Monday, February 27, 2012


By the time we reach adulthood, most of us know (although it’s not always easy to keep it in mind) that the way in which one interprets the world depends on one’s point of view.  In teaching young students about point of view as a literary device, the goal is to help them understand the various perspectives from which a story can be conveyed by the author to the reader.  

There are three main categories of point of view:

The objective point of view presents the action and the characters' speech without comment or emotion.  Fairy tales and most picture books for young children are told in this straightforward manner, as if reporting a news story. As Sgt. Joe Friday used to say, for those of us old enough to remember, “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

First person narration tells the story from a character’s own vantage point including his or her thoughts and emotions.  This point of view appeals to children once they have reached the age of introspection, so we find it quite often in middle grade fiction.  A few examples are Island of the Blue Dolphins, Jacob Have I Loved, So B. It, and When You Reach Me. 

The omniscient narrator knows about and shares with us the thoughts, motivations, and feelings of all the characters.  It’s not used very often in middle grade fiction, but is employed skillfully by Jean Birdsall in The Penderwicks series, in which the story is told variously from the points of view of each of the four sisters, though in the third person. 

For teaching first person point of view, see Mary Quattlebaum’s recent Pencil Tips post on writing a two-person poem.  Use her suggestions for crafting a lesson based on her own beautiful poem told from the perspective of both a child and a firefly. Or, following the format of The Popularity Papers series for middle graders, ask the children to keep an illustrated journal of happenings in the classroom for one week, then compare the journals to get their different points of view.

A lesson on the omniscient narrator could begin with giving students a passage from a well-known folk or fairy tale.  Have them read it, and then ask them to pretend to be mind readers, rewriting the passage to let the reader in on the thoughts and feelings of the various characters in the passage.

I’ve used a scene from “The Gingerbread Man” as an example.  Here is the traditional telling, done from an objective point of view:

An old woman was baking one day, and she made some gingerbread. She had some dough left over and so she made the shape of a little man. She made eyes for him, a nose and a smiling mouth all of currants, and placed more currants down his front to look like buttons. Then she laid him on a baking tray and put him into the oven to bake.

After a little while, she heard something rattling at the oven door. She opened it and to her surprise out jumped the little gingerbread man she had made. She tried to catch him as he ran across the kitchen, but he slipped past her, calling as he ran:

"Run, run, as fast as you can, you can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread man!"

And my retelling with an omniscient narrator:

An old woman was baking gingerbread one day and had some dough left over.  My husband is working hard in the garden, she thought.  I will make him his favorite special treat, a gingerbread man.  She made the shape of a little man.  She made eyes for him, a nose and a smiling mouth of currants.  Deciding to dress him as her husband was dressed, she made a row of currant buttons down the the gingerbread man’s chest.

After a while she heard something rattling the oven door, and a little concerned, opened it up, then jumped back, startled, as out leaped the gingerbread man.  He immediately took off across the kitchen floor.  Resolving not to let her husband’s treat get away, the woman trotted after it in hot pursuit.  But the gingerbread man, bent on freedom, felt sure he could easily give the old woman the slip: 

“Run, run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!” he sang out over his shoulder, his currant mouth wearing a confident smirk.

To continue the story, the narrator could give us the thoughts of the various animals that take up the chase.  And though we all know what befell the gingerbread man, here is a chance to describe his final thoughts, as well as those of the wily fox happily licking his chops after swallowing that tasty morsel.

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