The characteristics of contemporary postmodern picture books - 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 characteristics of contemporary postmodern picture books


Variations in design and layout

One of the more obvious metafictive devices from a reader’s perspective is that of varying book design and layout, but of course the reader still needs to be familiar with other more traditional picture books.

The most obvious device is the use of comic-strip or cartoon-like illustrations. In Have You Seen Who’s Just Moved in Next Door to Us? by Colin McNaughton (1991), traditional formatting has been restyled to a double fold-out page supported by cut-away houses. This is reinforced by the use of rhyming couplets and many plays on words (‘eggcellent’ and ‘eggsactly’), the use of a subtext that plays out in the background and intertextuality in the form of well-known characters from other tales and even plays on other titles such as Hairy Mary’s Dairy (Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, Dodd 1983). Raymond Briggs (1982) used the same device to deal, disconcertingly, with a nuclear strike in the ‘crossover’ text When the Wind Blows (1982), and Gary Crew and Steven Woolman’s Tagged (1997) uses comic-book devices to construct a fractured retelling of the life of a traumatised Vietnam veteran. Format and design underwent an even more radical change in another of Gary Crew’s books, The Viewer (1997) illustrated by Shaun Tan, in which the picture book actually became an artefact of the illustrations by taking on the form of the viewer being described in the written text. The cover of the book has frames cut into it so that it resembles a viewer or kaleidoscope that is itself viewed by the protagonist. This design feature positions the reader to ‘read’ the book in a particular way, by creating two separate, or as Tan calls them ‘cleaved’, worlds or universes. The reader or viewer looks either into, or out of, the viewer itself.

In Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s (1992) The Stinky Cheese Man, the written text is printed in different fonts, upside down and in unexpected places on the page, while the design subverts expectations (the Contents is not at the beginning), and the narrator argues with the characters. All of this allows sophisticated interrogation of the text. Beth Gnarling in the stone baby (2002) uses a variety of dramatic horizontal and vertical formats, whole-page spreads and double-page spreads to reinforce the dream of the main character in a way that is reminiscent, but extends the effects produced by Sendak in Where the Wild Things Are. The different format sometimes requires the reader to read across the whole double-page spread in a series of horizontal layers and sometimes expects the reader to read a progression of vertical segments. The layers and segments accurately reproduce the disjunction of scenes in a typical dream and add immeasurably to the written text.


Variations in the grammar of the author and illustrator

In the same way that written text has a grammar that supports the construction of meaning through semantics and syntax, so illustrative text has a grammar of its own (Anstey and Bull 2000). Illustrators sometimes vary the expected or traditional construction of this grammar to focus the attention of the reader. In postmodern picture books the narrative is often told by both the author and the illustrator, and so decisions about illustrative grammar that are made by the illustrator have the potential to augment, modify or change existing meaning in the written text. For example, in Smoky Night (1994), describing the street riots in Los Angeles, the illustrator David Diaz has reinforced the tension in the written narrative by using dark borders around all the scenes to illustrate the frightening nature of the events taking place. Diaz also uses visual puns by including caution signs for handling on a television set that is being ‘lifted’ by rioters. Similar puns occur throughout the book and are reinforced in the backgrounds by scenes filled with rubbish from the surrounding streets.



Texts that contain indeterminate or inconclusive scenes are designed to challenge the reader/viewer to produce a range of readings different from those ‘authorised’. Thus in Margaret Barbelet’s The Wolf (1991), the wolf remains invisible throughout the story even when, in the resolution, it is invited into the house. The entrance of the wolf signals a triumph over fears although the reader is left to wonder whether the wolf ever existed. Similarly, in Gary Crew’s Kraken (2001) indeterminacy plays a role in the inexplicable blindness of Christopher and the fantastic and frightening portrayal of the mythical Kraken. The reader never knows whether the Kraken really exists or is merely a figment of the children’s imagination.


Contesting discourses

The Shirley books by John Burningham provide an example of contesting illustrative and written texts where the written text is placed in collocation with two alternative illustrative texts. Jane Tanner and Allan Baillie have followed Burningham’s lead and successfully incorporated contesting written and illustrative discourses in an Australian picture book, Drac and the Gremlin (1988). Baillie relates the story of two children who battle mythical creatures in a garden that is full of gadgets from science fiction. This battle is watched over by the White Witch, who turns out in Tanner’s illustrations to be the mother. This irony is extended throughout the narrative and increases the sense of humour both exhibited by the main characters and expected of the reader. This humour and irony is exemplified when Baillie writes of an ‘Anti-Gravity Solar Powered Planet Hopper’ which is portrayed by Tanner as an ordinary swing suspended from a tree branch. Other notable examples have been Libby Hathorn and Gregory Rogers’ Way Home (1994) and the Caldecott Medal winner Black and White by David Macaulay (1990). In this book there are four contesting, illustrative discourses, and on the title page Macaulay advises his readers that the words and pictures may contain either ‘a number of stories’ or perhaps ‘only one story’.



Retold or new versions of traditional tales are an important source of intertextual references as in Scieszka and Lane’s The Frog Prince Continued (1991) where the Frog Prince, and the reader, meet witches from ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Snow White’ and ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and have an adventure with the Godmother from ‘Cinderella’. The final twist at the end, where both the Prince and the Princess are turned into frogs, relies for its impact on knowledge of the structure of the original narrative. Similarly Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s The Jolly Postman (1986 and sequels) delivers letters to nursery-rhyme characters. Perhaps more subtly, Anthony Browne habitually makes visual references to popular culture: in the suburban background of Gorilla (1983), a portrait of the Mona Lisa turns into a gorilla, King Kong appears in the bedroom, Whistler’s mother becomes a gorilla, and even Charlie Chaplin, Superman and Gene Autrey are similarly transformed. Browne also makes reference to some of his other gorilla books and to The Tunnel (1989).


Multiple meanings and audiences

The potential of all of the metafictive devices that have been discussed so far is to create a multiplicity of meanings, from Anthony Browne’s Zoo (1994), in which it becomes harder and harder to tell whether the humans or the animals are the ones who are imprisoned, to Jeannie Baker’s Where the Forest Meets the Sea (1987), addressing the issue of the destruction of native flora and fauna in the name of progress. Peter Gouldthorpe in Paul Jennings Grandad’s Gifts (1992) positions the observers in a number of spectator positions so that they are never quite sure whether individual scenes are being seen through Grandad’s eyes or through the eyes of a fox.

Postmodern devices have introduced a new kind of picture book that more clearly demonstrates how narrative is structured. These books also explicate how both the illustrative and the written texts play a part in determining meaning in an age where access to the visual content of communication is becoming more important. The more traditional literary features such as theme, plot and characterisation can be emphasised and further developed through the use of various metafictive devices.



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