Metafiction for Children: A User's Guide

Curator's Note

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!

   Philip Nel


Great post, Phil.  This is a lot of fun and ties up our week on children's culture nicely.

I am particularly drawn to your notion of the breadth of what metafiction can be - the pop up book, for example.

This encourages us to rethink several of the things that we may take for granted in children's media: though the goal might be an explicit learning outcome ("today's letter is B"), the style might be normative ideology (girls play with kittens rather than using chainsaws), can never disregard the playful intellectual approach that a child may take, and that the particular work might be encouraging them to take.

In that spirit, are the virtual pet games referenced in Steven's post as much empoweringly meta as they are ideologically gendered?  The leaping up and licking of the screen does break the fourth wall, and the design itself certainly "challenges what a [game] can be."  Are social media challenging writing with the tics of speech?  Is Hannah Montana challenging its own apoliticization by speaking to children as though they are citizens regardless?

Thanks, Jeremy!

Yep, I was deliberately expansive in my definition of metafiction, including anything that encourages reflection on what fiction is or might be.  And, true, Steven Boyer's post (on Tuesday) might be invoked as an example of a meta moment that either (a) does provoke critical reflection (the uncanniness of the girl's interaction with the faux tiger is unsettling) or (b) fails to offer any critical engagement (the video intends to sell us on this technology rather than to make us ponder it).  Metafiction is more ideologically slippery than most people realize -- and, for that matter, than I portrayed it in this li'l film clip.

Great video!  More metafiction to consider:  Mordicai Gerstein's A Book (2009), Allan Ahlberg's The Bravest Bear Ever (2001) and Mo Willem's upcoming Elepant & Piggie title We Are in a Book! (2010) 

 Great post, Philip, and love the video.

What this post got me thinking about is why metafiction is so common in children's literature as opposed to adult literature. Perhaps this has something to do with metafiction's "playfulness," as you put it. While play is encouraged both as a pure, unrestrained form of children's entertainment and as a necessary venue for learning, adults tend to structure play and integrate it into other activities while looking down on play for play's sake. This could also be a reason why the connection to my post about video games came up so quickly, as this is another medium that revolves around play and frequently encourages reflection on this fact.


Two Native authors, Sherman Alexie and Joseph Bruchac, have written stories that poke at works of fiction that misrepresent American Indians.

In INDIAN KILLER, Marie challenges her prof for using THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE in a Native lit course.

In THE HEART OF A CHIEF, Chris challenges his middle school teacher for using THE SIGN OF THE BEAVER.

I point to both at my blog in the first video I'm uploaded (production values pale in comparison to what Phillip did) on September 7, 2010.




Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.