The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 7, No 1 (2003)

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Judith Saltman (editor)


Minding the Gaps in Black and White

Kristin Cashore


Kristin Cashore is a student in the Master of Arts in Children's Literature Program at Simmons College


Reader response critics claim that an author intentionally leaves gaps in his text, "conscious moments of incompleteness" which ensnare the reader and challenge her to explore their implications (Mercier). Reader response critics concern themselves with the ways that readers fill in these gaps to create meaning in a text. David Macaulay's Black and White is composed of four different stories, each of which requires data from the other three in order to be understood; it actively encourages gap-filling. However, as I will demonstrate, Black and White is Macaulay's practical joke on the reader. Macaulay creates gaps in each of his four stories and plants information for completing the gaps elsewhere in the text. The reader, lured by this technique into gap-filling, imagines herself moving closer to the text's ultimate meaning--only to discover in the end that the very process of gap-filling that Macaulay shamelessly encourages creates a meaning both logistically impossible and incurably gap-ridden. An examination of the gaps and their fillings in one of Macaulay's story lines will demonstrate this.

Macaulay divides each double spread down the middle vertically and horizontally, creating four equal rectangular spaces, one for each of his four stories. In the upper, right-hand story, "A Waiting Game," the plot is a simple one: the platform of a train station starts out empty but is gradually filled with people in business-like clothing (presumably morning commuters), reading newspapers as they wait for the train. This scene is depicted repeatedly with slight variations; public announcements inform the commuters that the train is late. As the wait continues, a woman folds her newspaper into a hat and puts it on her head. The other commuters applaud and begin to create newspaper hats, coats and boots of their own. An announcement is made that the railway station has no idea what has happened to the train; by this time, the commuters are all decked out in newspaper clothing and have begun to hang newspaper buntings and adornments on the train station itself. When the train finally arrives, the commuters are singing and throwing shredded bits of newspaper into the air. In the final picture, the businesspeople are gone, having presumably boarded the train; a man wearing a mask and dressed in black and white stripes stands on the platform, waving in the direction of the departing train.

There are a number of gaps in this story. Why is the train late? How is it possible that a group of strangers who look and act dry, uptight and boring suddenly become silly and playful, to such an extent that they climb onto the roof of the train station in order to wrap newspaper decorations around the chimney? How can the train have disappeared in a manner so flabbergasting that the train company is willing to admit publicly to having "no idea" where it is? And who is the strange man in black and white who looks suspiciously like a robber?

An examination of the other three stories in this book provides the information necessary to fill in these gaps. It becomes clear from the story "Udder Chaos" that the train is late because a herd of Holstein cows has broken out of its field and is blocking the tracks. The story "Problem Parents" introduces the reader to the home life of a pair of hardworking parents who are among the businesspeople on the platform in "A Waiting Game." The reader understands after reading "Problem Parents" that these parents are tired and overworked, but are not completely out of touch with joy and silliness; the story lends some humanity to the businesslike commuters in "A Waiting Game" and makes their transformation on the train platform believable. Aspects of the stories "Udder Chaos" and "Seeing Things" help to develop and explain why the delay is so unfathomable to those announcing the train status at the station. The reader reads in "Udder Chaos" that when Holstein cows leave their field, "they're almost impossible to find," and the illustrations demonstrate that when these cows step away from their green background they meld together into an undefined abstraction of black and white forms. It is no easy task even to identify the planes of black and white as a herd of cows, and cows that cannot be perceived cannot be conclusively blamed for a delay or effectively removed from train tracks. This difficulty is depicted in "Seeing Things," when a young boy on a train watches the driver shouting and waving his fists at mysterious black and white shapes blocking the tracks. Finally, data from all three stories helps to fill in the gap created by the presence of the robber-character. In "Udder Chaos" the robber lowers himself down a sheet-rope into the field of cows and follows the animals out of their field, camouflaged by their indeterminate splotches of white and black. In "Problem Parents" a mug shot of the robber appears on the television. And in "Seeing Things," a mysterious "old woman" who looks suspiciously like the robber enters the boy's train compartment around the same time that the tracks are blocked, and leaves when the train enters the station. All of this information gleaned from the other stories informs the reader that having escaped from jail, the robber follows the cows onto the train tracks, boards the stopped train and exits at the station where the morning commuters wait in newspaper clothing.

Having successfully identified the data necessary to fill in the gaps in "A Waiting Game," the reader perceives previously unseen connections between the four stories and may now triumphantly feel that she has captured the meaning of this book as a whole. The boy in "Seeing Things" is on the train blocked by Holsteins and awaited by commuters. The parents in "Problem Parents" are among the commuters, and come home dressed in newspaper clothing, infecting their sterile home with fun and laughter. The Holsteins in "Udder Chaos" are the cows responsible for the delay of the train. It all fits together like a puzzle--a puzzle with no missing pieces, no gaps.

Or so it seems. Now that the reader perceives the stories as four parts that combine to create a concrete whole, some questions begin to arise. Is it a coincidence that the young boy in "Problem Parents" is wearing a black and white striped shirt like the robber, and that the dog has markings that match the robber's mask? Isn't it funny that when the cows are known to be blocking the train tracks, the black and white dog in "Problem Parents" is lying on the tracks of the boy's toy train set? Why, when the father in "Problem Parents" is ripping up his mail and throwing it into the air, do oddly shaped white clouds begin to appear in the sky above the train platform in "A Waiting Game?" What does it mean that at the same point, the words that narrate the story of "Seeing Things" are printed on ripped pieces of paper, as if this story is randomly constructed from flying bits of newsprint? Having so recently thought that these four stories fit together so clearly, it is a shock to notice that the boy's toy train station in "Problem Parents" is identical to the life-size train station in "A Waiting Game." Any hope of clarity of meaning is dashed when the careful reader examines the colophon placed beyond the end of the story; the copyright information and dedication are superimposed over a picture of the train station from "A Waiting Game," depicted as a toy held in the hand of the boy from "Problem Parents." The train station cannot exist as a building that the problem parents visit every day if it is also a toy that their son plays with. A train track cannot simultaneously be life-sized, blocked by Holstein cows, and toy-sized, blocked by a cow-like dog. The problem parents cannot rip up their mail in their house, scatter the shreds of paper into the air, and create paper-shaped clouds above the train station at which they are simultaneously standing. And a robber, whose very presence is unexplained, cannot pass through all four planes of a story that co-exist only on the level of impossibility.

Having encouraged the reader to use the information in each individual story to fill the gaps in the others, Macaulay tricks the reader into believing that all questions can be answered. In reality, as soon as the process of gap-filling links these stories inextricably, the connections can only be perceived as impossible. The reader who was so pleased to find answers to her queries is left with a series of unanswerable questions and a plethora of greater, unfillable gaps. In this way, Black and White is a remarkable and delightful examination of the ways that an author can both create and deny meaning by leaving gaps in a text.

 

Bibliography

Chambers, Aidan. "The Reader in the Book," in Children's Literature: the Development of Criticism, Peter Hunt, ed. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Macaulay, David. Black and White. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990.

Mercier, Cathryn. Presentation on Reader Response Criticism. Simmons College, Boston: November 6, 2001

 

Kristin Cashore


Volume 7, Issue 1 The Looking Glass, January, 2003

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"Minding the Gaps in Black and White" © Kristin Cashore, 2003.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680