Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


45. Metafictions and experimental work


Robyn McCallum


Postmodernism, metafiction and experimental picture books


Metafiction is a mode of writing which has recently flourished within a broader cultural movement referred to as postmodernism (Waugh 1984: 21) with which it shares some common features: narrative fragmentation and discontinuity, disorder and chaos, code mixing and absurdity of the kind which appears in the picture books of John Burningham, Chris Van Allsburg, Anthony Browne, David Wiesner, David Macaulay and the novels of William Mayne and Terry Pratchett.

Two recent studies have focused on postmodern features of contemporary picture books (Lewis 1990; Moss 1992). The tendency towards parody, playfulness and openness in many recent picture books constitutes a metafictive potential: picture books comprise two inherently different modes of representation - verbal and visual - the relations between which are always to some extent more or less dialogical. Words and pictures interact so as to construct (and defer) meanings, rather than simply reflecting or illustrating each other. The visual and verbal components of a picture book can thus imply a dialogue between text and picture and readers - for example, Burningham’s Shirley books or Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

The combination of two sign systems clearly provides a way of problematising the representational function of visual and verbal signs and of foregrounding the ways in which the relations between signs and things are structured by culturally inscribed codes of representation and signification. The extent to which meanings are socially and culturally constructed, and hence open to challenge, is a concern addressed in many of Browne’s picture books, for example A Walk in the Park (1977) or Willie the Wimp (1984). Browne characteristically uses surrealist visual elements to foreground the gap between signs and things (for example, his construction of settings out of pieces of fruit and other odd objects). Similarly, Wiesner’s pictures in Tuesday (1991) are constructed out of a bricolage of visual quotations. Van Allsburg uses realist pictorial conventions to represent fantastical situations, blurring textual distinctions between the fantasy and reality.