Telling It Like It Isn't: 13 Books Featuring Unreliable Narrators | Great Books

When it’s executed well, the unreliable narrator device can turn a story around in memorable and highly satisfying ways. Here are 13 stellar examples of recent books with narrators who mislead, misdirect, or even outright lie to readers, waiting for just the right moment to reveal the truth.

Nuthawut Somsuk/Getty Images

Young readers naturally expect the narrator of any story they’re reading to tell the truth. So what happens when they start running into authors or characters who are not completely trustworthy?

When it’s executed well, the unreliable narrator device can turn a story around in memorable and highly satisfying ways. Fans of The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner relish the crafty way in which the hidden facts behind Gen’s misleading storytelling emerge. And what reader of Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince can forget the moment when Sage reveals his true story? In recent years, we’ve seen many stellar examples of books with narrators who, for reasons of their own (and of course, the author’s) mislead, misdirect, or even outright lie to readers, waiting for just the right moment to reveal the truth. Here are 13 of the best.

Anderson, M.T. The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge. illus. by Eugene Yelchin. Candlewick. 2018. ISBN 9780763698225.
Gr 4-7–In this creative fantasy, the unreliable narration comes in the form of images rather than words. When he visits the goblins on a supposed mission of peace, Brangwain Spurge reports back to his fellow elves by sending his mental impressions, converted into drawings that depict their rivals as monstrous and evil. Meanwhile, Werfel—a goblin archivist—presents a very different and much more accurate version of his people. Their discordant stories capture the conflict between the two opposing, but surprisingly similar, societies as they lurch toward war. It’s only when the primary narrators both see the truth more clearly that a path toward reconciliation becomes possible.

Barnhill, Kelly. The Ogress and the OrphansAlgonquin. 2022. ISBN 9781643750743.
Gr 3-7–The teller of this fun and thought-provoking tale seems to know everything about ogres, dragons, and the troubled village of Stone-in-the-Glen. But who is this all-knowing being? We know that the narrator must be in the village, or at least nearby; is the narrator human? Animal? Or something else? When the storyteller’s identity is revealed, it makes perfect sense. Especially when we realize that the narrator has not just been telling the story but has also played a part in key events…though in the quietest possible way.

Bow, Erin. Simon Sort of Says. Disney-Hyperion. 2023. ISBN 9781368082853.
Gr 5 Up–When Simon and his family move to a Nebraska town that has “no television, no cell phones, no microwave ovens, and no internet,” he thinks it’s “perfect.” His new classmates and neighbors are among the only people in the country who haven’t seen him online, and he wants to keep it that way. Simon hides the reason for his preferred anonymity from readers and from the town, focusing instead on his new friends and an ambitious project involving alien messages from space. When the truth about his past finally leaks out, Simon has to deal with his trauma head-on, finding unexpected support from friends, family, and even strangers.

Everett, Sarah. The Probability of EverythingClarion. 2023. ISBN 9780063256552.
Gr 3-7–When Kemi learns that an asteroid will end the world in four days, she and her family brace themselves for the inevitable catastrophe. She determines to “make sure we were remembered” by collecting mementos from the people she loves and burying a time capsule. Her father’s memento is especially difficult to decide upon, for reasons that become clearer once readers learn that Kemi hasn’t told us the full story behind the asteroid threat. The truth involves a very different kind of disaster—one that’s equally devastating, and maybe even more challenging to face.

Gonzalez, Christina Diaz. Invisibleillus. by Gabriela Epstein. Scholastic/Graphix. 2022. ISBN 9781338194548.
Gr 4-7–Five kids have been summoned to the principal’s office to disclose events they were involved with in the previous weeks. The creative team behind this graphic novel nudges readers into believing that the kids are in trouble, but are they? The students all speak Spanish as well as English yet seem to have little in common at first beyond the perception that they’re “problem kids.” Each student tells a part of the story, and when it’s finally complete, readers discover that these overlooked kids are not villains at all. By proving our assumptions wrong, the creators accentuate their theme of looking beyond stereotypes to view each person as a unique individual.

Gratz, Alan. Ground Zero: A Novel of 9/11. Scholastic. 2021. ISBN 9781338245752.
Gr 4-7–Alternating narratives jump from New York on September 11, 2001, to Afghanistan in 2019 in this action-packed novel. Brandon is visiting his father at work in the World Trade Center when the first plane hits. A parallel thread switches to Reshmina, an 11-year-old girl trying to survive the war in Afghanistan that continued long after the terrorist attacks. Each story is compelling on its own, but the shared themes of family, courage, and violence resonate even more powerfully when readers recognize that there’s a stronger connection between the two narratives than we first realized.

Harrold, A.F. The Worlds We Leave Behindillus. by Levi Pinfold. Bloomsbury. 2023. ISBN 9781547610952.
Gr 5 Up–In this carefully crafted fantasy, the narrator tells the truth; it’s reality that changes. The twist begins after Hex loses a fight and then meets a mysterious woman in the woods. She offers to magically erase his enemy from existence. Before he can act on this possibility though, one of his antagonists uses that same magic on him. Suddenly, Hex is gone from his own story. The narrative resets as if Hex no longer existed, switching to the point of view of his best friend who now must figure out how to reset the newly altered reality. Or at least prevent it from changing again.

Heidicker, Christian McKay. Scary Stories for Young Foxes. illus. by Junyi Wu. Holt. 2019. ISBN 9781250181428.
Gr 4 Up–When seven fox kits eagerly seek out the “old storyteller,” hoping “to hear a story so frightening it will put the white in your tail,” they get exactly what they had hoped for, and then some. The eight tales—which feature a deadly plague, the evil Mr. Scratch, and other horrors—are truly frightening. They are also connected in ways that aren’t immediately apparent to readers. As the plot threads gradually intersect and we finally learn the identity of “the storyteller,” the separate tales complete a fully realized (and still scary) novel.

Korman, Gordon. Linked. Scholastic. 2021. ISBN 9781338629118.
Gr 4-8–A swastika has been painted on the walls of Chokecherry Middle School, and seven kids offer alternating viewpoints about the vandalism and subsequent events. Narrators include Michael, who saw it first; Link, a proud prankster; Dana, the only Jewish girl in town; and several others. The narrators’ insights into why this act might have happened and what they do in response are revealing and thought-provoking, but one of them carefully hides a key piece of information: who drew the hateful symbol.

Lowry, Lois. The Windeby PuzzleHarperCollins/Clarion. 2023. ISBN 9780358672500.
Gr 5 Up–In a unique presentation, the author creates two fictional tales based on the actual archaeological find of a mummified body. Initially, Lowry applies her language and imagination to the known historical facts, creating a compelling short story. But when scientists unearth new information about the body in the bog, she decides to reframe her narrative, centering a second telling on a minor character from her first attempt. Before and after each version, she explains where the stories came from and why they changed, giving us unique insight into the creative processes of a writer.

McDunn, Gillian. When Sea Becomes Sky. Bloomsbury. 2023. ISBN 9781547610853.
Gr 3-7–Bex and her brother uncover a huge and mysterious statue just beneath the surface of the marshland that they love. After some secret research and creative planning, they think they might be able to use their discovery to preserve their environment and even save their father’s job. But this thoughtful family tale takes a surprise turn when Bex, who narrates the story herself, admits to the readers that “There’s something I’ve been leaving out this whole time.” Her very surprising and perfectly timed revelation dramatically shifts our understanding of Bex’s story and why she needs to tell it.

Nayeri, Daniel. The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams. illus. by Daniel Miyares. Levine Querido. 2023. ISBN 9781646143030.
Gr 4-8–An orphan boy named Monkey narrates his wild adventures while traveling the Silk Road in the 11th century, occasionally misleading readers for reasons of his own. His story centers on the merchant Samir, who seems to be hated by many, including (at times) Monkey himself. We gradually learn that Monkey cares for the “Seller of Dreams” more than he initially lets on. What we don’t know for most of the book is why the orphan is telling his story, nor who his audience is. In the delightfully satisfying conclusion, readers discover that it’s crucial that the tale’s listeners are as enthralled as we are: if he can fool them, Monkey’s tale just might save Samir’s life.

Stead, Rebecca. The List of Things That Will Not Change. Random/Wendy Lamb. 2020. ISBN 9781101938096.
Gr 5-8–As her father’s second marriage approaches, 12-year-old Bea describes a variety of past experiences with friends and family, while also sharing some of her own struggles with anxiety. She’s truthful most of the time but holds back one crucial detail about a particular incident. She mentions her cousin’s accident early in the book, and refers to it in passing a few times, but there’s a lot more to that event than Bea is willing to tell us or admit to herself. When she finally does provide the full story, it sheds a new light on her inner struggles. At the same time, Bea’s courage in sharing that hard truth with others helps her learn to forgive herself.

Steven Engelfried recently retired after 35 years as a youth services librarian and contributes to SLJ’s “Heavy Medal” blog.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing