Postmodern Picturebooks: Capturing the Interest of Adult and Child Readers

In her essay ‘The Importance of Illustrations in Children’s Books’, Magel Segun states that ‘a child is sensitive to pictures even before it can speak.’[1] Publishers have capitalised on this sensitivity to visual stimuli over the years through the usage of illustrations aimed to arouse the child’s imagination and perception within literature aimed for them. Although early illustrative works designed for children (J.A. Comenius’ Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1659)[2] and John Newbery’s A Little Pretty Pocket Book (1744)) were heavily didactic in their intended usage, this combination of text and images became a mainstay amongst the texts upon children’s bookshelves; it wasn’t until the late Victorian era ‘through the works of Kate Greenaway, Randolph Caldecott, and Walter Crane’[3] that picture books were liberated from this precept of morality and education.[4]

The progression from illustrated storybooks — books displaying pictures — to the picturebooks — books that are a fusion of illustration and text — we know today[5] and the quality of these has been dictated by a combination of society’s changing opinions to childhood, the role of the child audience, changes in what is considered appropriate subject matter, and the advances in production technology.[6] This progression has allowed this literary format to both challenge the established conventions assigned to it (Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963)[7]) and pave the way for the wordless picturebooks created by of Shaun Tan (The Arrival (2006)) and Quentin Blake (Clown (1998)).

Despite Barbara Bader’s statement that picturebooks are ‘foremost, an experience for a child’[8], the development of authors’ usage of postmodernism in children’s literature and its related features has opened up the genre to a wider audience, allowing for the deconstruction of the structures, both in content and form, that we have relied on to ‘make meaning of a text’[9], which in turn has allowed the ‘lines between adulthood and childhood [to] become increasingly blurred.’[10]

As an art form, postmodernism is a reaction against modernism. Whereas modernist literature is linear and centred on the author’s meaning, postmodern literature is characterised by its nonlinear, non- hierarchical decentring of the author’s voice thereby opening the text to the reader’s control. ‘If modernism is the story of one culture and one perspective, postmodernism is a multicultural narrative with multiple perspectives.’[11]

One of the key aspects which adds to the appeal of postmodern picturebooks is their interactivity, their ability to appeal to the generation of ‘children known as “cyberkids”, “digital youth”, and the “net generation”.’[12] The non-linear disruption of plots and structure force the individual reader to actively create a form of order within the text. This is clearly evident with Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park (1998)where we need to look beyond what is written and constantly refer to previous illustrations and subtexts. By conveying the story through four different character perspectives recounting a visit to the park, the reader is made aware of the different voices though the usage of different fonts which ‘mediates the reader’s sense of character behind each voice.’[13] — Mr Smith (the working class father) has deep black text with thick lines coupled with a more ‘working class’ dialect; the text of the lonely Charles is very faint with light grey lines that almost disappear from the page. It is a highly visual separation of characters and, as the narrative progresses, differing themes of perceived social class differences emerge and are disrupted and the reader is called upon to find a fifth voice, their voice based upon the perceptions gained from the characters. We, the reader, are pulled into the park as an individual and make our own conclusions. Similarly, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1993) employs several narrative discontinuities, going as far as to rearrange the physical order of what we are used to; the Table of Contents is placed after the first story, pages labelled ‘End Pages’ are placed in the middle of the book, and the story that we are told is to end the book — ‘The Boy Who Cried “Cow Patty”’ — is absent all together with the book ending with the narrator (Jack) fleeing to avoid being eaten by Giant. However whereas Browne invites us to be in essence the fifth voice, Scieszka and Smith’s obtrusive narrator of the book’s nine stories is given to us as a separate voice, creating a tenth story — that of the narrator’s own journey.

In contrast to the majority of heavily text supported illustrations in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, Browne chooses to accompany his illustrations with either few sentences or no words at all, resulting in ‘[m]ost of the interconnecting references between the four stories in Voices in the Park [being] visual.’[14] This lack of textual influence again creates new levels of interactivity between reader and book. Instead of words, Browne makes use of varied colour palettes — ‘bright, vibrant, primary colours for the joyful Smudge; shadowed, overcast, muted shades for the depressed and lonely Charles’[15] — in order to convey the differing moods and situations of the book’s central characters. To further emphasize the differing child versus adult viewpoints, Brown uses perspective and image composition, again using visual rather that textual contexts. In his book The Red Tree (2001), Shaun Tan takes this usage of visual over textual emotion to the next level. Like Browne, Tan is ‘aware that illustration is a powerful way of expressing feeling as well as ideas, […] as many emotions can be hard to articulate in words,’[16] and he uses the language of illustration to create individual dreamlike pages each dealing visually with an emotion; text is used only to frame the emotion of the image with a simplistic depersonalised caption –‘without sense of reason’ or ‘sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to’[17]. This unframed storyline creates a non-sequential narrative that allows the reader to open the book ‘at any page, go backwards or forwards, and spend as much time as [they] wish with each image’[18] without pressure to turn the page. Browne achieves the same effect in Voices in the Park through the changes in seasons and parts of the day depending on the narrative voice he is portraying. These de-linear narratives serve ‘as an elaborate set-up for storylines that can vary not only from reader to reader but also from one reading to the next.’[19]

As with the disruption of story structure, many authors of postmodern picturebooks challenge our understanding of the works they reference through their retelling, adaptation and parodies of them; this is seen perfectly within David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs (2001) where there is a recasting of both plotlines and characters. Although this hypotextuality[20] challenges our already preconceived perceptions of those tales, we as readers are still required to have an understanding of the originals to decipher any hidden meanings within the text.

The intertextuality employed within postmodern picturebooks, however, does not limit itself to references between stories. Tan’s The Lost Thing (2000) references official documents in the art used behind the images to help us gain a greater understanding of a story that on initial reading could be regarded as one of simply finding a place to belong in society. On the book’s bibliographic page, the title and author are encoded as a passport document stamped by the Department of Immigrant and Ethnic Affairs and the reader is granted authorisation by The Federal Department of Information, this gives both reader and storyteller Shaun — we learn that this is indeed his name from an officially cleared postcard on the back cover — the right to be within the fictional society. This subtle reference back to official documents, as well as the dark foreboding windowless building where the ‘lost things’ are forgotten, points us towards the issue of both immigration and the draconian treatment of refugees by Australia’s government at the time the book was written. Tan takes this subtle reference even further in his co-directed 2010 animated short based on the book. Almost four minutes into the film we are shown three figures that share stereotypical characteristics used within Nazi Germany to portray Jews — they are hunched over, dismissive, wear top hats and glasses, on two you can see the number 6 on their clothing, one on a jacket, one on an armband, which leaves you to wonder if the final ‘6’ is present on thethird. These are the only characters within the short to feature numbers on them. This in itself pulls the viewer, in this case, into the subconscious of the narrative and the persecution of those ‘troublesome artefacts of unknown origin.’[21] These references to both the harsh nature of immigration and indeed the horrors of the past will make a wider impression on the adult audience whilst also creating a tone which the uneducated younger child will find unsettling in their ignorance, having only seen such images in the media their parents may watch and protect them from.

Authors such as Tan and Browne not only make references to works of other authors, they also place references to their own past works thus creating a narrative voice that runs through a body of work rather than an individual piece. The narrative text in Voices in the Park is ‘derived from Browne’s earlier A Walk in the Park [which] is told in a more conventional narrative frame.’[22] Tan’s The Arrival recalls the ‘discourses on immigration […] and identity’[23] of The Lost Thing, as well as emotions that appear unframed in The Red Tree.

With their undermining of what is expected in both concept and design, postmodern picturebooks often turn adult convention into a common antagonist[24], even going so far as to attack the traditional canon of children’s literature itself through their usage of parody, and re-envisioning of classic well known stories. Given that, as with any form of literature written for children, these books have essentially been written by adults for children, we need to approach the subject of didacticism within their content. Although the freedom granted to children through postmodern picturebooks allows them to create new narratives, they are not solely in control of the outcome, as that outcome has to exist within a framework decided by an adult. Therefore,as with any literary equivalent, the author’s own beliefs will filter through and influence the child. If Philip Pullman’s creative approach is to inspire children to think for themselves within a realistic setting with realistic options related to the importance he places on identity, sexuality and morality; then this approach can also be seen within Tan’s work which places importance on social and environmental injustice (The Rabbits (1998)), social apathy (The Lost Thing) and ideas about self-destruction (The Viewer (1997)). Although this ‘new didacticism’[25] seeks to enable children to become aware of the dangers of authorial ideologies and to think for themselves within a ‘godless’ society, the power still remains in the hands of adults, who, ‘in effect, give children the authority to ascribe their own meanings.’[26]

Changes in the convention, appreciation and audience of their readers have continued to blur the lines that form the border between books aimed at children and adults. The inclusion of adult themes and emotional states within their pages, coupled with their artistic and almost graphic novel style, postmodern picturebooks have created an appeal which almost contradicts Bader’s statement and have become a literary form that ‘in format and artistry, […] are books for everybody.’[27] Although not specifically aimed at an adult market, many authors and illustrators realise that their audiences are not solely children and as a result they are not limited in their inclusion of sophisticated ideas and techniques. Despite the versatile and accommodating nature of picturebooks, we must also take into consideration the late twentieth century growth in the appeal of other forms of children’s literature to adult audiences and the impact this has made on authors of those books. The increased depth of meaning within picturebooks is mirrored within the works of authors such as J. K. Rowling whose Harry Potter series became increasingly more adult themed and sophisticated as the cross market of adult/child readership increased and set in stone distinctions blurred.

In a society and culture where television, the Internet, and video games have made traditionally adult entertainment readily available for the consumption of children, it is only natural that the literary world will follow suit. With both adults and children wearing the same clothing styles, appreciating the same films and music, even committing the same crimes, we are left once again with the question that dominates much of our study into children’s literature. Where does childhood end and adulthood begin?

End Notes:

1 Segun, 1988 pg. 25
2 Kiefer, 1995 pg. 88 — Kiefer identifies Comenius’ Orbis Sensualium Pictus (The Visible Word in Pictures) as the text generally considered to be the first picture book for children.
3 Hornber, 1992 pg. 11
4 Egoff, 1981 pg. 248
5 Kiefer, 1995 pg. 6
6 Egoff, 1981 pg. 253
7 Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are disrupted the romantic vision of childhood in picturebooks. His depiction of Max’s frustrated dream world and his relationship with the Wild Things introduced fear and anxiety into the picturebook’s usual themes of safety and security, thus breaking the barriers that had been set up and as a result changing the face of what was acceptable within the genre.
8 Bader, 1976 pg. 1
9 Hornberg, 2004 pg. 16
10 McNulty, 2004 pg. 33
11 Aiken, 2007
12 Spitz, 2010
13 Harris, 2005 pg. 8
14 Samandan, 2010
15 Dolat, 2008
16 Tan,
17 Tan, 2001
18 Tan,
19 Spitz, 2010
20 Hypotextuality — identified by Genette [1998] as connections between the text-in-hand and other texts on which it innovates. 21 Tan, 2000 pg. 14
22 Harris, 2005 pg. 8
23 Jones, 2007 pg. 10
24 Hornberg, pg. 18
25 Cross, 2004
26 Nodelman, 1996, 11
27 Egoff, 1981 pg. 270


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Anstey, Michele (2002) ‘”It’s not all black and white”: Postmodern picture books and new literacies”, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 45.6 (2002): 444–458

Bader, Barbara (1976) American Picture Books from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within. New York: Macmillan Blake, Quentin (1998) Clowns. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Browne, Anthony (1977) A Walk in the Park. London: Hamish Hamilton Children’s Books

Browne, Anthony (1998) Voices in the Park. New York: DK

Cross, Julie (2004) ‘The inevitable and inescapable didacticism of contemporary popular junior fiction’, New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship, 10: 1, 55–70

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Egoff, Sheila A (1981) Thursday’s Child: Trends and Patterns in Contemporary Children’s Literature. Chicago, IL: American Library Association

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Scieszka, Jon & Smith, Lane (1993) The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. London: Puffin

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Simandan, Voicu Mihnea (2010) ‘Voices of the Stinky Cheese Man: A Comparison Study of Two Postmodern Picture Books’, available from

Tan, Shaun (2000) The Lost Thing. Sydney: Lothian

Tan, Shaun (2001) The Red Leaf. Sydney: Lothian

Tan, Shaun (2006) The Arrival. Sydney: Lothian

Weisner, David (2001). The Three Pigs. New York: Houghton Mifflin

Copyright © Dominic Lyne, 2011

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