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Postmodernism in Children'sBooks

Mary

H. McNulty

Francis

Marion

University

O¥er the past ten years the lines between adulthood and childhood have become

share with adults many

video games, and the VCR have

made traditionally adult fare readily available for children's consumption within their own homes. Children today are wearing the same designer clothes as the adults, just cut

adult crimes, and sometimes they are being

tried as adults.

of the blurring of the lines between childhood and adulthood is the

booming sale of children's books. In fact, it is the only comer of the publishing field that has experienced growth in the past decade. We have witnessed the Harry Potter books taking the lead on the New York Times best seller list. Right now children and adults alike are awaiting the publication of the sixth book in the Harry Potter saga. In England

these books were published also with a cover suitable for adult-just

reader would not be embarrassed by being seen reading a child's book in public. According

hands. to one publisher's

increasingly blurred. fonns of entertainment.

Through

access

to the media, the Internet,

children

The television,

on a smaller scale. Children are committing

Where does childhood

Another indication

end and adulthood

begin?

so that the mature

estimate, one third of all children's

books sold never get into children's

Perhaps now more than ever we are awakening to the truth of the statement C. S. Lewis made almost fifty years ago: "When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if! had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grownup" (210). Or the words of John Rowe Townsend: "I believe that children's books must be judged as part of literature in general and therefore by much the same standards as "adult" books. A good children's book must not only be pleasing to children. It must be a good book in its own right" (8).

The Children's Literature Association has done some pioneering work in developing recognition for scholarship in this field. Now the MLA holds special sessions on children's literature, and many English departments offer courses in literature for children. Today

scholarly articles on Alice

their way into print.

written about Dickens or Hawthorne,

fields for critical cultivation. As its best, this criticism has resulted in greater appreciation

and respect for the multi-layered

in Wonderland and the Wind in the Willows are now finding

Students of literature, after realizing that there isn't much more to be

find that juvenile

literature holds vast unploughed

insights of some childhood

favorites, such as Burnett's

The Secret Garden. At its worst, this criticism attempts to prove that the Babar the Elephant books ought to be burned as imperialistic propaganda and that Sendak's award- winning picture book In the Night Kitchen is full of scatology and quite unsuitable for young children. Children's texts, both old and new, are now scrutinized through the lenses of contemporary literary theory. Contemporary literary theory also has a role in the creation of these texts as well as in

the criticism

reader.

of them, and as a result, the books themselves

demand a more sophisticated

Many books written for children over the past ten years, whether they be picture

books or the longer chapter books, bear the influence

of postmodernism.

Some of the

influence is visual as well as textual.

.

Experimental

fonns,

the play with words and fonns,

self-referential

irony, and the

questioning

of ultimate

33

.

POSTSCRIPT

meaning

are not limited to adult work.

In David Macaulay's

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Black and White, a 1991 Caldecott

Award picture book, the narrative,

as well

as the

is divided into four strands. The author states at the beginning

that the four strands may combine into one story, or they may not. The double pages of the book are divided into quarters, with each quarter telling a different story, distinguished by differences in text and artistic style. The black and white of the dog, the escaped convict, the newspaper, and Holstein cows are so blurred together in the illustrations and the text that the reader can have several explanations for the story or stories. Indeed, adult readers often complain because this does not fit their preconceived notion of what

a picture book should be. The best known of postmodern

picture books is The Stinky Cheeseman and Other

Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Sciezka and illustrated by Lane Smith. In this book, one can view postmodern play at its best. It has a self-conscious play with the conventions of the picture book fonnat, as well as the overturn of the expected story line. The title page, the endpapers, and the table of contents are all altered to show a self-conscious awareness of the conventions, which, in turn, call the reader's attention to that which we take for granted. The dedication page is printed upside down. The Jack figure, who serves as the book's narrator, says: "I know. I know. The page is upside down. I meant to do that. Whoever looks at that dedication stuff anyhow? If you really want to read it-you can always stand on your head." The book has a surgeon general's warning: "It has been detennined that these tales are fairly stupid and probably dangerous to your health." The

Little Red Hen constantly interrupts the narrative. The table of contents is found after the first story of the book, and the Giant tells a story that is a stringing together of all of the fonnulaic phrases found in our Western fairy tale tradition. One does not have to

deconstruct this work to show that it does not

her article "Postmodernism,

"alters book elements that kids do not even know, or do not know they know; often the

book teaches convention by subverting it" (33). Children know trom observing many

texts that the convention of the printed page is a consistency in font size but Jack's story

illustration,

of the book

cohere.

.As Deborah Stevenson states in

the book

Self-referentiality,

and The Stinky Cheeseman,"

is

a repetition

of the same text in decreasingly smaller font. The book is postmodern not

in

text alone.

The final endpaper is placed earlier in the book by Jack the Giantkiller in

ord~r to fool the giant into thinking that the book is finished! Roger Sutton refers to the

technique ofScieszka's book as bibliometricks, which calls attention to the fact of writing and book making (qtd. in Stevenson 34). In the same vein, Goldilocks and the Three Hares has the same playfulness with convention. Also here the self-reflectiveness of a postmodern work is displayed by the foolish banter of the mice who, at the bottom of the page, offer comments on themselves, the story, and even the publisher. The title page of this book does not differ much trom the cover, but our attention is called to the fact that the characters are grumbling about having to hold the same pose. Also the mice are making puns on the names of Putnam and Grosset. Another postmodern aspect of this book is its attempt at intertextuality. Goldilocks, in entering the house of the three hares, falls down a rabbit hole, thus

associating

her adventures in the same manner. Postmodernism found its ultimate place in the picture book with the publication of David Wiesner's The Three Pigs in 2001. A winner of the 2002 Caldecott Medal for its excellent illustration, The Three Pigs questions all that one takes for granted about stories, character development, and language. Although the book begins with the conventional plot of the three pigs and the big bad wolf, it soon becomes apparent that the pigs are going to take control of their own plot. They escape trom the story, deconstruct it, play

her with another literary child, Alice of Alice

in Wonderland, who entered

MARVH. MCNULTY.

34

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'.I.

.'

with it, and explore other possibilities. Other characters are introduced into the plot and reshape it. When the pigs decide to reconstruct the story, meaning is displaced. The wolfis no longer a major factor in the story. Language falls apart. The conventional sentences are not completed. Instead of the wolffalling through the chimney into the pot of boiling water, the wolf is pushed aside by the pigs' powerful ally, the dragon. The pigs, the cat, and the dragon at the end of the book are pictured eating alphabet soup (The letters of the alphabet have been collected trom the unfinished stock phrases of the text). The wolf is alienated and pictured outside the cozy dwelling that the pigs have reconstructed for themselves out of the outworn conventional tale.

Interestingly, too, the story has its own intertextuality because Weisner has embedded characters and scenes from his previous picture books. The dragon comes from his 1988 Free Fall, and one ofthe scenes that the pigs pass through in their travels is a variation of page from his 1991 Tuesday, also a CaldecottAward winner. The boy dreamer from Free Fall also makes a cameo appearance in the Three Pigs, and the pigs themselves bear close resemblance to the pigs found briefly in both Free Fall and Tuesday. All of this leads to a number of questions. Do these books serve as a training ground to develop more sophisticated readers, readying them for adult fare? Are the books intended for an adult audience, those connoisseurs of children's books who believe that books have no boundaries in their readership? Has "literary quality" become more

important than conveying an easily apprehended

which these books raise is perhaps

story?

The best answer to the questions

in the words of Perry Nodelman:

Our obligation is to allow [children] to know as much as possible about the world

they share with us, to enrich their experience in ways that will allow them to develop deeper consciousness of who they are. And because literature and techniques of responding to it are not only a part of that world but windows opening onto the rest of it, I believe that children particularly need and can be taught to share our own strategies for

making sense of literature.

Picture books such as The Three Pigs can aid the college student as well. Weisner presents to the viewer postmodernism in a visual form. It has been commonly known that some students comprehend better in the visual mode than in the verbal. By looking at a traditional tale and breaking down this well known text, visually deconstructing it, playing with it, allowing it to interact with other texts, stripping it of its meaning and showing the inadequacy of words, students can better grasp the postmodern, which questions all that we take for granted about language, tradition, and experience.

(41)

35.

POSTSCRIPT

Works Cited

Lewis, C.S. "On Three Ways of Writing for Children." in Egoff, Sheila et aI., ed.

Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature, second ed. Toronto: Oxford, 1980.

Macaulay, David.

Black and White. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

Nodelman, Perry.

The Pleasures of Children's Literature, second ed. NY: Longman,

1996.

Petach, Heidi. Goldilocks and the Three Hares. New York: Putnam and Grosset, 1995. Scieszka, John, and Lane Smith. The Stinky Cheeseman and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. New York: Viking Penguin, 1992. Stevenson, Deborah. "'If You Read This Last Sentence, It Won't Tell You Anything:

Postmodernism, Self-Referentiality, and The Stinky Cheese Man." Children's Literature Association Quarterly, 19 (Spring, 1994): 32-34 Townsend, John Rowe. Writtenfor Children. London: Miller, 1965. Wiesner, David. Free Fall. New York: Morrow, 1988. Three Pigs. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Tuesday. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1991

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