Oh, Lizzie, you’re such a naïf.
I know. It’s sounds like a not-so-nice word, but a naïf in literature is merely a character with lack of experience and lack of knowledge about the workings of the world. The word naïf, at its core, means one who is naive.
At just barely twelve years of age, Lizzie is indeed a naïf. She thinks she can do everything by herself. She believes her daddy will come home and save the day. She sees what she wants to see—namely everyone else’s mistakes, but rarely her own. I believe that most main characters in kidlit are naïfs in one way or another. After all, most children’s books carry themes of growing in maturity or garnering some wisdom about the wider world—essentially a naïf’s journey out of naivety. And, as it was with twelve-year-old me, it is certainly Lizzie’s naivety that gets her into the most trouble.
Did I create Lizzie the naïf purposely? Well, yes and no. Lizzie is barely twelve years old. She holds a largely skewed worldview—a worldview that often seems to begin and end with her. When I was an adolescent, I noticed the things in life that had a direct bearing on me. If the boy I liked talked to someone else, I noticed. If a group of kids were laughing at me, I noticed. If I made a bad grade, I noticed and dreaded the consequences. But if those same things were happening to someone else, I likely didn’t notice, or if I did notice, it didn’t bother me. In short, I thought my life was all of life. I didn’t yet hold the experience or wisdom of adults—I hadn’t “been there, done that” so to speak. I hadn’t gained wide perspective. I knew only a “me perspective”. At twelve, I was a naïf. At twelve, so is Lizzie. So, yes, I created her, but she came pre-wired with certain pre-teen tendencies.
Since adolescents and adults basically occupy to different realities, readers will likely connect with Lizzie on different levels based on their age. For example, I found it quite interesting that a fourth grade girl who recently read Every Day After wanted to know what in the world was wrong with Erin, but many adults who read the story ask what in the world is wrong with Lizzie! You see, the story is being filtered through two completely different worldviews—the first, the worldview of Lizzie’s peer, the latter, the worldview of Lizzie’s superior in life experience. Kids easily side with Lizzie and see Erin as the true villain. Adults can spot Lizzie’s mistakes and see where she continually causes more and more trouble for herself.
Lizzie’s first-person narration reveals two sides to her story, though she doesn’t realize it. Much in the same way that we retell events with a bias to our viewpoint, Lizzie narrates the happenings in Every Day After with a bias toward herself. But, just as a parent can see straight through the one-sided stories of their child, readers will pick-up on cues and clues from other characters that Lizzie isn’t as faultless or as perfect as she believes she is. And what does this stir in readers who pick up on those cues and clues? Frustration with Lizzie.
But that’s okay! If readers didn’t become frustrated with her at some point during the story, they wouldn’t cheer for her quite as much when she finally wises up. Because as I said earlier, if most characters in children’s literature are naïfs in some way, then isn’t the point of telling their stories to watch them change and grow? I believe so. And that is the precise reason I chose Lizzie to narrate the events that take place in Every Day After. It is Lizzie who experiences the most significant emotional change, and that makes this her story. She may or may not wear on your patience as she makes that journey toward change, but that is the stuff of real life. People get on our nerves, even people we care about.
What are your thoughts on naïfs and unreliable narrators in the world of children’s literature? Are there different types of naïf—those you want to wrap in your arms and those whose neck you want to wring? Just as no two people are exactly alike, no two characters in kidlit should be the same. Each should be unique with a unique story to tell. Different narrators, different naïfs, all with varying levels of likeability and different stories—it all adds up to diversity in literature, and there’s an awful lot to like about that.