This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on February 13, 2017.
One of the books I have tackled this month for review on the Children’s Book Review has been Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together. The novel tells the story of a young African-American girl from a disadvantages neighborhood, whose intelligence and talent have presented her with opportunities for “escaping”, but whose varied experiences leave her ambivalent about the implied acculturation that underlies these “opportunities”. The narrative provides a critical and honest examination of the problem of race in the United States; important as this subtext is, however, it is the richness of Watson’s narrative voice and dialogue which impressed me most about the novel.
A first-person narrative is one of the most effective strategies employed in children’s literature: by speaking directly to the reader, the novel elicits greater control of the way in which an implied reader is constructed. In other words, in addition to the crafted dialogues contained within the narrative, a second dialogue is created between the narrator and the implied reader. This second dialogue plays a subtle role in shaping the interpretations of that reader, both by eliciting empathy and identification, and by controlling the reader’s identity as “other”. Elsass and Biglow demonstrate the importance of this dual function when they define dialogue as “a mode of discourse that emphasizes identifying and suspending assumptions in order to gain deeper and more nuanced understandings of our own and other’s experiences and belief” (Elsass and Biglow 32). By entering into a dialogue with the reader, therefore, the narrator invites that reader to lay aside expectations and assumptions, and instead to re-imagine the “other”. While a third-person narrative can be distant and monologic, establishing the narrator’s authority in relation to an implied rather than actual reader, first-person narration is more dialogic in nature, inviting the participation of the reader – whether implied or actual, or a little bit of both.
In a narrative such as Piecing me Together, where the issue of race makes the question of “otherness” a crucial consideration, the narrator-reader dialogue can be seen as encouraging readers to question their assumptions about racial and cultural identity. The following passage is a good example of this works in the narrative: “I think about Mrs. Parker. How she has a black son-in-law smiling at me from a frame. How proud she is of her free passes to Winterhawks games. How she wants me to have a mentor. How she’s always ready to give me an opportunity, a gift. Like what she’s telling me is she comes in peace” (Watson 26).
Jade, the narrator is reflecting on her exchange with the guidance counselor who wants her to enroll in a mentoring program. The dialogue between child and teacher has been guarded, carefully polite and yet fraught with tension. It is only in this concluding statement to the reader that Jade reveals her true thoughts about Mrs. Parker, and about the “opportunity” she is offering. Far from being monologic, this passage first establishes common ground: any school-age reader is likely to relate to and empathize with Jade’s feeling of alienation from this helpful but clueless adult authority. However, the deeper issues of race and culture that Jade then explores, expressing her own doubts and confusions, reassert the reader’s “otherness” and challenge the reader to question the hierarchies that mark them as different from Jade. Mickūnas writes that, “the dialogical encounter allows one to have a position and its limitation. Moreover, monological positions tend to define others in such a way, that the others accept such definitions and become part of a specific monologue” (Mickūnas 3). The value of this type of dialogic narrative, therefore, is that it challenges rather than reinforcing identities and social hierarchies. Watson’s masterful use of this technique not only creates a character who practically breathes with life and personality, but which also encourages readers to challenge the ways in which they define themselves and others.
Elsass, P., and Bigelow, B. “Learning to Engage with Multiple Perspectives: The Use of Dialogue in the Classroom.” Currents in Teaching and Learning, vol. 8, no. 2, 2016, pp. 32-40.
Mickūnas, A. “The Different Other and Dialogue.” Coactivity / Santalka, vol. 24, no. 1, 2016, pp. 3-13.
Watson, R. Piecing me Together. Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2017.
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.