Tuesday, December 4, 2012

We are in a book

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 discussed some time ago a book that belongs to a couple of those categories. In David McKee’s Elmer’s New Friend, a rumour spreads through the jungle that Elmer the patchwork elephant has a new friend, and various animals speculate as to whom it could be. Finally the reader is invited to look through some foliage – there they will find Elmer’s new friend. And there, amongst the trees, is a rectangular strip of reflective paper. The reader is caught in the story. Elmer’s new friend is you.

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...
“A king!” my young readers will immediately say.
No, children, you are wrong. Once upon time there was a piece of wood.
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 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.


Danielle said...

My favourite of books about bookness is The Monster at the End of This Book, in which Sesame Street's Grover, reading the title, tries desperately to stop us turning the pages to get to the end because he is "scared of monsters". He ties the pages together, he builds a brick wall, but we are inexorable. One guess who the monster turns out to be.

Mike said...

Danielle, that's exactly the book I was thinking of too. No mere Muppet can thwart a reader's desire to turn the page. The dramatic tension grows, the pitiless child ignores Grover's increasingly desperate pleas. Any kid with a shred of conscience would just Google the ending, but no, the little monsters read on until they find themselves at the end of the book—no need for a reflective panel.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Coincidentally some friends came over on Sunday and I was the only one who didn't know about this book. I see it also has a sequel.

The Pencil is another book with a metafictional monster in it (an eraser). It's clever but I honestly find it a little perturbing.

Dougal said...

Is the last line of "The Tiger Who Came to Tea" 'but he never did' or 'good-bye', which is what is coming out of the Tiger's trumpet in the illustration on that page?

Something else children's books (picture books) lets you do is have your referent and eat it: there never was a tiger, sure, but also, of course there was, and here he is bidding you goodbye. Unlike the more trying whimsy of more self-consciously 'literary' metafiction in grown-ups books (what China Mieville attacks when he calls magic realism literature that 'doesn't believe in its own metaphors'), Judith Kerr's work seems to powerful to me because it's comfortable with the multiple readings being left dangling. There's no 'higher' level or 'deeper' reading.

Something else that'd be interesting to ponder in the print/digital shift is how much effort has to go in to teaching dealing with books and reading in the appropriate linear fashion. My daughter always wants to go backwards to an earlier favourite page or image as the book is being read. But even (often....)when the text is boring or irritating me I surprise myself with a strong desire to read it 'properly' and in order.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"Something else that'd be interesting to ponder in the print/digital shift is how much effort has to go in to teaching dealing with books and reading in the appropriate linear fashion."

Definitely, in fact there are books that are about the order in which you're supposed to read a book (The Very Hungry Caterpillar), or that teach you the order of other things (the alphabet or numbers) based on the knowledge of how to read a book.

You're quite right on Kerr too, and I do wonder if it was at least partly the inspiration for Bill Watterson's equally wonderful Calvin & Hobbes. The world with adults in it in which Hobbes is a stuffed tiger is not any more real than Calvin’s. As for which is the last line, yes, there are more words on the same page coming out of the tiger's little toy trumpet. We could probably discuss endlessly what kind of text it is (who interprets the music as words?) and whether or not it comes after "But he never did". I might have to revise my statement.

merc said...

Gio wrote, "...(although arguably it could be remediated as an app for a portable device equipped with webcam)."
There's an app for that ;-)

kebabette said...

This is the magic that never leaves. Thanks Giovanni, and thanks to Danielle and Mike - I'd forgotten about the Monster at the end of the book. Have been grabbing those old golden books at fairs if I can find them. There is also the uncanniness of books with holes - there seems to have been more lately. Kids can put their face in the hole and become the story. Herve Tullet's The Book with a hole for example http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-85437-946-7

Pete said...

I always enjoyed the style of chapter headings Henry Fielding put in Tom Jones. E.g. "BOOK I — Containing as much of the birth of the foundling as is necessary or proper to acquaint the reader with the beginning of this history." So the reader not only engages with the narrative, but the metanarrative.

The inclusion of an intrusive narrator is quite fun, I think and it is often used in YA literature.

sallyz said...

Interesting post, thank you - just wondering if you're familiar with Bad Day at Riverbend by Chris van Allsburg - one of my favourite titles of the many in this ilk ...

Anne R said...

Oscar's Book sort of takes the same form as The Monster at the End of This Book, where Oscar gets grumpy at the reader but realises that when they go away he won't have anyone to yell at.

Also thinking of Don't Let The Pigeon Ride The Bus, which isn't quite the same, but has the characters interacting with the reader.

Made me think about other books though--unless it's a pointed stylistic feature, as in your examples, I don't usually want to be reminded that I'm reading a book. In both Narnia and The Hobbit, the reminders that the story has a narrator are a bit jarring at times. (I think that's partly because C.S. Lewis gets hella preachy--"When I was at school we would've said 'I swear by the Bible'" yech). The beauty of writing often comes when you forget that any person has written it.

Tamara said...

Fascinating Gio, we must reread the Tiger who came to Tea now!

One we have read recently of this kind is "The Neat Line: Scribbling Through Mother Goose" by Edwards and Blumenthal. My children loved it. The scribble was born and grew into a neat line, wriggled into a book and then went through nursery rhymes helping the characters out. Charming!

John said...

I've no idea if Julia Donaldson has ever read Calvino but it wouldn't be a surprise if Charlie Cook's Favourite Book was her attempt to adapt If on a Winter's Night a Traveller for toddlers. (It's no The Snail and the Whale, but neither is it a Smartest Giant in Town.)

Megan Clayton said...

If you have children, go through their shelves,
You'll likely find that there are many.
The reader is caught in the story, the ur-texts
are already parody. You could almost stop reading.

Immense and vocal frustration, inability to
get the gist. Getting things wrong, a deus
of make-believe. It's a
game they only played once, although that

is complicated too: what you already know
by heart, except with more pathos. They are
being watched by a reader. They are in a book.
Play a trick on the reader. The book never ends.

Grunt said...

Our current favorite Elephant and Piggie story is "Should I Share My Ice Cream" to which I always say "NO!!!!!" and then slam the book closed and say "The End". This elicits fits of giggles and the instruction that I continue reading the book.

And don't bother with the sequels to "The Monster at the End of this Book." Pale copies of the original

jennifer mills said...

I was talking about this exact phenomenon recently. My wife is a primary school teacher and her (5/6yo) kids are enamoured of the Elephant and Piggie books, as I was of The Monster at the End of This Book in the 80s. E & P are dialogues, which makes them theatrical. We thought that perhaps for children, these border-crossing 'meta' stories are a way for them to find the fourth wall - to find their place on the continuum between the imaginary and the real.

Which could suggest that postmodernism is a developmental phase.

Thanks for the thoughtful post!