The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 9, No 1 (2005)

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Judith Saltman, editor

Transcending Boundaries in David Wiesner's The Three Pigs:
Taking an askew view of words and images in picturebook

Brian Hornberg

Brian Hornberg is a graduate of the Master of Arts in Children's Literature Program at the University of British Columbia. This article is adapted from his thesis, Beyond the Word/Image Dialectic: A Visual Grammar for Contemporary Picturebooks. He currently teaches in a Chicago elementary school.

Practically any examination of picturebooks now includes some form of visual analysis. By focusing the methodology used, more detailed and serious attempts at describing the event of the picturebook can take place. Overt methodology capitalizes not only on the content of an image, but the context in which the image was constructed. Visual analysts must consider the cultural context and issues of power in and around the production and reception of an image, and, at the same time, take into account their own way of looking at the image (Rose 3-12). Most important for picturebook study, images may be analyzed along with any accompanying text, or may even "see word and image as one indivisible unit of analysis" (Jewitt and van Leeuwen 7). This article examines these aspects of David Wiesner's picturebook The Three Pigs, published in 2001.

The entire conceptual basis for The Three Pigs relies on the idea of traditional stories being contained by physical and conceptual boundaries. This convention of the bound story is exploited by the pigs' ability to traverse boundaries with ease. They are free to 'be' intertextual as well as extra-textual. Boundary breaking in The Three Pigs is demonstrated mainly through shifts in modality. The modality of any representation equates to its depiction of the visual world. High modality in an image would be characterized by photographic realism, though hyperrealism would be considered to be of lower modality. Representations made in low modality would be highly iconic, with very simple lines to convey a subject. Most cartoons are done in very low modality. Varying degrees of medium modality fall in between naturalistic high and cartoon-like low modalities. The breaking of boundaries can also be seen in Wiesner's portrayal of contact situations. Contact is made between participants through demands or offers. Demanding gazes make direct eye contact between represented and interactive participants, while offers set characters' gazes anywhere other than directly at the reader.

Demands in The Three Pigs are relatively low, but astoundingly effective. The front cover is a perfect example of a demand image. All three pigs are in extreme close-up with all of their eyes firmly fixed on the point where any reader would be if they picked up this book. The reader is grabbed and pulled in right from the start. The scene and the mood are set, the reader is 'in'; challenged to take part and interact with the three pigs. With the myriad of characters that the pigs come in contact with over the course of the book, the high amount of offers comes from the need to tell a story, and the characters that are circumstances of accompaniment.

Many of the shots are positioned from a far and impersonal public distance, but this frees the vertical and horizontal planes to rotate an almost full 360 degrees around the characters, once they take leave of the traditional storyline. In addition, there are examples of the whole range of social distances (social distance combines many ideas of the portrayal of represented participants as close or far away from the viewer), including a dramatic close-up that invades the reader's personal space, as one pig toys with the idea of someone being "out there" just beyond the reach of the frame. Much like the cover, the extreme close-up is high in modality, the closest to photographic representation, but on the page opening, the pig also makes an implied verbal assertion of the reader's existence. The reader is not directly addressed, but the position of a reader is alluded to by the pig in its invasion of social boundaries limited further by the text to make this assertion of shared experience with the reader.

The reader is placed in many different potential positions of power; however the mainstay is an eye-level point of view. The reader is watching from this perspective and is made to feel like a part of the action through horizontal perspective shifts and distancing. Extreme angles can be noted as the pigs are flying in their paper airplane; as they rise, the reader is left on the ground of the story world looking up, and spinning around to keep up with the soaring pigs. Later, after picking up the cat and the fiddle, and saving the dragon from a slaying, the pigs peruse the endless ranks of story lines, when they suddenly come across their original story in a frame of the third pig's brick house. Because all of the frames of their story have been disrupted they lay on the ground, while other story lines are upright like gallery paintings. The reader is able to see what the pigs and friends are looking at because the perspective is from directly above the frame showing the pig's house, but the tops of the characters heads and bodies are in view. The actual frame now appears 'right' in that it is parallel to the surface plane; however the surface has shifted because of what the reader should know so far about the book.

Characters are portrayed on the vertical plane as they might be if the reader were actually standing among them, but only when they have passed through the boundary between the traditional story line and into the meta-story line. They are mostly depicted at a slight turn, as people might gather around one another. This book displays a number of over-the-shoulder views, and the reader is positioned in more involved angles as the book moves from traditional storyboard frames to the meta-story world that the pigs discover and then back again.

Modality changes for the representation of the pigs signify traversing of boundaries within the pages of the book. Beginning with the cover, the pigs are represented in a quite realistic, even very human-like style. Each pig has a different eye-colour, and we can see details of their soft, short hairs, and round eyelids. As we move to the title page, the pigs are no longer as detailed and are noticeably more 'drawn'. We are now 'in' the story of the three pigs. The first pig to return to the high modality of the cover is the straw house pig. He is blown through the surface plane of the 'story' and into a meta-text between the panels of the traditional story. We can see the threshold as he falls because his hind legs are caught on the edge of the panel, and they are still in the 'story' level modality. All three pigs end up in this high modality plane, and they explore it until they come across a sickeningly sweet image of "Hey diddle diddle". Again as they cross the threshold they take on the extremely low modality of the scene, the most cartoonish in the book. They then venture into a black and white comic style adventure and take on that modality. Each border crossed is marked by a change in modality, and in some cases the only visible border is the pig represented as half in and half out of a degree of modality.

The theme of crossing boundaries is strong in Wiesner's The Three Pigs, and he exploits visual representations of invisible boundaries. The pigs are free to pass between all of these borders. Boundary crossing comes through most clearly in the modality domain, but these are invisible boundaries. Wiesner's use of physical frames indicates boundaries of a more solid and tangible nature. More traditional "three little pigs" are usually represented in the same modality throughout the story, and they are bound to their destiny because of it. If they were suddenly depicted in a different style, the reader would be surprised, and we can imagine after reading Wiesner's variant, so would the pigs. They do not change, because of illustrators' conscious decisions to keep them within their traditional boundaries.

This narrative "ecological" analysis provides a working example of how an integrated visual/verbal text can be discussed in the terms of the grammar of visual design. The consistency and effectiveness of this method of describing the picturebook as more than pictures and words, but as a multimodal text are here laid out in broad strokes. Not all of the categories have been represented, but to focus on those that define the book, or that group together to make a book unique, an alternative, organic analysis can be attempted. In the future, reading words and images as a single yet multimodal text in the context of their production will engage a new level of understanding of work as well as the entire field of visual literacy, multiple literacies and literacy in general.

Works Cited

Jewitt, Carey, and Theo van Leeuwen. Handbook of Visual Analysis. London: Sage, 2001.
Rose, Gillian. Visual Methodologies. London: Sage, 2001.
Wiesner, David. The Three Pigs. NY: Clarion, 2001.


Brian Hornberg

Volume 9, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2 January, 2005

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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680