As discussed in my previous posts, Cherie Allan gives a good, coherent outline of some of the qualities of postmodern picture books:
“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.”
Today I’d like to discuss intertextuality in postmodern picturebooks. Intertextuality is probably one of the most common tropes in all literature. Books work with the cultural knowledge of their readership by playing on and/or referencing other books that came before. In picturebooks, this is most often done with fairy tales: a genre that even young children are very familiar with.
David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs is a hugely important book that experiments with form and content by playing with the traditional story of The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. Wiesner’s book starts innocently enough: the three pigs go off and build their respective houses out of straw, twigs, and brick and the wolf comes huffing and puffing along. However, the traditional tale is soon disrupted as the wolf blows the pigs out of the story.
The traditional text continues as if the story is following the original tale but the illustrations and speech bubbles disrupt the conventional narrative. The pigs escape their pursuer by leaving the pages of the book and go off exploring other stories and other styles of storytelling and illustration.
David Weisner uses a traditional fairy tale frame to subvert our expectations and break free from the normative conventions of storytelling and picture books.
Anthony Browne’s Into the Forest uses Little Red Riding Hood as the model text for his work that has a boy going to visit his grandmother while also exploring family relationships. Our nameless protagonist wakes up to find his dad gone and the book suggests his parents have had an argument. The mother asks the boy to take his sick grandmother some cakes. The mother warns him not to take the shortcut (through the forest) but of course the boy doesn’t listen. As the boy walks through the forest he meets many fairy tale characters who he fails to recognize – although we as readers are very aware we’re looking at Jack and his cow, Hansel and Gretel, and Goldilocks.
After a short while I saw a boy. “Do you want to buy a nice milky moo-cow?” he asked. “No,” I said. “Why would I want a cow?”
“I’ll swap it for that sweet fruity cake in your basket,” he said.
“No, it’s for my poorly grandma,” I said, and walked on.
“I’m poorly,” I heard him say.
As the boy walks on he finds a red coat hanging from a tree and puts it on. As soon as the boy dresses himself as little red riding hood he feels scared and we as readers, expecting the wolf, are scared too. But when he finally reaches grandma’s house instead of finding a wolf the boy finds his dad.
The fairy tale characters are always drawn in grey, opposed to the “real” boy who is drawn in colour. The illustrations cleverly incorporate many more fairy tale motifs than the text but in the end we are left wondering if they were just in the boy’s imagination. The fairy tale expectations are referenced and then subverted over and over in this clever picture book which works magic into everyday life but always delineates between the two.
“A long time ago people used to tell magical stories of wonder and enchantment. Those stories were called Fairy Tales. Those stories are not in this book. The stories in this book are almost Fairy Tales. But not quite. The stories in this book are Fairly Stupid Tales. I mean, what else would you call a story like, “Goldilocks and the Three Elephants?””
The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales, written by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith, is a collection of adapted “fairy tales” that transform traditional stories into, well, pretty stupid stories. Sciezka’s stories constantly interrupt each other and characters often show up on the wrong page. The little red hen tries to start telling her story on the end paper and Jack the narrator barges in to correct this: “Wait a minute. Hold everything. You can’t tell your story here. This is the end paper. The book hasn’t even started yet.”
The book always reminds us of the traditional form but never uses it. Soon we discover pages are upside down and the reader is told if they want to read them they should probably stand on their head. Jack the narrator struggles to keep order throughout the book – trying to warn the reader about the table of contents and other structural formats – but is largely ignored. Unfortunately, this leads to a number of characters being squashed by a falling table of contents somewhere in the middle of the book.
In the story of “The Really Ugly Duckling” the ugly duckling knows that he will eventually grow into a beautiful swan (like Hans Christian Anderson’s original version.) Unluckily for the duckling:
Our expectations from the content are overturned. Yet, we knew from the start we weren’t reading fairy tales – we were reading fairly stupid tales.
Other great intertextual picturebooks are: The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig written by Eugene Trivizas and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury and Lauren Child’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book.
Coming up next week: Picturebooks… For Adults!?