Postmodern Picturebooks… For Adults?!

This is the third post of a four part blog series on postmodern picturebooks. For more information about the series click here. For the first post click here. For the second post click here. For the third post click here. 

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.”

While this definition has served the last three blog posts well, today I’m moving away from these characteristics to discuss simply how postmodern picturebooks challenge the boundaries of the picturebook genre. Most people allocate picturebooks to a larger body of things that are only for young children, not for adults. For the most part, adults don’t give picturebooks a second thought unless they have a young child in the family. Within the postmodern picturebook era, picturebooks that deal with difficult themes and complex subjects have emerged with particularly increasing frequency over the last decade. These books are still categorized as children’s literature but challenge the definitions of content within the category of “for children.”

MIrror-Suzy-Lee

Suzy Lee’s eerie picturebook Mirror is a completely wordless picturebook that was published in 2003. This book is very short, very weird, and I honestly don’t quite know what to make of it. Lee’s website gives a fitting description: “This wordless picture book is about playing with the mirrored-self. A fold between two pages functions as a border between illusion and reality, and is a symbol of the symmetrical world. Discord between the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal’ leads to an unexpected end.”  The book depicts a girl playing with her mirrored image. The girl inhabits one side of the page and her reflection is depicted on the other. The spine acts as a divide.

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The girl and her reflection play happily until the reflection becomes uncooperative and this leads to an hauntingly strange ending and a collapse of our expectations of reality. A book that opens as a representation of the real challenges the physical and metaphysical boundaries of reality. This book would make a great present for a five year old or a fifty year old.

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Cybele Young’s Some Things I’ve Lost is a beautiful book, illustrated by photographing extremely detailed and complex miniature paper sculptures. This is a book that, while marketed as a picturebook, involves such impressive craftsmanship that it takes an adult to truly appreciate its intricacy. This book imagines what happens to our everyday items that often disappear, metamorphosing them into strange creatures.

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This is the transformation of a pair of headphones.

The frustrating experience of losing small personal items – never being able to find your keys, your umbrella, your favourite coffee mug – are uniquely adult. This postmodern picturebook challenges our understanding of content and form in children’s literature as well as our understanding of and expectation of reality. Young’s lost objects literally take on a life of their own and demand we rethink ordinary everyday objects. After all, we never will really know what happens to all those socks.

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Finally, I couldn’t write this post without including Shaun Tan. Throughout his career, Tan has reinvented the notion of a picturebook in both form and content. Tan often but not always uses the comic book style of sequential art, particularly in his works with little or no words. The Arrival is probably his most famous work to date. The arrival depicts a fantasy world in which a man is leaving his family and immigrating to a new country in order to give them all a better life. A common story in art, literature, and film but Tan takes this story to a whole new level within the medium of a picturebook.

The genius of this book is that in his new home, the man is confronted with fantastically strange things that are strange to all readers. This is the real experience of immigration: a person negotiating a new and strange world. Because Tan sets his book in a fantasy world ALL his readers, no matter where they live, experience the unnerving strangeness with the protagonist. Because this is a wordless book the reader must interpret the scene through the illustrations alone, again mimicking the “arrival” experience of being somewhere that speaks a “foreign” language. Just like our protagonist, we do not share a common language with the people in this new place.

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This book questions the gap between foreign and familiar while dealing with complex family dynamics, difficult themes, the struggles of immigration, and much more all through the stunning illustrations.

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Tan’s breathtaking illustrations capture in detail moments of real and complex human emotion.

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Tan’s genius picturebook conveys many different layers of emotion; some of them at a complexity too dense and too experience-based for a child to understand. This is a picturebook that speak to children and adults on different levels about the same idea. A child understands loss, sadness, and loneliness. An adult grasps the complexity of leaving loved ones behind out of necessity, the strangeness of living in a new place, the implications of racial prejudice, and many more ideas subtly introducted by Tan’s illuminating illustrations. Everyone should read this book.

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This is the final post of my postmodern picturebook series. I hope you enjoyed!

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