Top Ten Postmodern Picturebooks

Top Ten List: Favorite Postmodern Picturebooks
Frank Serafini
(Originally published on the Nerdy Book Club Blog)

When I started teaching children’s literature, I was drawn to picturebooks, in particular a weird set of books that I came to know by the label “postmodern picturebooks.” What is interesting about postmodern picturebooks is not necessarily what they are, but what they can do for readers and literacy educators. Postmodern picturebooks invite students to navigate non-linear structures and attend to the various symbolic representations, literary codes and conventions in order to make sense of the complexities inherent in these texts. Postmodern picturebooks distance readers from text, often frustrating traditional reading expectations and practices, and position readers in more active, interpretive roles forcing them to utilize a variety of interpretive strategies in order to make sense of these complex texts.

Postmodern picturebooks often contain non-linear plots, polyphonic narrators, intertextual references, a blending of genres, and indeterminacies. Here is a brief list of some of the characteristics of Postmodern Picturebooks.

Postmodern Picture books:

  • expand the conventional boundaries of picture book formats
  • contain non-linear structures and storylines
  • offer multiple perspectives or realities to the reader
  • may be self-referential – they discuss their own creation or existence
  • contain elements of ambiguity or irony
  • often contain surrealistic images
  • include the juxtaposition of unrelated images
  • mock traditional formats
  • are often sarcastic / cynical in tone
  • contain overly obtrusive narrators who directly address readers and comment on their own narrations
  • often contain narrative framing devices (e.g., stories within stories, “characters reading about their own fictional lives
  • feature typographic experimentation
  • feature a mixing of genres, discourse styles, and modes of narration
  • illustrated with a pastiche of illustrative styles
And now to the books…
#10 – McGuire, R. (1997). What’s wrong with this book? New York: Viking

What’s Wrong with This Book? is the question author-illustrator Richard McGuire asks readers to consider when they pick up this fun picturebook. From the time you try to open it (it opens backwards) to the weird illustrations, this book is simply playful. The story isn’t as important as the play on book format featured throughout the book. This book just makes you reconsider what a book is supposed to be.

#9 – Scieszka, J. (1992). The stinky cheese man and other fairly stupid tales.  New York: Viking.

The Stinky Cheeseman has become a classic postmodern picturebook very quickly. Most children recognize this book by former Children’s Literature Ambassador Jon Sciezka and award winning illustrator Lane Smith. The parodies of traditional fairy tales coupled with the playful design of the book makes this picturebook truly postmodern. The narrator Jack gets called out by the little red hen for his inability to keep the stories straight. Throughout the book there are aspects of self-referentiality as the title page comes crashing down and the red hen wants to know who the ISBN guy is.

#8 – Burningham, J. (1977). Come away from the water, Shirley. New York: HarperCollins.

Whether John Burningham ever intended this picturebook as a postmodern text or not, the dual storylines make it a classic in this genre. Shirley and her parents go for a day trip to the beach. One side of the page features the parents version of the events, while on the other side we see what Shirley sees. Let’s just say Shirley’s world is a much better place to play around.

#7 – Watt, M. (2009). Chester. Toronto: Kids Can Press.
Chesteris one of award-winning author-illustrator Melanie Watt’s most endearing characters.

Featured in three different books, Chester the cat does not like it when he isn’t the center of attention. As the author tries to tell the story of a country mouse, Chester interrupts her, draws all over her illustrations and rethinks the story to suit his personality and tastes. The battle lines are drawn, but Watt has a few tricks left up her sleeve. The playful parody of who really writes a book will keep you laughing all the way through.

#6 – Child, L. (2002). Who's Afraid of the Bid Bad Book? New York: Hyperion.
Herb loves books so much he takes them wherever he goes. He eventually falls asleep and ends up in his fairy tale picturebook, where he meets many characters and tries to get back home – sounds like a fairy tale in a fairy tale. The concept of a book is disrupted and questions the reality of in story and out of story experiences. Playfulness and parody are center stage as Herb wanders along in the story world.

#5 – Ahlberg, A. (1987). The Jolly Postman. London: Heinemann, William Ltd.
The Jolly Postman is another of those classic postmodern picturebooks, ground-breaking in the changes in format it featured and in it’s parody of familiar fairy tales and fairy tale characters. Like the Trues Story of the Three Little Pigs, it was one of the first. In this picturebook, the postman delivers farcical letters and catalogues to fairy tale characters. Humorous letters playing with the essential characters we have come to know and love. This interactive picturebook has long been a favorite.

#4 – Gravett, E. (2006). Wolves. New York: Simon and Schuster.
One of my new favorites is Wolves by Emily Gravett. In this multiple storyline picturebook, a naïve rabbit is lured to check out a book on Wolves from the West Bucks Public Burrowing Library. After checking the book out, and reading about the dangers of wolves, the rabbit is stalked by a real wolf. The story contains an alternative ending for more gentle readers. Trying to figure out how this story works is half the fun. It requires more than one go around for sure.

#3 – Macauley, D. (1990). Black and white. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Black and White won the Caldecott Medal in 1991 and set the stage for other Postmodern Picturebooks to follow. Non-linear story lines, surrealistic art, self-referential author’s note, use of peritextual information, multiple perspectives – it’s all in there.
#2 – Weisner, D. (2001). The three pigs. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

One of my all-time favorite picturebooks, The Three Pigs is such a fantastic story that one must read and experience it for oneself in order to truly appreciate it. Talking with David Wiesner about his creation, he explained that the story is really about finding one’s way home through stories, and what lies beyond the images in a picturebook – as the three pigs find out when they leave their original story. He used the story of the three pigs because what characters are motivated to leave their story more than the three pigs? Be sure to consider what the “white space” is as you enjoy this book.

#1 Postmodern Picturebook – Browne. A. (1998). Voices in the park. New York: DK

Without a doubt, one of the greatest picturebooks ever written, illustrated and designed is Voices in the Park. From the first time I read this in 2000, I was intrigued with what Anthony Browne was doing. This is a second version of a story originally told in A Walk in the Park (recently re-released). Told in four voices, each character reveals his or her perspective about a trip to the park.  Browne takes on social issues without ever revealing a preferred perspective. The surrealistic images pay homage to Rene Magritte’s work and offer the reader much to consider.


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