“Silver Buttons” and the Metatext

This blog will be a little bit different from my previous picture book reviews. Yes, this is a review of Bob Graham’s Silver Buttons but it is also a discussion of how metatext comes into play in this picture book. Now, on to the blog.

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Bob Graham is an an Australian author and illustrator, exclusively working in the medium of picture books. Bob Graham’s illustrations are always easily identifiable, slightly rotund characters with protruding noses and messy hair. Always just a little disheveled. Graham’s works often focus on family life and are directed at very young children.

In Silver Buttons, Jodi’s brother, Jonathon, is learning to walk. The focus of the book starts off small, honing in on Jodi and Jonathon’s living room, then their kitchen.

At9:59 on Thursday morning, Jodie drew a duck. She gave the duck a top hat, cane, and boots of the softest leather.

On the boots she put silver buttons”

one… two…

Her pen hovered in the air before the final button.

 

Jodi’s brother, Jonathon, pushed slowly to his feet.

Jonathon begins to take his first step as a pigeon feather floats down outside his window. This allows a fluid transition to the outside. The narrative and visual scope of the book widens and the reader leaves the living room to look down on the neighbourhood, then the city. This birdlike view transports the reader into Jodi and Jonathon’s world.

Careening in and out of characters lives; on one page we are taken into a hospital delivery room, on the next two dogs shake and scratch, a homeless woman pushes a cart with all of her possessions inside and the view of the city from the waves leading up to the beach. Sunlight connects each image and place to the next – filling the book with cheery light.

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The book ends with a return to Jodi and Jonathon’s living room and a satisfactory sense of familiarity and friendliness towards these characters. The city view creates an intimate experience and entangles outside and domestic life in a modern way. After traveling the sprawling urban space and peeping into many lives, the reader is returned to the living room only to discover time had stopped while they were gone. Jonathon is just finishing his first step and tumbling to his knees as Jodi colours in her final silver button, the kitchen clock strikes ten. A perfect family portrait given in the temporal span of a minute.

The narrative may seem disjointed at first but its not. This is a book that should be read twice – at least. This is a book that needs re-reading because there is something that the reader doesn’t know until they reach the last pages and this something changes the reading of the text into a question of metatext. Metatext means writing that reflects on writing, a text that is aware of itself as a piece of literature. Metatextual writing is a common element in modern and postmodern literature.

Time stops as the reader leaves Jodi and Jonathan’s living room and only starts again when the reader returns. This, for me, is the meat of the metatext. The reader is not aware time has stopped until they return – accentuating the intrinsic and inextricable connection between all the elements of the book and a reason to re-read with this aspect in mind.

This book is lovely for children but can also supply a metatextual reading for the interested adult. If time stops when the reader leaves Jodi and Jonathan does this imply that the characters only exist for us, as we read them? Is this a metatextual reference to the nature of reading and the fate of fictional characters? How would this book be different if Jodi and Jonathon continued on while the reader’s perspective shifted onto the city?

I almost missed the first page of the book, the first paragraph quotation earlier in this blog, because it comes before the title page. Graham disrupts the normal format of a picture book framed by the title page. This breaks the constrains of the literal and fictional binding, elucidating space for something more.

I think we would all – and when I say we I mean all of us avid readers – like to think that characters carry on beyond the text. When we put down a good book we think: Will Heathcliffe and Catherine haunt the grounds forever? will big brother always hold power in Oceana? are Jonas and Gabriel really safe now that they’ve found a town? what happens next for Pip and Estella?!

The answer is always [technically] the same: nothing, no one, no. They don’t have lives outside the words written on the page and the reader’s imagination. But we would still like to think they do. The halting of time for characters who aren’t physically present on the page is a comment on this state of being, or lack of state of being. But Graham also foreshadows something more, something outside the text. Starting with a dismissal of the traditional formatting of the picture book, Graham plants a breadcrumb of a clue for the close reader, foreshadowing things to come. Jonathon’s first step is described as purposeful:

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and took his first step. He took that step like he was going somewhere.

The question: where is he going? He’s going towards growing up. And growing up implies a life outside of the text and since we don’t see it happen and leaves the reader thinking, where will Jonathon’s next steps take him? And because I am an avid reader I have to answer: hopefully somewhere. And because I continue to think about these questions, Jonathon’s first and second and third steps, his future, I create that future for him in my own mind; bridging the gap between fiction, fantasy, reality, and the metatext.

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