There is a little exercise that you can do if you have children: go through their shelves and count how many of their books deal in an overt way with what a book is and how books work. This includes all lift-the-flap books, all pop-up books and tactile books and books featuring physical contraptions or gimmicks, as well as the vast metafictional literature that introduces and at the same time messes with the conventions of storytelling or the medium. You’ll likely find that there are many.
I remarked at the time how peculiar to print technology this idea is, and that Elmer’s New Friend is a book that would be impossible to digitise (although arguably it could be remediated as an app for a portable device equipped with webcam). However what is more interesting to observe is how common children’s metafictions are. Early readers are about reading and early stories are about storytelling. First books are about book-ness. Like Don Quixote, the ur-texts are already parody of the mature texts to come; rote phrases like ‘once upon a time’ and ‘lived happily ever after’ already hint at their ironic inversion. This is the beginning of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883):
One upon a time there was...The entire novel is almost contained in those three lines: everything from its mischievous play with expectations and insistence to speak for the reader to its being – in the most emphatic sense – not about a king. You could almost stop reading it right there. (Although you shouldn’t.)
“A king!” my young readers will immediately say.
No, children, you are wrong. Once upon time there was a piece of wood.
A later Italian author, the great Gianni Rodari, also liked to pull his young readers into the fiction-making process. His Favole al telefono (‘fairy tales over the phone’) are stories told by a travelling salesman every night of the week to his daughter while he is on the road. They are short because the salesman has to pay for private phone calls out of his own pocket, and that small, casual observation is a whole thesis on literary form and the constraints of genre. This is the collection that includes ‘A sbagliare le storie’ (‘getting stories wrong’), about a grandfather who cannot tell – or plays at getting wrong – the story of Little Red-Riding Hood, to the immense and vocal frustration of his granddaughter.
However Rodari’s masterpiece was Il libro degli errori (‘the book of errors’), in which the source of the invention are mistakes of grammar and spelling, and the artful inability to get the gist or correctly interpret the moral of a story.
Mistakes are useful, as necessary as our daily bread and often even beautiful: for instance, the tower of Pisa.
Some of the best children’s books are about getting things wrong, or playing at getting things wrong: stories that seem to go hopelessly off-track until things are resolved, by the standard of good grown-up literature, badly. In the case of The Cat in the Hat, literally by a deus ex-machina.
And then there are the stories – is it all of them? – that are about the act of make-believe. My favourite is still Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea. ‘And Sophie found she couldn’t have her bath because the tiger had drunk all the water in the tap.’ Mother and daughter are just playing now. There was never a tiger in the house.
And then they go shopping and they buy a big can of tiger food in case the tiger should come to tea again. ‘But he never did.’ That is the last line in the book. It’s a game they only played once, although that is complicated, too, because I would have read the book to my daughter at least one hundred times and it’s likely to have been a ritual in many other households, if not with this book then with others. It’s make-believe and repetition. Savouring the surprise of what you already know by heart.
Lately we are quite fond of Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie books. It took me a few attempts to warm to them, but our four year old was enamoured from the beginning and the rest of the family gradually followed. I think what captured the boy’s attention were the big words and the big expressions. The world of elephant and piggie is full of intense feelings and exuberant theatrics. In I am Going!, Piggie states her intention to ‘go’ and Gerald (the elephant) is terrified that his friend might be leaving him forever, while she really only plans to have lunch. The entire 60-page book consists of that single dialogue, building to a paroxysm of drama. It’s Harold Pinter for children, except with more pathos.
Then last week we got out We Are in a Book!, which is about Piggie and Gerald first noticing that they are being watched by a reader, then realising that they are in a book.The first thing they do with this newly-acquired knowledge is to play a trick on the reader and get them to say the word ‘banana’. But when it’s Gerald’s turn to think of a jape ‘before the book ends’, that new realisation – that the book is going to end – precipitates another nervous crisis.
After some thoughts on how fast – too fast – the book goes and the fact that the pair ‘only want to be read’, a solution is found in a young reader’s habits and the recursive nature of children’s literature.
The book never ends. Like childhood. Or rather, like a model childhood producing and endless chain of model readers, all of them characters, all of them caught in the story.