Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Picture Books and Metafiction ~ by Patricia Toht

Recently, as I was trying to stay out of the brutal Chicago cold, I popped into Barnes & Noble to warm up with hot chocolate and a stack of children's books. Entering the kids' section, I was greeted by this sign:



And below the sign, this collection of books:




So what "new kind" of stories are these? They are all works that employ the literary device of metafictionMetafiction is defined as "fiction that deals, often playfully and self-referentially, with the writing of fiction or its conventions." Or, as Philip Nel, professor of English at Kansas State University explains, metafiction is "fiction about fiction. A book that reflects on what a book is or could be; it self-consciously plays with the form of the book." (Although B&N's displayed titles are newer ones, metafiction is not new -- note some of the publication dates below.)

Have you ever heard of "breaking the fourth wall"? This phrase is what sent me on a search that uncovered the world of metafiction for me. The term derives from the theater, where a stage has a back wall, two side walls, and a transparent fourth "wall" that marks the  separation of actors from their audience. The fourth wall is broken when an actor (or a writer) speaks to or engages the audience. 


The Monster at the End of this Book (1971), by Jon Stone and Mike Smollin, a favorite from my childhood, was probably my first encounter with metafiction. The book breaks the fourth wall as Grover pleads with the reader to not turn the page. 





Chloe and the Lion (2012), by Mac Barnett and Adam Rex is a brilliant example of breaking the fourth wall. In fact, Adam Rex sets the action on a stage, which heightens the effect. In this story, the author and illustrator wreak havoc in the story when they are not happy with each other's work.



Another metafictive device is writing a story in which the main character writes his/her own story. Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), by Crockett Johnson, is an example, where Harold determines his own storyline with his purple crayon.

Aaron Becker's books Journey (2013) and Quest (2014) utilize this same type of device.



In David Wiesner's The Three Pigs (2001) the characters show an awareness that they are in a story (or blown out of it), which is metafictive.





In some metafictional books, readers of the story force the author to "change" the story. B. J. Novak's hit, The Book With No Pictures (2014), doesn't so much change a story as force the person reading it aloud to say all kinds of crazy things. Watching young children react to this book is a sheer delight!





Spot the Plot: A Riddle Book of Book Riddles (2009), by J. Patrick Lewis and Lynn Munsinger, is an example of a book that references other books through clever riddle poems.







Perhaps my favorite new metafictional release is This book just ate my dog! (2014) by Richard Byrne. Using the physical conventions of the book, characters in the story keep disappearing into the gutter at the center. It takes a hefty shake by the reader to release them.



Why is metafiction so popular? Perhaps it is physical interaction added to the mental interaction that the reader experiences.  Perhaps it is the capacity for quirky humor, as many metafictional books are funny ones. Philip Nel says that "the best metafictional works can encourage readers to reflect upon what they're reading or watching, allowing them to step outside of some of the conceptual boxes that enclose them...[They] invite readers to question rather than accept received realities." I love Mac Barnett's reflection that he works very hard to break the fourth wall in the opposite direction -- he doesn't want the reader to enter into the book, he wants his fiction to leak out into the world.

Check out some of the other books from the B&N display above and search for others on your library shelves. Then tell me, what are your favorite metafictional books, readers?

To hear Philip Nel talk about metafiction, click here.

To hear Mac Barnett's TED talk, click here.

44 comments:

  1. This was a great lesson on metafiction! I need to try writing one of these stories. Seems like fun!

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  2. Just picked up THIS BOOK JUST ATE MY DOG! Thanks for the lesson, and the links. Obviously another trip to the library is in order. :-)

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    1. Let me know what other goodies you find, Pat.

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  3. Ooh, I like this Idea for a book. This was new to me. Thanks, Patricia.

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    1. Glad it was a helpful post, Sherri. Go explore some more metafiction!

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  4. Loved the fusion of story and interactivity in THIS BOOK JUST ATE MY DOG!

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    1. Me, too, Darshana! Such a clever premise!

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  5. Best discussion of metafiction in picture books I've seen! Great post!

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  6. This is a great explanation :) Thanks!

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    1. Thanks, Diane! Metafiction is certainly enjoying a burst of picture books these days.

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  7. Super post! I love PBs that think outside the box.

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  8. Great post Patricia :) Love these books!

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  9. Thanks, Dawn! Hope 2015 is a good writing year for you. :)

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  10. Patty: I always say grow and learn every day. You have taught me something new today!I am intrigued by the concept of metafiction using play with the next. I note many favorite books that you listed that I did not know were concered metafiction. Another favorite bookis We Are In A Book By Mo Willems. ~Suzy

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  11. This is a great post. I love these types of books (it all started with my undying LOVE for The Monster at the End of This Book) but never knew what the term was for them. Metafiction- cool!!

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    1. Thanks, Carol. I wasn't familiar with the term either until I started digging, but I knew I loved those kinds of books!

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  12. I did into know the term, Patty, but I know the books and love them. I think Chris Van Allsburg's Bad Day at Riverbend Hardcover – October 30, 1995,also fits this mold to some degree. I had kids bringing me the book saying, "mrs. Halsey someone wrote on this book in crayon."

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    1. I haven't seen that Van Allsburg book, Kathy. Off to the library!

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  13. Thanks for this post, Patricia - a great look at this type of book!

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  14. Pat, thank you for the fun post! I think the kids/adults love the humor and the unexpected style.

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    1. Did you get a chance to watch the video with B.J. Novak, Janie? Boy, are those kids having fun! Reminds me of another video of a group of kids enjoying Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.

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    1. Glad you liked it, Stephanie. Thanks for stopping by!

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  16. Dear Patty,

    I have laughed & otherwise enjoyed my way through this post & links, the liveliest way I've seen this topic presented - appreciations!

    Two titles to add as you've asked -
    Each Peach Pear Plum by the Allbergs, Allan & Janet
    The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

    Interestingly, young readers tastes can change regarding metafiction. Our gal giggled through countless readings of There is a MONSTER at the End of This Book! Her voracious high school years' elective/personal reading shied away from metafiction - she wanted to be lost in the story & thought being directly addressed as a reader took her out of it.

    I think picture books are an ideal format for metafiction.

    More thanks for the links - it's a hoot to see Phil Nel use metafiction in his own video. That man is so clever.

    Mac Barnett is new to me so now I want to learn his titles.

    SPOT the PLOT sounds ideal for me so thanks for the alert to this new one from Lewis/Munsinger.

    Brava for this roundup!

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    1. Interesting comment about your daughter, Jan. I know there was quite a mixed reaction to the author comments in The Tale of Despereaux. (I personally have a crush on Kate DiCamillo and everything she writes.) I hadn't thought of Each Peach Pear Plum. Thanks for the thoughtful suggestions!

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    2. Kate DiCamillo is 'da bomb! My dream is that someday she decides to add editing with her own imprint, to writing & that she considers publishing one of mine. Have you read THE TIGER RISING? It was earlier, before BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE. She won the National Book Award for TTR, if memory is correct.
      Again, grrrre8t post!
      Again - grrre8t post.

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  17. I loved this post! I challenged myself to write one of these last year. After 16 revisions, many of which are complete rewrites, I am still working on it. Fun stuff, yet challenging, too. :)

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    1. Keep going, Carrie! I know you can make it work!

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  18. Awesome post, Pat! This is the first time I've ever heard of Metafiction, and I love the idea of fashioning one myself!

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  19. Great post! If I'm not writing, I love reading about writing! And now I know what metafiction is.

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    1. Thanks, Carol. So glad you stopped by.

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  20. Awesome breakdown of metafiction in picture books!

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  21. I wasn't certain what metafiction was until I read this blog. Thanks for the delightful way of explaining it.

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  22. Great post. In journalism we'd call this "editorializing".... you know, talking to the reader. A big no-no in nonfiction, but it works for these really fun books.

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  23. Thank you for breaking this down into different kinds of metafiction. I hadn't seen that before. The Monster at the End of This Book was such a hit with my kids.

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  24. Thank you for breaking this down into different kinds of metafiction. I hadn't seen that before. The Monster at the End of This Book was such a hit with my kids.

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