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Studying Postmodernism In Childrens Books

2492 words (10 pages) Essay in English Literature

27/04/17 English Literature Reference this

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Illustrations within children’s books were originally to enhance the reading of the text, bringing with them tangible or elusive reflections, through time as our culture has developed so has our literature, and subsequently their illustrations. As Goldstone (2009, p321) states ‘Postmodernism, whether reflected in picturebooks for children or in art and literature targeted for adult audiences, demonstrates a profound shift in societal perception and behavior’, and it is this shift in the last thirty years, from illustrated books to picture books which by increasing their visual complexity have become the sub-genre of the postmodern picturebook.

In definition modernism in literature and illustration, gave us boundaries, depth and a grand narrative. With post modernism, the surface becomes meaningful, there is no grand narrative or truth, and instead we get little narratives, an example of the postmodern picturebook is Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park (1999) [1] , where four small linear narratives create the non-linear story as a whole. The path of events in Voices is nonsequential, four individual voices, a young boy Charles and his suppressive upper class mother , Smudge a young girl and her unemployed father, each are presented successively in the text, describing a simultaneous trip to the park within the differing perspective of the narrator, or voice. The mood is set by each differing focus on storyline and illustrations, with each voice given a season, which reflects the emotion of the character.

To understand how the postmodern picturebook appeals to both adults and children, we shall utilise this picturebook and look at the strategies that are employed, and how they are interpreted and enjoyed by both adult and child readers.

Unlike the illustrated picture book , that shows an interpretation of the text and maintains a stable view of the world by following the rules and showing what we as a reader expect to see , the postmodern picturebook challenges our beliefs, and the simplicity of the world. The post modern author uses techniques such as nonlinearity, intertextuality, metafiction, innovation, parody, irony, and play to challenge the normality. Although the use of these characteristics are not unique, it is the experimental and innovation of their use, which defines the picturebook. (Goldstone, 2009)

The complex way of the visual structure and the variations in the relationships between words and images, work together to maintain the interest of the child reader, yet also capture the attention of the adult in their complexity.

One element used in achieving this is intertextuality, in that the images can have references to other media, for instance with Anthony Browne who both writes and illustrates his books, in order to fully appreciate the intertextuality you are required to be familiar with other forms of media such as fine art. Within Voices the image of Munches, The Scream appears on a newspaper, in the trees, and later in a Charles reflection on the slide. Browne also includes references to the surrealist painter Magritte, using his image of the bowler hat strongly in Voices to portray the overpowering image of Charles’s mother, other classical portraits such as the Mona Lisa, and Laughing Caviler are also included as illustrations, but not part of the textual story.

This is not to say all the illustrations exclude the less knowledgeable reader; there are also fairytale references, iconic film characters such as Mary Poppins and King Kong and many references to Browne’s own work from his previous books featuring gorillas all which bring accessibility to a wider range of audience. Additionally there is the element that while a child would not always have the life experiences to identify these intertextual elements, such as Magritte’s hats, and The Scream as Beckett (2001) states, they can still recognise and appreciate their inclusion, and will often recognise an image such as The Mona Lisa without identification, so saying their sophistication and understanding should not be underestimated.

Accordingly an adult reader may appreciate references to a more advanced meaning in what is essentially a children’s book, and additionally use this knowledge to deduce hidden or contextual meanings, and so allowing awareness of why the illustration was used leading to a more in depth knowledge of the storyline. For instance with voices The Scream image is perhaps reflecting Smudges fathers anguish and depression at not finding work , Charles’s discomfort and insecurity on the slide, and later his mothers anger in the trees, all expressive of the anxiety in the character , the inclusion of sophisticated intertextuality can bring interest to the older reader due to recognition, and analysis.

Within Voices, we also see intratextuality, the narrative being made up of four dialogues each with their own typeface communicating information about the characters, thin and careful depicting Charles’s unhappiness, and fun loving Smudge’s comic and playful. There are also many occurrences, where the synergy among the words and pictures creates indeterminacy, frequent illustrations and text within the book can be ‘read’ and interpreted in numerous ways, the characters are not dependable narrators , as each give their own opinion of the story in the text , the illustrations show the actual events. Such as Charles’s dog Victoria shown as chasing the other dog, while the Mother’s text gives ‘I shooed it off, but the horrible thing chased her all over the park’ (). Recognising and understanding this indeterminacy brings more insightful reading, we now recognise and distance ourselves form the mother’s derogatory manner, insightful reading which brings appeal to a wider audience.

This appeal also shows in the playfulness aspect of the picturebook, in Voices we are invited to decode the illustrations in a multitude of ways, While a child could recognise the image of Santa Claus dressed as a beggar, the parody of his ‘Wife and millions of kids to support’ () sign, may be lost to all but a more mature reader. While parodies hold the attention of the adult reader, children can fill in the gaps and construct meanings , as Beckett states , ‘they are commonly uses in picture books in order to provide different levels of complexity for readers of all ages ‘(E300, 242),.

Voices contains many levels and a multitude of other ‘secrets’ or visual jokes (Doonan, 1999) which divert the reading of each narrative and encourage you to search for secret images. Such inclusions that are easy identifiable to young readers, are those such as the elephant and the whale which appear as part of the trees, a crocodiles shadow seemingly eating a man, dogs joined as one running in opposite directions, as are the cyclists and a gorillas profile is in the trees and shrubs. Advancing further a lamppost in the woods has leanings to Narnia and The Mona Lisa and The Laughing Cavalier paintings help set the mood with their changes of expressions and actions. On a higher level , images identifiable without recognition to a young reader are Margaritte’s hat , which on Charles’s mother becomes a symbol of her power shadowing over Charles, a symbol used as trees , lampposts and clouds throughout his story , this is identifiable without the understanding that Margaritte used this image in his paintings where you are invited to question each artistic element , writing himself ‘I take care to paint only images which evoke the mystery of the world’ (Passernon , cited in Doonan 1999). Subsequently with this knowledge you look further into the meaning of the illustration, it intrigues the reader, multiple meanings at multiple levels, creating appeal to adults but without the exclusion of its readers who cannot decode the parody at more sophisticated levels, but can still recognise the intent, and appreciate its humour and playfulness (Beckett, 2001)

Another aspect of this playfulness is the use of paratext, the book as a whole, but around the story, such as the covers, contributions etc, and all equal game to the postmodern author. With Voices, Browne uses the gorilla caricature to illustrate his Children’s Laureate award medal, in other picturebooks every area of the book can be used ‘The Stinky Cheeseman (Scieszka, Smith, 1992) has a hen complaining about the ISBN number, taking most of the back cover. It may also contain information that gives insight or is vital to the story, Voices has the red Margaritte’s hat, on its first page, perhaps informing the reader that it plays an important part in the hidden meanings within the book indicating the mystery of the artistry. Yet again this technique can perplex the more sophisticated reader , as Sipe and McGuire state , ‘the paratext plays with us as readers and our traditional ways of reading…and provides a playful arena for the production of textual meaning'(Montgomery, 2009, p238). A ploy as they state that children were able to relate well to enjoy and derive considerable meaning from.

Metafiction within this genre stems from a non-linear narrative, the reader is reminded they are reading a book, usually in the form of self referential elements, within Wiesner’s The Three Pigs (cited in Goldstone, 2009); the wolf blows a pig right out of the story and across the page. In Voices inn order to make sense of the book as a whole, readers have to confront the non-linear characteristics of the multi stranded narratives presented. His characters are zoomorphic, people as animals, distancing the reader and emphasising the gap on fantasy and reality (Doonan 1999), and in doing so remind the reader that they are reading a book. Charles climbing the tree makes eye contact, and so acknowledges the reader, pleading with you to believe his story ‘I’m good at climbing trees so I showed her how to do it’ (Voices – no paig), ironic as Smudge is illustrated as a better tree climber than him. The first effect is to make you part of the book, no longer an outsider, the boundaries have been broken, an effect more readily accepted by the child reader than the adult.

Reynolds (Montgomery, 2009) makes us aware that children readily read non linear fiction, liking it to the roundabout process of computer games, where clues and subplots are accumulated and text is spatial .Adults may find it difficult to adapt with such aptitude, finding it more difficult to be distanced from the text, and the traditional reading expectations, yet the reader is placed in a more adult, active interpretive role, and is drawn into the book itself.

There are elements within picturebooks that are seemingly designed to appeal to particular age groups, we have seen that many intertextual and parody inclusions are at multiple levels. Anthony Browne in an interview states , that he is not intentionally condescending to children in his illustrations , and often draws what he believes children will appreciate (Browne, 2009), (),while some of his Inclusion of parody and intertextual elements are beyond the knowledge of the child , such as Margaritte’s surrealist paintings they do invite discussion between child and adult reader . For example the juxtaposition of the full page image of Charles mother loosing her temper with her hat or power leaving her head in Smudges’ story to that of the playfulness of the bandstand, where the hat is replaced by the protection of the bandstands roof, could be viewed as giving an interpretation of bad parenting, with her loss of control and over protectiveness leading to her loss of protection for Charles. A denotation that requires knowledge and detailed observation beyond a child reader, yet invites a new meaning that can then be discussed.

The elements of the picturebook combine to create meaning for both the adult and child reader, where these elements are beyond the limits of the child they invite discussion; they also help the young reader to expand their knowledge and experiences. This gives the child a ‘knowingness’ confidence and perhaps even a feeling of superiority in being let in on a secret of the literature (McNaughton). The elements of the postmodern picturebook invite multiple readings with differing conclusions; inn doing so it captures the interest of the adult reader, as it enters their world of knowledge and invites interpretation, analytic procedures or simply recognition, whether in the parody of text and illustration or fine art symbols. In doing so, it introduces the child to these images, in an environment of fun, maintaining their interest with its multiple levels of sophistication, and in a digital world embodies the notion of playing games almost interactivity within a book as we are invited to interpret, conclude, then to look again.

Beckett, S. (2001) ‘Parodic Play with Paintings in Picture Books’ in Lennox Keyser, E. and Pfeiffer, J. (eds) Children’s Literature, 29. London: Yale University Press, pp. 175-95.

Browne, A. (1999 [1998]) Voices in the Park. London: Picture Corgi.

EA300 DVD 2, no 6 ‘An Introduction to Illustration: Martin Salisbury’.

EA 300 DVD 2, no 7 ‘Interview with Anthony Browne’.

Goldstone, B. (2009) ‘Postmodern Experiments’ in Maybin, J. and Watson, N. J. (eds) Children’s Literature: Approaches and Territories. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 320-29.

Goodman, S. (2009) ‘Block 5: Words and Pictures’ in EA300 Study Guide: Children’s Literature. Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 205-50.

Goodman, S. (2009) ‘Introduction to Words and Pictures’ in Maybin, J. and Watson, N. J. (eds.) Children’s Literature: Approaches and Territories. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 296-99.

Grenby, M. (2009) ‘Children’s Literature: Birth, Infancy, Maturity’ in Maybin, J. and Watson, N. J. (eds) Children’s Literature: Approaches and Territories. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 39-55.

Jeffries, L. (2009) ‘The Language of Poems for Children: A Stylistic Case Study’ in Maybin, J. and Watson, N. J. (eds) Children’s Literature: Approaches and Territories. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 218-35.

Mackey, M. (2009) ‘Peter Rabbit: Potter’s Story’ in Montgomery, H. and Watson, N. J. (eds) Children’s Literature: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 87-95.

Moebius, W. (2009) ‘Picturebook Codes’ in Maybin, J. and Watson, N. J. (eds) Children’s Literature: Approaches and Territories. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 311-20.

Montgomery, H. (2009) ‘Block 5: Words And Pictures ‘ in EA300: Study Guide. Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. x-x. etc.

Reynolds, K. (2009) ‘Transformative Energies’ in Maybin, J. and Watson, N. J. (eds) Children’s Literature: Approaches and Territories. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 99-114.

Scott, C. (2009) ‘Perspective and Point of View in The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ in Montgomery, H. and Watson, N.J. (eds) Children’s Literature: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 100-13.

Squires, C. (2009) ‘ Marketing at the Millenium’ in Maybin J. and Watson, N. J. (eds) Children’s Literature: Approaches and Territories. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 183-98.

Whalley, J. (2009) ‘Texts and Pictures: A History’ in Maybin, J. and Watson, N. J. (eds) Children’s Literature: Approaches and Territories. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 299-310.

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