Metafiction for Children: A User's Guide
by Philip Nel — Kansas State University
September 03, 2010 – 00:00
Meta-commentary on “Metafiction for Children: A User’s Guide”
Of the many reasons I decided to create this film clip, let’s address the most obvious one right away: I am a ham (green, with eggs on the side — also green). Less obvious but more important, I wanted my meditation on metafictional children’s books to model and reference “meta.” So, some words on the screen comment upon the content and others on the style. Those words are all in Futura, the typeface favored by Crockett Johnson, whose Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) is the final book discussed. Behind me, with covers facing out, are metafictional children’s books: Jon Agee’s The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau (1988), Barbara Lehman’s The Red Book (2004), Roderick Townley’s The Great Good Thing (2001), Johnson’s A Picture for Harold’s Room (1960), Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile (2010), Deborah Freedman’s Scribble (2007), and Laurie Keller’s The Scrambled States of America (1998). Even my tie is “meta”: the Peanuts characters are all wearing, holding, or looking at their ties. Had I greater facility with iMovie, I would have bombarded you with yet more “meta” comments and images. Luckily, my incompetence prevented me from doing so.
I’m not sure what hooked me on metafictions, but I expect it was something I saw or read as a child. The classic Chuck Jones cartoon Chuck Amuck (1953)? Harold and the Purple Crayon? Though I enjoy metafiction’s playfulness, I also don’t want to suggest that “meta” strategies are magically ideology-free — thus, my inclusion of a pair of scenes from Peter Newell’s Topsys & Turvys (1902). I do think, however, 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. Given that childhood reading occurs during and can shape identity formation, books that encourage reflection upon imposed narratives may help children think critically about their own acculturation. While books like Newell’s undermine this admittedly utopian wish, most of the other stories discussed here sustain it. Whether dismantling fairy tales, challenging your visual perception, or daring you to read four stories simultaneously, these other books invite readers to question rather than accept received realities.
One final note on one who helped me make this a reality. The credits omit Karin Westman, who kindly passed me the books as I talked at the camera. So, to correct that omission: Thanks, Karin!