This is the first in a series of four blog posts about postmodernism. Click here for more information about the series.
Postmodernism is an extremely difficult term and time period to define but for our purposes the postmodern picturebook era began sometime around the early 1960s (think Where the Wild Things Are). In her book Playing with Picturebooks: Postmodernism and Postmodernesque Cherie Allan identifies some of the characteristics of postmodern picturebooks:
“One of the major impulses of postmodern literature is its challenge to realist fiction: both the ideologies embedded within realist texts and how various narrative strategies and devices of realist fiction present these attitudes and values as ‘natural.’ This results in texts which exhibit… blurring of boundaries between high and low culture; the collapse of hierarchies of knowledge; taste and opinion; and an interest in the local rather than the universal… The postmodernist form tends to be ironic, indulges in playfulness and pleasure, and points to its status as a construct, its intertextual origins and its parodic recycling of other works.”
Essentially, postmodern picturebooks write back against realism by (among other things) employing narrative techniques that reference or expose the work is, in actuality, a book. This is in contrast to realism which presents its readers with a narrative meant as a true representation of and/or stand in for reality. Many postmodern works, but postmodern picturebooks in particular, often use intertextuality to play with form and content. In picturebooks, this is commonly done through the use of fairytales.
Throughout this four-part series I will come back to Allan’s definition to give examples of the particular characteristics at work in various postmodern picturebooks. Today, I’d like to introduce three early postmodern picturebooks that play with the book as an object and storytelling as a construct.
The Story of a Little Mouse Trapped in a Book and Another Story of… the Little Mouse Trapped in a Book are wordless picturebooks created by Monique Felix. Both books feature a little mouse who is – you guessed it – literally stuck inside the pages of the book. These books were published in the 80s and feature the exact same pattern. The first pages are completely blank except for the little mouse who is desperately looking for a way out of the book. Soon the little mouse starts to chew through the page revealing a landscape underneath.
The little mouse takes the torn out piece of paper, folds it into a paper airplane, and rides the airplane into the landscape below.
These picturebooks play with the boundaries of the page and expose the book as a fictitious setting while breaking the boundaries of the normal expectations of the picturebook frame by figuratively travelling outside its pages.
These books are, sadly, out of print although you can find them on amazon. For another, more easily found, postmodern picturebook about an animal literally trapped inside a book check out Art Spiegelman’s Open Me… I’m a Dog!
A very beloved and famous book that was actually published in 1955 but still falls within the definitions of postmodern is Crocket Johnson’s Harold and The Purple Crayon.
“One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight.”
Harold literally draws his own story. This technique marks the book as a work of fiction and defies realism by revealing the creative process. Harold learns that he is in control of his own story, which confuses authorial control that, returning to Allan’s definition of postmodernism, puts a rift in the normal hierarchy of author as creator in picturebooks.
Harold’s simple story subverts realism, exposes the creative process and the structures necessary in the telling of a story, and confuses hierarchies of authorial control – all by giving the protagonist a crayon.
Coming up next: intertextuality and retelling fairy tales in postmodern picturebooks!