Looking for kids books with unreliable narrators
May 1, 2021 5:03 AM   Subscribe

My 10y.o. daughter loves to read, and recently she's been talking about different kinds of narration -- first person, third person, a narrator that has their own personality versus one that just presents the perspective of the main character, etc. I'd love to give her a book at her reading level that has an unreliable narrator.

She's still very much in the land of middle years fiction -- Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, Wings of Fire, Nanny Piggins, various titles by Kate DiCamillo (Flora & Ulysses, Tiger Rising, etc). We could also do something more advanced as a read aloud.

I think she'd really get a kick out of the multiple perspectives you get from an unreliable narrator. Any recommendations?
posted by Winnie the Proust to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Not exactly unreliable narrator but close: Liar and Spy, Rebecca Stead. People close to the narrator are lying throughout the story. It’s a fantastic book. It’s a tiny bit “older” than 10 in subject matter, but not a lot, and a great read aloud.
posted by Mid at 5:21 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]

Oh maaaaaan what a great question!!! I don't know about Unreliable, but Harold narrates the stories of the Bunnicula series - and his limited goggie purview is sharply contrasted with Chester the cat's mile-a-minute brain. He was the first real "narrator" I fell in love with as a back-seat character because they're such a study in contrasts.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:22 AM on May 1 [10 favorites]

Well this might be too young for her, but the Eloise books (that I just posted a question about) kind of have this. The way Eloise describes her actions in the text and the way the effects of those actions are shown in the pictures are quite different.
posted by medusa at 5:46 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]

Not sure if this would be too advanced, but The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie is one of the standards for the Unreliable Narrator.
posted by gt2 at 5:58 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]

Not quite what you're asking for, but lots of parts of Watership Down are extra fun because the reader understands something the narrator doesn't, like what a car is or how a river works. It's also a book ABOUT the power of stories where many of the characters who tell a story do so to present themselves in the best possible light.
posted by EmilyFlew at 6:03 AM on May 1 [10 favorites]

It’s been a long time since I read it, but maybe Harriet the Spy.
posted by Kriesa at 6:53 AM on May 1 [11 favorites]

Seconding Rebecca Stead's Liar & Spy for sure. And a few other slightly tangential suggestions:

I know a lot of people who love Macaulay's Motel of Mysteries for this. The protagonist is unreliable, not through subterfuge but through profound misunderstanding of what he's looking at. (Warning: It's from the 1970s & is pretty dated.)

Some of the R.L. Stine Goosebumps books employ narration tricks that may be relevant. E.G., a kid who sees ghosts, and then realizes that *she* is the ghost , and the flickering figures she sees are still alive. (I think that one is The Sixth Sense The Ghost Next Door.)

And Harriet the Spy mostly isn't in the first person, but it's very much about discrepancies between the stories Harriet is telling about the world and the world itself. If your kid is interested in genre and storytelling and self-conscious narrators, Harriet will be the best.
posted by miles per flower at 6:59 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]

When I was this age I adored E.L. Konigsburg's Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. It's about two girls who decide to become witches, and the narrator, Elizabeth, spends most of the book being pretty clueless about her new friend's motivations (and whether she is, in fact, a witch). As a young reader it was a very rewarding book to reread as I grew older.

(Konigsburg's other classic book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, also has a fun narrative device of being narrated by the titular character, but while there are some surprises about Mrs. Frankweiler, I don't remember her being an unreliable narrator as such.)
posted by toastedcheese at 7:42 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]

Lemony Snicket?
posted by Huffy Puffy at 8:10 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]

The narrative voice in A Series of Unfortunate Events isn’t unreliable per se, but it is very entertaining & is quite as much a fully realised character as any of the protagonists.
posted by rd45 at 8:12 AM on May 1

I was younger than your daughter when I started on Poe. I don’t think she’s too young for some of the more well-known short stories.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:16 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]

Maybe the Bartimaeus books by Jonathan Stroud? It's been a while since I read them, but I remember really enjoying the footnotes in the djinn's voice.
posted by abeja bicicleta at 8:40 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]

It's well below her reading level, but I Want My Hat Back is a picture book that very much plays with the reliability of the statements being made. It's a great joke when a little kid makes the developmental leap to figuring out what is being said, and it's a book I've referenced when talking to my own similar-aged kid about unreliable narrators. It's short enough that they can quickly reread it knowing what they know at the end of the book.
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:44 AM on May 1

Maybe Judy Blume’s Blubber? I read it around that age, and a first-person narrator so painfully unaware of her own failings was really eye-opening to me.
posted by armeowda at 9:35 AM on May 1

Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief might be a possibility. (However, while it’s fine for a 10 year old, I’d not recommend the sequels until she’s older - there’s a jump in complexity, and subject matter after the first one)
posted by scorbet at 9:45 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]

One type of unreliable narrator is Watson, the friend and biographer of Sherlock Holmes. My parents gave me an anthology of the Sherlock Holmes stories somewhere between 5th and 8th grade.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:47 AM on May 1

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge
Book by Eugene Yelchin and Matthew Tobin Anderson
posted by Geameade at 12:14 PM on May 1

You definitely want The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. The protagonist is not deceiving the reader or himself intentionally, but the disconnect between a neutotypical reader's experience of the story and his experience is critical to the book, so there is some context translation for a neutotypical reader. Spoiler warning. He is a neuroatypical child of separated parents who has not fully reckoned with this, whose dog has been retrieved from his home, by his mother who is living elsewhere with another man. So the central mystery of the book is that he has yet to admit some realities to himself about his family life. There is hardly any variation in the punctuation of dialogue he hears or speaks, so even emotionally wrought conversations appear flat at first glance. There is only ever "he said," "she said," no other dialogue-presenting verbs. A critical moment of the book is him using a geometry trick to systematically look at every house in a neighborhood by wandering around as a pedestrian, eventually finding his mother's house. Of course, outside of the textbook math problem in his head, he's been missing from school for hours and is exhausted and hungry when he shows up at her house unannounced. There are a number of these disconnects between his rationalizing and his emotional reality.
posted by panhopticon at 12:33 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]

Oops I have misremembered the plot of TCOTDITNT. Well, I suppose the spoiler warning is not quite necessary then.
posted by panhopticon at 12:49 PM on May 1

Other excellent books by Rebecca Stead that qualify are:
When you Reach Me (Newbury winner)
The List of Things That Will Not Change

The narrators are both pre-teen girls with unique personalities who withhold key information from the reader, allowing for a delightful experience as the plot unfolds.
posted by oxisos at 4:46 PM on May 1

“The Name of this Book Is Secret” has a great narrator. I really enjoyed it - there are a few more in the series as well.
posted by backwards guitar at 5:09 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]

Seconding backwards guitar’s recommendation. My daughter loves unreliable narrators and that series was one of her favorites. The title “Liar and Spy” by Rebecca Mead comes up a lot when searching for middle grade books (that’s the term you want, not young adult!) with unreliable narrators. I’ll be buying that one for my daughter next!
posted by katie at 5:38 AM on May 2

From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil Frankweiler!
posted by jeszac at 7:00 AM on May 2

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