The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 9, No 3 (2005)

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Johnson

Sheila Egoff's
Legacy


Restorying Crumbling Realities: The Three Pigs and The Frog Prince Continued

by Jennifer Johnson


Jennifer Johnson is a candidate of the Master of Arts in Children's Literature programme at the University of British Columbia. Restorying Crumbling Realities is her first article to be published. She wrote it for a library materials course in contemporary children's literature and is excited to delve further into the topic of postmodernism and traditional literature when she begins her thesis in 2006. As well as reading and writing about children's literature, Jennifer enjoys sharing it with her two sons ages two and eight months.

THE END

of all things known, esteemed, cherished,
and held to be immutable:
the sky is falling;
the world is crumbling;
and we are there—
to catch it;
to restore it;
to re-story it;
with our hopes and dreams,
our vision of the future,
( We do have a future? )
in which all of us have a place,
( We do have a place? )
a dream,
( We still have dreams? )
a voice,
a vision . . .

(Nikola-Lisa, 1991 p. 35)

Nikola-Lisa's critical essay/gossip column mirrors the trend of many picture book authors and illustrators to creatively portray the uncertainty of our changing world in both their texts and illustrations. They parody and call "into question those very rules and conventions upon which the more traditional forms of narrative fiction depend" (Lewis, 1990 p. 84). Although their multiple techniques and approaches only allow for loose categorization, this shared tendency permits them to be gathered under the label of postmodernism.

A classic example is Scieszka's and Smith's The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. The Stinky Cheese Man is seen as the epitome of postmodern picture books due to the number of narrative and illustrative conventions that it challenges. Its fractured stories are ridiculous imitations of the familiar tales, simultaneously mocking themselves for their pointlessness and the original stories for their assumed meaningfulness; they also poke fun at traditional storytelling conventions such as "once upon a time" and "happily ever after." Jack the Narrator and the Little Red Hen (who is irate at being excluded) repeatedly appear and interact with the other characters to create a meta-narrative. The book's illustrations and design demand the reader to acknowledge its artificiality. (Its other postmodern characteristics are comprehensively discussed in Stevenson's article "If You Read This Last Sentence, It Won't Tell You Anything" and need not be mentioned here.)

This comprehensive incorporation of so many postmodern elements is impressive; however, it is not always appropriate to the creators' endeavor. As Stevenson (1991) explains, The Stinky Cheese Man 's only purpose, aside from entertainment, is to demonstrate that meaning is as much of a construction as are books and fairytales, for "None of the book 'tells you anything'" (p. 32); however, Nikola-Lisa's above quote reveals that the intention of many picture book creators is first to question the foundations on which our crumbling world has been erected, and then to offer their own alternative.

Two examples of books that challenge fewer narrative conventions while re-storying traditional fairytales are Wiesner's The Three Pigs and Scieszka's The Frog Prince Continued. Unlike The Stinky Cheese Man, these narratives do have a message and retain enough linearity to demonstrate an individual's ability to create his own "happily ever after."

Postmodernism in Picture Books

The differences between these three books alone demonstrate that postmodernism is a somewhat arbitrary categorization held together by a "willingness to break boundaries, subvert conventions and parody settled norms of storytelling" (Lewis, 1990 p. 84). Lewis (1990) describes it as more of a tendency than a movement; nevertheless, many critical theorists have identified a range of specific techniques and approaches that appear within the emerging genre. Stevenson (1991) comments on the prominent appearance of parodied fairytales and of self-referentiality, on the playful carnivalesque format and on the multiplicity of meanings. Nikola-Lisa (1991) speaks of the blurring of linear relationships like past and present and uses the coinage "metafiction" to describe innovative, experimental and rule-breaking texts. Nikolajeva and Scott (2001) describe aspects of metafiction including figurative language, framing, intertextuality and intraiconic texts. Finally, Goldstone (2001) examines the non-linearity of many postmodern picture books. The elements of the trend that will be important to this analysis include the use of the parodied or fractured fairytale; visual and textual self-referentiality; aspects of metafiction including framing and figurative language; intertextuality; linearity; and the construction of realities.

Fractured Fairytale

The parodied or fractured fairytale is a popular format for many postmodern authors and illustrators. Stevenson (1991) attributes this trend to the "vigor of folklore narrative under pressure and manipulation" (p. 32). The audience's familiarity with the original motifs of a given story gives an author considerable leeway to alter the setting, gender roles, power positions, chronology of events and even the ending of the tale. Nikolajeva and Scott (2001) also identify verbal and visual intertextuality as a major aspect of the fractured fairytale; however, these will be discussed as a separate category.

The Three Pigs draws more on folklore than fairytales for its subject matter. Its beginning maintains a stark fidelity to the original plot, retaining its motifs and wording. There are three pigs who build houses of straw, sticks and bricks. There is a wolf—although he doesn't seem particularly big and bad, especially due to his benign illustration. The wolf unoriginally approaches the straw house first and initiates the traditional rhyming triplet "Little pig, little pig, let me come in," to which the pig dutifully responds.

At this point, the narrative takes a dramatic turn. The huffing and puffing at the first pig's house blows him beyond the boundaries of his world and the reach of the wolf, and he quickly shares his new-found freedom with the other two pigs. They begin to explore this new world, which operates as an inert continuum linking together various stories. The pigs find they can step into other stories, where they make new friends who ultimately help them to overcome the wolf when they return home.

Wiesner has done very little with the characterization and plot of the original "The Three Pigs" story; in fact, even after the pigs have left the scene, the text continues uninterrupted, much to the consternation of the very confused wolf. Wiesner focuses instead on parodying the world of literature in general, demonstrating the artificial nature of stories and even implying that the real world is only another narrative. This empowering discovery enables the pigs to escape their victimization and to construct themselves a new ending, which may also be seen as a new beginning.

The Frog Prince Continued is a more classic fractured fairytale that plays with the idea of "happily ever after." The Frog Prince and his princess are not actually living happily ever after; the prince is still annoyingly "froggy," and the princess is a terrible nag. Neither of them appears able to fulfill the idealized roles their story has constructed for them. Their relationship becomes so strained that the prince finally runs away to find a witch that will turn him back into a frog. Although he meets several fairytale witches, they are nasty and unhelpful individuals. Even Cinderella's more congenial Fairy Godmother messes things up when she accidentally turns him into a carriage. By the end of the story, the Frog Prince is so frustrated and frightened by the alternatives to his first "happily ever after" that he returns home with the resolution to truly appreciate the joy to be found in his life.

The new ending the Frog Prince achieves doesn't subvert the idea of "happily ever after," but it subtly and significantly alters it. Sciezska's conclusion conveys the concept that joy in life is not dependent on circumstances or timing, but, rather, on attitude and choices.

Visual and Textual Self-Referentiality

In a paper on postmodernism and critical literacy, Lewis (1990) develops the concept of realism, a "literary mode that works to convince the reader of the lifelikeness, the verisimilitude of the events depicted be they fantastic of [sic] otherwise" (p. 81). Readers have been trained to ignore the bibliometrics and the literary conventions encountered while reading. The goal of the self-referential text is to de-familiarize the reading experience in order to retrain readers to recognize a book's artificiality. Several methods have been employed to accomplish this. Many picture books address the audience, sometimes inviting the reader's participation in writing the story. Others have experimented with the use of contrapuntal irony of words against images. Still others, like The Stinky Cheese Man, have illustrated the book as a book. Behind its first upside-down page, readers catch a glimpse of another world in the background, and Jack the Narrator has the audacity to slip the end page into the book seven pages early. To varying degrees, The Three Pigs and The Frog Prince Continued each demonstrate self-referential qualities.

Wiesner's picture book depends heavily on verbal self-reference. The first pig's surprised exclamation, "Hey! He blew me right out of the story!" sets the stage for the rest of the book. This and all other statements that are outside the conventional storylines are contained in speech bubbles that completely separate them from the lettering on each story's pages. Wiesner also has the narratives of each original story ironically continue even after their characters depart from its pages. These traits force readers to acknowledge that those pages were authored, designed, printed and published. Furthermore, although the characters never directly address the audience, one of the pigs does notice the reader's presence. Since he observes the reader from an essentially unconstructed space, this gives the added implication that the reader's reality is just as constructed as is the pigs'.

Visual self-reference is also very apparent. The pigs are able to manipulate the pages of their own and other stories and, later on, even the lettering of the narrative. Also, the realism of a given character's portrayal depends on his location. The most realistic illustrations are associated with the unconstructed space, alluding to the interpellation of characters by their settings.

Conversely, The Frog Prince Continued only includes visual self-reference. The illustrations resemble rumpled pages with ragged edges. The Frog Prince's limbs often protrude beyond the backgrounds' limits, which sometimes disintegrate with his passage; the illustrator is visually representing that the prince is altering his fairytale. A final technique that calls attention to the tale's construction is the presence of anachronistic imagery. The witches have television, beauty products and salon equipment, magazines and even frozen treats. Being so out of place in the fairytale, these items enhance the imaginary nature of the story.

Metafiction

Nikolajeva and Scott (2001) define metafiction as "a stylistic device aimed at destroying the illusion of a 'reality' behind a text and instead emphasizing its fictionality" (p. 220). Some of the aspects of metafiction that they identify include framing and figurative language. Framing is a technique that involves stepping beyond boundaries. It allows an author or illustrator to question the limits of their text, and even the limits of reality. An artist portrays the settings, that is, the characters' reality, in a series of frames. In postmodern texts, the characters are not contained by the frames, sometimes escaping them altogether. Figurative language, on the other hand, involves a relationship between verbal metaphors and imagery. Often, a verbal metaphor (termed the signifier) will lack a corresponding image. Sometimes the illustrator is able to provide one from his imagination. Similarly, imagery in the book (the signified) may also lack a textual signifier. These discrepancies draw attention to the conventionality of language by transgressing it, once again emphasizing the picture book's artificial nature.

In the context of The Three Pigs, framing draws attention to the constructed nature of Wiesner's picture book, and figurative language to the artificiality of picture books in general. Framing is the primary method through which Wiesner establishes the pigs' ability to exit their story and enter those of other characters. The wolf blows the first pig out of his tale, but the others follow of their own free will. Outside their story, they discover that their reality consists of frames resembling unbound, floating pages. The pigs can reorder frames, knock them over and even fold one of them into an airplane. The demarcation where character portrayals alter in their level of realism marks each floating page's boundaries. Figurative language is apparent in the representation of the vast, white, unconstructed continuum between stories; this is a signified lacking a signifier. The pigs refer to it as "out of the story," "out here," and "this place"; similarly, it lacks a stable signifier in this essay. It represents the idea that all stories and realities are no more than interpretations.

These metafictional characteristics play a comparatively small role in The Frog Prince Continued. Johnson's illustration of the Frog Prince's arms and legs protruding beyond the edges of the ragged backgrounds hints at the framing technique. As well, some of the anachronistic images are signifieds lacking signifiers. For example, the first witch has a small box that resembles a remote control, but it functions to allow her to cast evil spells. The presence of these traits adds to the dynamic existing between the text and pictures of the book, but actually does little to question its reality.

Intertextuality

"The notion of intertextuality refers to all kinds of links between two or more texts: irony, parody, literacy and extraliterary allusions, direct quotations or indirect references to previous texts, fracturing of well-known patterns, and so on" (Nikolajeva and Scott, 2001 p. 228). It takes place on both verbal and visual levels. In The Three Pigs, it occurs anagrammatically when Wiesner brings in the frames of other fairytales, stories, nursery rhymes and genres. The cat they befriend comes from the nursery rhyme "Hey Diddle, Diddle." The dragon is not from a well-known text, yet it represents an example of the fairytale genre. Another genre represented is the ABC book; the frames of one of the series by which the pigs pass are each associated with a particular letter of the alphabet and contain pictures and the names of animals beginning with those letters. An intervisual reference to Free Fall, one of Wiesner's previous books, is also present when he illustrates the frames floating in horizontal planes.

Contamination is the term applied to the intertextuality that occurs in The Frog Prince Continued. Elements of various stories are present in the dominant narrative of the Frog Prince's tale. The first witch wants to prevent him from waking Sleeping Beauty, and the second is from the story of Snow White, while the third lives in a gingerbread house and knows Hansel and Gretel. The Fairy Godmother is on her way to see Cinderella and accidentally turns the Frog Prince into a carriage. Appropriately, the effects of her spell only last until midnight; however, the effect of the anagrammatism and contamination in Wiesner's and Scieszka's picture books lasts much longer, as it contributes to the trend of questioning literary conventions.

Linearity and "Happily Ever After"

This is the true point of divergence of The Stinky Cheese Man from The Three Pigs and The Frog Prince Continued. The Stinky Cheese Man is so anagrammatic that the stories it contains could be rearranged without affecting either the premise of the story or the story's ability to question reality. The latter two books depend heavily on linear narratives. This is essential to the delivery of the authors' empowering message, for how can one demonstrate "happily ever after" if it is no different than "once upon a time"? While there are some non-linear elements in The Three Pigs, such as the speech bubbles that can often be read in any order, Wiesner's and Scieszka's books progress from their introductions to their endings, with the only non-linear hint laying in the idea that living happily ever after marks the beginning of a new life and a new ...

ONCE UPON A TIME

Works Cited

Goldstone, B. (2001). "'Whaz Up With Our Books?' Changing Picture Book Codes and Teaching Implications." In Reading Teacher 55 (pp 362-370).

Lewis, D. (1992). "What Do Picture Book Makers Know About Reading That We Don't? The Post-Modern Picture Book and Critical Literacy." In H. Dombey & M. Robinson (Eds.), Literacy for the Twenty-First Century. (pp. 79-86). Brighton, England: University of Brighton Press.

Nikolajeva, M. & Scott, C. (2001). How Picture Books Work. New York: Garland Publishing.

Nikola-Lisa, W. (1991). "Title." In Children's Literature Association Quarterly 19 (pp. 32-34).

Scieszka, J. (1991). The Frog Prince Continued. New York: Viking.

Scieszka, J. (1992). The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. New York: Viking.

Stevenson, D. (1991). "'If You Read This Last Sentence, It Won't Tell You Anything': Postmodernism, Self-Referentiality, and The Stinky Cheese Man." In Children's Literature Association Quarterly 19 (pp. 32-34).

Wiesner, D. (1988). Free Fall. New York: Scholastic.

Wiesner, D. (2001). The Three Pigs. New York: Clarion Books.

 

Jennifer Johnson


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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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