Will you forgive me a little nerdish exploration of point of view? It is not very often that we come across the “you” address in middle grade fiction, which makes me want to spend a little bit of time with it, and consider how it is used in When You Reach Me, and what we as writers can learn from its use in this novel.
Immediately after finishing the book I looked online for discussions about it. I came across conversations about the use of the “you” address in When You Reach Me, questioning whether this was an example of second person POV and wondering how effective it was. I got thinking—what is the definition of second person point of view, and is the use of the pronoun “you” as it occurs in this book really an example of it? What is Stead hoping to accomplish using this POV, and does she get there?
First, as to the definition of second person POV: I have found that there are many, and they do not necessarily agree. In his very thorough paper on this topic, Dennis Schofield of Deakin University in Australia points out that there is a great deal of discussion in the writing and academic communities about the correct definition of what constitutes second person address. He refers to “the often equivocal nature of the ‘second-person’ pronoun within narrative discourse.” There are those who feel that the second person address must always refer to the narrator himself. Others insist that this POV must refer to another character within the story. It is a trend in non-literary writing to have the pronoun “you” refer back to the person reading the piece, something that is rare, but not unheard of in literature as well.
Schofield references the work of Gerald Prince who, in his Dictionary of Narratology, makes the case that in a second person POV the “you” address must always refer to the narratee.
Naratee? What’s that?
Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary could not help me out. But the English department at Reed College could.On their web site I learned that:
"Every story is told by a narrator (sometimes by more than one narrator). Stories also are told to narratees. Just as the narrator is different than the author, the narratee is different than the reader. The narratee is the person "inside" the text to whom the narrator is speaking.
"Taking the time to understand who the narratee is can help you understand the narrator and the act of narration. . .It is usually harder to pin down the narratee than the narrator, but pay attention to any details you can find, and you'll find it a very useful analytic exercise."
Sticking with Prince’s rule of thumb, in When You Reach Me, the “you” is certainly addressing the person inside the text to whom the narrator is speaking. So, while the book is written in a first person POV, there are occasions when the author slips into a true second person address. Referring back to my craft books, I found that Janet Burroway and Francine Prose concurred that this use of the “you” address is indeed an example of second person POV.
Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer:
"The truth is that marvelous fiction has been written in the second person, though in these cases, the 'you' is less likely to be the reader in general than someone in particular, an individual to whom the story (often metaphorically or imaginatively) is being addressed."
Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction: "the second person is the basic mode of the story only when a character is referred to as you…Only when 'you' becomes an actor in the drama is the story or novel written in second person.”
Now, on to a quick discussion of what this accomplishes within When You Reach Me. Mima Tipper, a fellow Vermont College student, wrote her creative thesis on the topic of the second person address and very graciously shared her paper with me. Mima makes the excellent point that the “you” address creates, “potential confusion for readers as to whom the second person ‘you’ in the story addresses. Is the ‘you’ the actual reader? An imagined reader? Or is the ‘you’ a character in the story?"
Given that the average ten-year-old reader is not likely to go through the gyrations that I did exploring the use of the second person address in modern fiction, Mima’s point is very relevant: isn’t the “you” address a little bit confusing?
But is that a bad thing?
I think not. While I, and young readers I interviewed, found the “you” to be confusing, it was because they were left wondering, “Who is Miranda talking to?” And wasn't that the point? I suspect that Stead very intentionally used the second person address to intensify the mystery, and it works.
I am going to quote from one of Mima Tipper’s conclusions in my Storysleuth’s Tip—
Storysleuth’s Tip #26: “when used intentionally and with a full understanding of its effects, the second person viewpoint provides MG and YA stories—any fiction actually—with an intriguing, necessary, character-revealing viewpoint.”
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