

Let’s look at the types of narrators. Don’t confuse the narrator’s type with the PoV’s type. 

Unreliable Narrator

A narrator tells her own version of the story. An unreliable narrator is a type of person who you cannot trust her story version; either she is oblivious to the perils of the situation, or she is unable to see the whole story because she is so drowned in her own world.

In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, the narrator is Huckleberry with first-person POV. Huck is an unreliable narrator; an innocent child who cannot evaluate the situation.

There is a big difference between a lie and unreliability. Remember that the narrator should not lie to the reader: the narrator should share whatever she knows with the reader. Hiding something from the reader is cheating. But, Huckleberry doesn’t cheat. He honestly understands the world as he narrates it. He doesn’t have the remotest understanding of racism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The best picture book example I found is The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A.Wolf (1996) by Jon Scieszka. On Youtube, you can watch the author reads aloud the story. And laugh loud ….

It is the funniest narrator you can imagine; the wolf! He needs a cup of sugar to bake a birthday cake for his granny (a topic relatable to kids), but things happen in between and he doesn’t get a cup of sugar! Even in the last spread, with the wolf behind the bars, the joke continues; he asks the reader if he could lend me a cup of sugar.

If you want to write an unreliable narrator, it is worth remembering that the narrator, like the wolf, should be loyal to the reader.

 

 

 

 

Inanimate Narrator 

In writing picture books, we use personification often. Personification is when you apply human characteristics to describe a sentence. For example, the leaves dance, the wind whispers, etc.

Personification differs from an inanimate narrator. By choosing an inanimate narrator, you put the reader in the shoes of an object and watch the world from the position.

In I Am Smoke (2021) by Henry Herz, the narrator is smoke.

I am gentler than a feather, but I can cause harm.

Please note that this book is non-fiction, which means it has no narrative structure and character arc. Non-fiction has text structure instead. And an inanimate narrator can construct non-fiction as well as it can be applied in fiction.  

 

 

 

Intrusive Narrator 

An intrusive narrator was common in 18th- and 19th-century literature. As the name indicates, it is when the author interrupts the story to comment to the reader on some aspect of the story or on a more general topic. The intrusive narrator speaks with sentences like “dear reader…”.

The intrusive narrator in \textsl{The Tale of Despereaux} (2003) by Kate DiCamillo breaks the story and talks directly to the “reader”: 

Reader, have you ever seen a king cry?

or

What, reader, in your experience is the promise of a rat worth?

I haven’t found any picture book with an intrusive narration, and I doubt if any good example exists. Because with the length of less-than-1000 words, we cannot spend any words on commenting to the reader. Furthermore, the intrusive narrator is old-fashioned.


This blog has listed adult books with the most strange narrators you can imagine (or not ever imagined)!  Death,  an unborn child, an ashtray, a bowl, ….


In the next post of this series, I will look at Point of view (PoV) and its types. You can read my previous blog post on the craft of writing picture books on the blog page. I publish a quarterly newsletter.  If you haven’t subscribed so far and you’d like to receive it, please subscribe here.

Looking forward to reading your comments. 

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