Childrens Literature Collections
Exhibitions

Image from Where's Mum? The Gingerbread Man Meets Dali: Postmodernism and the Picture Book

Image from "Where's Mum?" by Libby Gleeson and Craig Smith

How is it that the Gingerbread Man of children's literature can become the Stinky Cheese Man; the Big Bad Wolf can become the technologically advanced Big Bad Pig; or a mother can sit down to tea with a house full of nursery rhyme characters? This and more has happened in the hands of innovative and ingenious picture book authors and illustrators.Traditional nursery rhymes and fairytales have been turned upsidedown, perceptions of cultural and political realities have created stark tensions and the physical structure of the book has been parodied. The literary and visual devices described here have specific application to the postmodern evaluation of picture books.


Some books intertwine familiar stories to create a new context, a device known as intertextuality. In Where's Mum? (1992) by Libby Gleeson and Craig Smith, a mother's late arrival home one Monday sees her three children suggesting reasons for her delay based on their knowledge of the world through children's books. Each double page juxtaposes Mum participating in a fairytale opposite an illustration of the reality of Dad coping at home. Fantasy images become larger as the ideas flow from the children, till fantasy becomes larger than reality. When Mum finally does arrive home, the single image covers a double page spread, with Dad peering around one doorway and Mum looking through the partly opened front door. The resolution of this climactic situation is truly postmodern when all the fantasy characters follow her in and share tea.

Mother on back of bicycle
driven by Mother Bear with Father Bear and Baby Bear
on their own bicycles

Where's Mum? by Libby Gleeson and Craig Smith

Traditional fairytale and rhyme characters are progressively introduced and linked to one another in Each peach pear plum (1983) by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Simple two line rhymes provide the clue to hidden figures of nursery rhyme fame in the illustration opposite. When the Three Bears reappear to rescue Baby Bunting, the reader makes the connections of setting, themes and game play.The final image of all characters sitting down to tea is a postmodern statement of intertextuality intertwining the game book format through each rhyme or tale.

The Paw (1993) by Natalie Jane Prior and Terry Denton draws on Robin Hood mythology within a contemporary setting. This is the story of Leonie's exploits by night as a cat burglar called the Paw, while by day she is a schoolgirl. Her exploits are superhuman and ingenious, often accompanied by a green crocodile of varying size. Terry Denton alludes to other artistic works, and creates surreal images such as computers in wardrobes and the vague indentation of a cat face on Leonie's pillow case.

Pencil drawing of baby Ned with dog

Ned a leg end: a thoroughly misleading account of his life and times (1984) by Susanne Ferrier
Susan Ferrier in Ned a leg end: a thoroughly misleading account of his life and times (1984) borrows from the heroic legend of Ned Kelly using anachronisms and irony to parody popular myth. Layout is designed to resemble a photo album, with clipped corners to the framed images. The text occurs in speech bubbles or as shop notices and signage. The illustrations traverse Ned's life from an armoured Ned as a child through various misdeeds to his graduation from the Mad Dog Morgan Academy.. Discovery of the Welcome Stranger nugget, the story of the Eureka Stockade and Ned's legend are all jumbled together in crime ridden chaos.

Other parodies of traditional fairytales put their fictionality on display by questioning fairytale conventions. Fiona French transports Snow White to the New York night club scene of the 1930s where the poisoned apple becomes a poisoned cherry in Snow White's cocktail. This story begins with the traditional fairytale opening of 'once upon a time...', yet setting and language contradict the familiar story. Puns include Snow White's stepmother's fetish for seeing herself in the New York Mirror.

Eugene Trivitas locates The three little wolves and the big bad pig (1993) within the familiar discourse of fairytale, but reverses the roles and imbues the story with contemporary resources and technology. The Big Bad Pig knocks the first house of bricks down with a sledgehammer, the second house of concrete is demolished with a pneumatic drill, and the third very strong house of armour plating is blown up with dynamite. Despite the pig's violence the wolves are able to save their china teapot in each demolition. The pig finally succumbs to the appeal of the fragile house of flowers. As he takes a deep breath to huff and puff, the perfume kindles his gentler nature.

The juxtaposition of apparently disparate stories is a device used in the postmodern evaluation of picture books. The high fantasy text of Drac and the Gremlin (1991) is in tension with the realistic illustrations of the game of dress- ups. Illustration size and placement varies throughout the story, some free form with no demarcation between end of illustration and start of text. The story describes the adventures of Drac the Warrior Queen of Tirnol Two who joins forces with the Gremlin of Groaning Grotto in battle against their enemies. The images reveal the game of dress up and how the household animals are the evil foes against the brother and sister. Here the illustrations actually resignify text.

John Burningham uses excess and indeterminacy in many of his picture books. Two separate stories are told in Come away from the water, Shirley (1977). A trip to a pebbly English beach for Shirley and her parents have entirely separate contexts. Text records the monologue of the preoccupied parents. Drawings of the parents are minimal in colour on the same page as text, evocative of the drabness of routine. Opposite, Shirley's full colour adventure extends some element of the monologue into full fantasy with pirates and hidden treasure. This is an interesting subtle understatement of the contrast between reality and fantasy, maturity and youth, with the final lack of closure adding to the ambiguity. Burningham's second Shirley book, Time to get out of the bath, Shirley (1978), relies on the device of indeterminacy where the relationship between two themes are deliberately disconnected. Would you rather... (1978) uses the device of excess to unsettle the reader with extravagant images accumulating to an unstable crescendo. The reader's initial certainty about the option they would choose becomes discomfort as the options assume extreme proportions and our conclusions become less defined.

Narrative discontinuity in Fulvio Testa's The paper aeroplane (1981) is more complex in the juxtaposition of different perspectives. The opening image of a boy flying a paper aeroplane from a window is followed by the image of the boy in a small aeroplane while the third picture is of two children flying a bird shaped kite over a stark landscape. The final image in the book returns to the paper aeroplane being launched but the view is from inside the room. There is no closure in this narrative, instead there is a sense of the cycle beginning again. Text in this story does not link the images, thwarting our expectations of continuity.

A device described as boundary breaking is most clearly apparent in Monique Felix's Story of a little mouse trapped in a book (1981). This wordless picture book captures in image form an initially distraught mouse physically trapped inside a book. As it nibbles a blank page, a coloured illustration becomes visible on the page beneath. Intrigued by the unfolding scene in the farm below, the mouse folds the now loose blank page into a paper aeroplane. When the sun emerges from a shower over the farm, the mouse flies down into the grain field, transcending one storyline to another. In this way the actual structure of the book is fictionalised.

Anthony Browne's picture books are striking studies in postmodernism. His combination of impossible pictures, surrealism, parody and ironic interplay produce powerful social comment. In Willy the wimp (1984), masculine fantasies of bodybuilding and aggression are parodied in the anthropomorphic character of Willy. To protect himself and his girlfriend, Millie, Willy pursues the advertising myth of 'might is right' only to subsequently wound his bravura in his collision with a lamp post.

In Gorilla (1983) the child's sense of isolation is tangible in the chilling, impersonal illustration of Hannah and her father sharing breakfast. The kitchen is ordered and neat, square shapes are repeated from the cupboards and wallpaper to the shadow cast by the table. Colours accentuate the sense of clinical detachment. With the excitement of the night before her birthday, Browne changes small things in the illustrations; the top of the bannister post is carved into a gorilla head, the picture near the stairs is Mona Lisa like in pose yet bears a gorilla's head.

Zoo (1992) is ostensibly the story of a family's visit to a zoo and their different emotional responses to the caged animals. The reader becomes increasingly uncomfortable with Browne's exposure of attitudes. Images of the family are small, irregular in outline, stylized portraits, often looking straight at the reader. Surrealistic elements include a man with a beak like nose and a suited figure with a pigs head. In contrast the animals and their enclosures have a thick dark border, style is realistic and often the animals are turned away. These two types of illustration create a tension between reality and self delusion. The boy's dream of being caged at the conclusion is poignant as is his question about the animals' ability to dream. Black end papers are linked to the theme and visually convey a sense of the story, reader and animals trapped within their own cages.

Browne's illustrations to McAffee's text The visitors who came to stay (1984) allude to the works of the artist, Manet. Here again text and illustrations are in apposition. Katie's life with her father is described in the text as loving and comfortable, in contrast to the bleak illustrations representing Katie's emotional isolation. Visually Katie is alone, diminutive and impotent within the larger makeup of life, while the narrative describes a near idyllic family relationship. Lack of resolution has a disquieting effect.

Two books which comment on the plight of homeless children are Maurice Sendak's We are all in the dumps with Jack and Guy (1993) and Libby Hathorn's Way Home (1994). Michele Lonsdale (1994) examines these books in the light of the postmodern impulse to de- marginalise the marginalised. Sendak's images are haunting in his story of two boys who rescue an abducted baby and return it to a makeshift home of cardboard boxes and garbage bins. Images of menace range from feral kittens to savage rats while the vulnerability of the children is epitomised by the image of children huddled together, sheltering under newspapers which carry advertisements extolling the advantages of housing investment. In Way Home Libby Hathorn describes the sequence of fantasies of a homeless boy who rescues a cat, taking it back to his home of old tyres and boxes. Street life for Shane involves the perils of rival thuggery and the necessity for swift escape. Visually, the torn page effect emphasises the tension between Shane's fantasies and the reality of street life. Closure in both books suggest success of rescue is fleeting, comfort ephemeral and survival dogged. Our expectations of 'living happily ever after' are thwarted.

Dichotomy of viewpoint is given tangible credence in Charles Keeping's Inter- city (1977). The single muted colours used for the interior of the train carriage personify boredom while the colourful view through the train window creates interest and excitement. The illustrations comment on human relationships, the attitudes of the train passengers to their neighbours, the lack of privacy that close proximity necessitates and the anonymity cherished by each traveller.

In Night noises (1989), the present and past combine in each illustration. As we move forward in time with eirie noises about the house on the night of Lily Laceby's ninetieth birthday, we simultaneously travel along Lily's dreams backwards into her childhood. The dream sequence is evocative of the celebrated children's book, Tom's midnight garden, thus employing the postmodern device of multiple narratives.

David Macaulay warns the reader on the title page of Black and White (1990) that this book appears to contain a number of stories which are not necessarily sequential but may also contain only one story. This picture book forces the reader to construct the story by creating a cohesiveness between apparently disparate information and visual clues. The final image subverts the reader's attempts at cohesion by intruding a hand from outside the narrative. Activating the reader in the creative process, lack of closure and resolution truly challenge our notions of picture book convention.

The works of David Wiesner can be evaluated in terms of surrealism, excess, indeterminacy, changing perspective and lack of closure. With minimal text Tuesday (1991) follows the journey taken one evening by some frogs. The impossible- surreal aspect is that the frogs fly on their lily pads from their pond, over a township, into houses and back to their pond. Illustrations have a realistic style yet Wiesner is able to invoke character in the frog visage without any sense of absurdity. Perspective changes from observer to fellow traveller creating an engaging empathy with the reader. Wiesner continues this challenge to reality the next Tuesday evening when pigs take flight, an ending challenging the conventions of closure.

In Wiesner's book June 29, 1999 (1992) Holly Evans launches her vegetable seedling experiment in early May to study the effects of extra terrestrial conditions on their growth. On the day of the title, enormous vegetables appear across American skies. Humour exists in rhyming vegetables with town names, ironic allusions, the realism in the illustrations and the suggestion that this is a result of Holly's experiment. When vegetables appear that Holly was not growing, her question of just where her's went is answered by aliens. Irony is used in newspaper articles and allusions to American culture.

Spooner of later (1992) by Paul Jennings, Ted Greenwood and Terry Denton irreverently juxtaposes various styles and ideas in unexpected ways. Each illustration is edged in gilt, rococo splendour, attesting to some aspect of contradiction. The rhyming introduction playfully sets the stage to follow with information about spoonerism and how it operates. Close inspection of each ornate frame to the pages reveals endless incongruities; pillars resembling legs with polka dot socks; rose entwined pillars supporting digital mobile telephones; and a floral, scrolled pedestal through which a motorbike emerges. The reader is challenged to unscramble and rearrange meaning and is therefore made more aware of the rule governed nature of language.

In The stinky cheese man and other fairly stupid tales (1992) Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith have combined surreal illustrations with a riotous parody of traditional fairytales, book construction, design and content. The title page comes after the Little Red Hen has started her story of personal industry over a kernel of wheat. Jack the narrator, an irascible figure appearing in various illustrations, tries to call Chicken Licken into line for starting before the contents page, the print of which is crumpled because the table of contents fell and squashed everybody. Traditional fairytales receive irreverent treatment while illustrations vary from surreal to macabre collage. Humour is unpredictable with changes from vaudevillian slapstick to sophisticated puns. The tale of Cinderella becomes Cinderumpelstiltskin or the girl who really blew it. Text formatting is particularly avant garde in Jack's bean problem, with the first sentence squashed by the giant's boot and the narrator's irritation with the giant speaking in upper case. The postmodern fate of the Gingerbread Man is his transformation into the Stinky Cheese Man, who disintegrates in the river after the fox has gagged and sneezed because of his smell. This pacey composite of tales uses irony, excess, indeterminacy, parody, intertextuality and surrealism to subvert our expectations of fairytales.

Analysis of picture books involves decoding pictorial, cultural and linguistic codes. This selection of picture books plays with or subverts literary and visual conventions in ways prescriptive of postmodernism. In these books prediction, expectation and resolution are challenged and the fictionality and structure of the picture book is questioned. It is apparent that as one facet of the analysis of picture books, postmodernism has an intriguing application.

Juliet O'Conor
Email: julietoc@slv.vic.gov.au

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