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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog


Edgar Allen Poe was the first author to use an unreliable narrator, according to Harry Lee Poe in his biography EDGAR ALLAN POE (Metro Books, 2008). Poe used this literary device in "The Cask of Amontillado" and "Tell-Tale Heart".

When writing a story with an unreliable narrator in children's literature, authors are tipping the reader off in the very beginning that the narrator cannot be trusted to tell the truth. If not, then it can be like a dream sequence where the reader does not know that it is a dream, or didn't really happen, and the reader does not trust the narrator afterward. In such cases, the reader feels cheated.

For example, consider the opening "Black Cherry Eyes" by Kezi Matthews in Cicada:

Izetta was a brilliant liar. You know how they say water finds its own level? Well, Izetta certainly married into the right family when she married my father, Jack.
I come from a family of great liars. Cover-up liars….

Before citing another example of an unreliable narrator, let's look at a story in the genre of magic realism, HEAVVEN EYES by David Almond (Hodder, 2000). Magic realism combines realism and a magical element. David Almond has the challenge of convincing readers in the very beginning that the story he is about to tell is absolutely true. Almond needs readers to believe this reliable narrator in order for the reader to believe the story.

My name is Erin Law. My friends are January Car and Mouse Gullane. This is the story of what happened when we sailed away from Whitegates that Friday night. Some people will tell you that none of these things happened. They'll say they were just a dream that the three of us shared. But they did happen. We did meet Heaven Eyes on the Black Middens. We did dig the saint out of the mud. We did find Grampa's treasures and his secrets. We did see Grampa return to the river. And we did bring Heaven Eyes home with us. She lives happily here among us. People will tell you that this is not Heaven Eyes. They'll say she's just another damaged child like ourselves. But she is Heaven Eyes. You'll know her easily. Look at her toes and fingers. Listen to her strange sweet voice. Watch how she seems to see through all the darkness in the world to the joy that lies beneath. It is her. These things happened. January, Mouse and I were there to see them all. Everything is true. So listen.

Notice how Almond goes to such great lengths to convince the reader this did happen. Notice, also, where the author uses present tense and where he uses past tense. Then go back and read again and take note where he uses the third person personal pronoun "we" as opposed to third person impersonal "people." And how finally the narrator addresses the individual as "You," as if saying to the reader, You are not one of those people who don't believe in Heaven Eyes. "You'll know her easily. (You) Look at her toes…(You)…listen."

(And we do! Almond is a brilliant storyteller on so many levels.)

Now let's look at the unreliable narrator in LIAR by Justine Larbalestier (Bloomsbury, 2009). The very title, LIAR, shouts that this book may have an unreliable narrator. As if the reader may not get it, the editor had the illustrator write on the first two pages— a title page and a "Part One: Telling the Truth" page —I will not tell a lie. I will not tell a lie. I will not tell a lie, as if a child has been told to write it a hundred times for punishment.

I was born with a light covering of fur.
After three days it had all fallen off, but the damage was done. My mother stopped trusting my father because it was a family condition he had not told her about. One of the many omissions and lies.
My father is a liar and so am I.
But I'm going to stop. I have to stop. I will tell you my story and I will tell it straight. No lies, no omissions.
That's my promise.
This time I truly mean it.

And so, in this opening, do we believe the narrator's promise? The fact that there is a question in the reader's mind tips us off that this will probably be an unreliable narrator. Without giving a spoiler, LIAR is the only book where when I got to the ending I was not sure what to believe and what not to believe. But in my opinion, this ambivalence is what the author intended. And so Justine Larbalestier succeeded. And this makes LIAR an excellent book for classroom discussion.

Not all stories with an unreliable narrator are set up as obvious as LIAR. However, it should be clear from the first page that the narrator is not to be trusted. To what degree that the narrator is unreliable in information depends upon you, the writer.

In the adult market, GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins is an excellent example of not only an unreliable narrator, but two of the secondary characters who are unreliable witnesses/perspectives. Hawkins gave the main character the character flaw of alcoholism, and she is unreliable because she has blackouts and secrets. Both are brilliant reasons for her unreliability.

Please chime in with other examples of unreliable narrators. Do you love them, or love to hate them, like an antihero?

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