The origins of the postmodern picture book - The picture book - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


25. The picture book


Michele Anstey and Geoff Bull


The origins of the postmodern picture book


Picture books that self-consciously contain multiple meanings by virtue of the fact that the written text and the illustrative text combine to construct the narrative are a relatively recent development. The meanings constructed by these texts sometimes conflict with, as well as support, one another, and authors have begun to create different meanings through differing narrator positions and points of view, indeterminacy and intertextuality. These metafictive elements support the more traditional elements such as plot, theme and characterisation, but interrupt readers’ expectation and interpretation of texts.

Through these developments, postmodernism in picture books has broadened the traditional audience of the genre to encompass the young adult and adult reader, by challenging the traditional view of plots, characters and even the formatting of books, and often using a pastiche of illustrative styles, the effect of which is to produce picture books that require a different and multiple reading (see Grieve 1993).

Since the late 1970s, there has been a plethora of picture books where authors and illustrators have purposefully employed metafictive elements (see Waugh 1984; Anstey 2002); these texts rely on intertextuality for their interpretation, as in the picture books of Anthony Browne. One example: Browne’s homage to the art of Magritte in Willy the Dreamer (1997) or of recurring characters (notably gorillas). Janet and Allan Ahlberg use the written text in Jeremiah in the Dark Woods (1977) to encourage the reader to reference well-known fairy-story characters such as the seven dwarfs, a frog prince and a mad hatter.

It is also a matter of how the reader/viewer approaches the text. Old favourites (such as Where the Wild Things Are) can be revisited and read differently from a postmodern perspective. In a traditional reading, Where the Wild Things Are (1963) can be constructed as a cautionary tale where the illustrations expand and shrink to illustrate the element of fantasy; from a postmodern perspective Sendak can be seen as challenging the traditional view of the hero and the prevailing views about illustration and format. In Outside over There (1981) and Dear Mili (1988) Sendak developed a more readily identifiable postmodern stance by using a pastiche of illustrative texts that demanded a sophisticated level of interpretation.

Early examples of postmodern picture books include the work of Burningham and Carle, and Monique Felix’s The Story of a Little Mouse Trapped in a Book (Switzerland, 1980) in which the mouse ‘literally’ eats through the blank pages of a book to discover the pictures underneath and then enters the illustrations to take part in the narrative, making a paper plane which is then used to fly into the scene depicted by the illustration. Similar techniques were taken up by Martin Waddell and Phillippe Dupasquier in The Great Green Mouse Disaster (1981) through the use of cartoons to create multiple narratives and riddles for the reader to solve. (These earlier picture books are useful as introductory models for students and teachers to familiarise themselves with the effects of metafiction.)

The picture books by Babette Cole, as in Princess Smartypants (1986) and Prince Cinders (1987), and Jon Scieszka’s The Frog Prince Continued (1991) and The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (1989) re-invent well-known stories, using different characters’ points of view and are examples of books that cross the boundaries of what is expected by (and of) the reader.

The appeal of these ‘sophisticated’ books is not limited to older or gifted readers. We have suggested elsewhere (Bull 1995; Bull and Anstey 1996) that five- and six-year-old students can make complex decisions regarding the relationship between illustrative and written text. Lewis (1990) supported this ability of young children to ‘play’ in the postmodern picture book. Watson and Styles (1996: 27) also reported that young children, even before they can read, can understand the ‘humour and profundity’ in the illustrative texts of Anthony Browne and can understand the metaphor in the representations of reconciliation in The Tunnel (Browne 1989). Arizpe and Styles (2003) concluded that young readers are capable of making sophisticated judgements about illustrations at the metaphorical as well as visual level.