Picture story books give children the opportunity to experience multi-layered narrative, to read and write a text at the same time in that they can be entertained by a text on its simplest level as well as becoming engaged in the active pursuit of complex meanings.  Such books are saying: ”there is not one story one voice here, but many”.

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The experiencing of multi-layered narrative in any book, fictional, non-fictional or pictorial, comes under the umbrella of post- modernism.  Geoff Moss writes:

Broadly speaking, postmodernism pictures a subjective, relativistic world which is …. perpetually in construction, perpetually contradictory, perpetually open to change. (Moss, 1992, pp. 54-55)

Texts may be written with several narratorial voices, giving different perspectives, points-of-view – “not one story one voice … but many”.  There may be many different stories told within the one book, or gaps left in the text for the reader to fill in as they think appropriate – “becoming engaged in the active pursuit of complex meanings”.

In children’s picture books this can take the form of pictures that do not match the text, pictures without any text at all, or pictures that give more details to the story than the text gives – children “read and write a text at the same time in that they can be entertained by a text on its simplest level”.  This applies equally to children who cannot read, to whom the story is read, as well as to those who can.  All gather information from the pictures accompanying the text, according to their understanding, to their perceptions.  According to D Lewis:

we attend to and ‘read’ both pictures and words.  They act upon each other so that … we read the pictures through the words and the words through the pictures…. This … interaction between word and image in the picture book is [a] … reason for the form’s extraordinary openness and flexibility. (Lewis, 1990, p.141-142)

Come away from the water, Shirley by J Burningham is a good example of a postmodern children’s picture book.  The book is divided into two different narratives told on opposing pages – the parents’ dull world on one, facing Shirley’s exciting imaginary world on the other.  The illustrations are contrasting in style – box-framed, pale-tinted, line drawings with little background for the parents; and boldly colourful, detailed pictures for Shirley – thus underlining the difference between the two.

The cover and the title page, with map in between, give an indication of the type of story about to be experienced – that of a little girl’s pirate adventure with her dog.  The opening story page shows, in a white-bordered picture, the mother, father and an eager Shirley (shown running happily) crossing the shingles beside a groin wall, with a dog following and presumably with them.  The parents are laden with adult beach paraphernalia, while Shirley is unencumbered.  The text already sets the tone of what is to follow – a negative re swimming for Shirley, usually top on most children’s list for beach fun.  When the page is turned the reader sees that that bordered, first page illustration belongs to the adult narrative.

The next and succeeding pages show the parents sketchily illustrated and always confined by a line-border on the left hand page, while Shirley and the dog, with various props and imaginary people, are on the right hand, framed by a fuzzy-edged white border.  This form of bordering the pictures indicates to the reader that in Shirley’s fantasy world there is more freedom.

The adult world is boxed in with constraints, which the text in the form of a continuing dialogue endorses.  A subversive feature of this dialogue is the lack of periods at the end of each sentence (until the final page), creating the impression of a continual stream of negative directives issued by her mother to Shirley as to how she should play.  Many pages contain the word “don’t”.  Meanwhile, the parents, their faces registering mild contentment, do boring adult things – put their chairs up, fill and smoke a pipe, read a paper, knit, pour coffee from a thermos, sleep, then wake and leave.

There is not much to hold a child’s attention on the parents’ pages – mundane events with little detail to look at equates with little interest.  On the opposite pages, Shirley embarks on a sea voyage with the dog, which during the course of the parents’ text we learn does not belong to her: “Don’t stroke that dog, Shirley, you don’t know where he’s been”. (Burningham, 1977, p.8)  Not only are the pictures bright and eventful, but they lack an obstructing text, thus allowing the readers to invent their own story – that is, write their own text – from the pictorial details provided.

During the ‘real’ time it took her mother to get out the thermos flask, pour coffee, hand it to her husband, and return the flask to the basket, Shirley spent hours in her ‘fantasy’ time: walking the plank, fighting and defeating the pirates, diving from the ship with the pirate flag and treasure map, reading the map while sailing with the dog in her boat rigged with pirate flag sails.  ‘Time’ is shown by the gradual setting of the sun in the consecutive illustrations, and makes perfect sense to a child who would see no disparity with the ‘time’ depicted by her mother’s actions on the parents’ pages.  While it races for adults, time drags for children.

In the parents’ pages, adults are represented as inattentive, overprotective, nagging and boring, while Shirley is created as a child in need of guidance by the mother’s commentary.  In Shirley’s pages adults are represented in pirate guise as violent, bullying, then inept, while she is portrayed as brave, resourceful, empowered (by the crown she finds in the treasure chest), and independent.  Bradford remarks:

the indeterminacy to which David Lewis refers, the gap between the two sequences … articulates and enacts the gap between Shirley’s world and that of her parents. (Bradford, 1994, p. 206)

In the penultimate pages the text on the left finally aligns with the picture on the right – the mother wakes the father:

“Good heavens!  Just look at the time.  We are going to be late if we don’t hurry.” (Burningham, 1977, p. 20)

On the right hand page, Shirley and the dog are seen travelling at night with a rising moon back towards the beach.  The blackness of the night sky gives a sense of urgency to the picture – children should not be out alone after dark.

The final full-page unbordered illustration sees Shirley firmly implanted in the adult world again, reluctantly leaving the beach dragging on the end of her mother’s arm.  There is no sign of her companion, the dog.  The story has returned to the one voice, the united story of Shirley and her parents.  In between coming to the beach and leaving it, there existed for Shirley, and for the reader, an escape from the boring ‘real’ world of parents.  If she could do it there at the beach, maybe she could take her fantasy life home with her, as indicated by the lack of confining border – “the child’s imagination [is] a powerful defense against the adult world.” (Bradford, 1994, p. 206)

There are a number of complex meanings underlying the text.  A subversive commentary on gender roles expressed via the illustrations, but not the text, is one.  Usually pirate adventures belong in the realm of boys, but here the protagonist is a girl who is just as brave and resourceful as any boy would be.  As blond-haired Shirley approaches the pirate ship, rowing the dinghy expertly, the male pirates spill over the sides waving their cutlasses threateningly.  The figurehead on the prow of their vessel is a stereotypical mermaid – naked to the waist with long blond hair.   Initially overpowered, Shirley walks the plank as a defeated female, but when rescued by the dog, turns the tables on the pirates and, like a boy would, wins the treasure map.

An important submerged meaning, I think, is that children can entertain themselves using their imagination if given the chance to do so.  They don’t necessarily need to be directed in play, monitored every waking minute of their day.  A good example is the picture of Shirley and the dog with the treasure chest (Burningham, 1977, p. 19) – the colours are ‘happy’ ones, pinks, mauves and yellows, and Shirley smiles with pleasure in her achievement – treasure can be found in the form of fun and self-entertainment if children will just use their imaginations.

Another example of a postmodern children’s picture book is My Place by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins, aimed at a primary school age audience. Initially a history of a house in a street recorded backwards through the decades, it speaks with many voices of many races, recording not only the geographical changes but also the sociological ones.

A history book with a small ‘h’, the authors challenge ‘what’ is history, and ‘who’ is important in history – ordinary people rather than important political figures, marginalized people such as women, convicts, aborigines, ethnic groups, all given a voice in this book. Often with its sources as oral histories, rather than documentary, it breaks boundaries, and challenges the expectations of a History book. Most Australian history books start in 1788, written by white people about events seen from the white perspective.  This book goes beyond that, with its multiple points-of-view reflecting the  multicultural mix that is Australia.

Metafiction, an aspect of postmodernism, continually reminds the reader that texts represent life, that they are books. My Place may be a metahistory as at all times the reader is aware that the historical narrative is contained in book-form.  Refusing to be categorized, it may even fit into biography/fiction.  It is also a book that the reader can return to frequently to find details they missed previously, a thing children tend to do regularly – reread their favourite books gaining insight with each reading.

Comprising a text, with dates instead of page numbers, its complementary random illustrations frequently overflow their partial borders, giving an openness to the text plus additional information about the location and its occupants.  Geoff Moss writes that

because the picture book is a series of frames, materially marked by borders or page edges, and the portrayal of character or landscape is necessarily fragmented, it follows that each picture relates to a different subject position; each picture gives a new viewpoint. (Moss, 1992, p.63)

This is particularly true of My Place.  The history appears to be straightforward, until the map is scanned in detail.  The complexity and multiplicity of the history then becomes apparent as the reader focusses on the tree, the big house, the Millers/Mullers, the brickpits, the canal/creek, the drink factory, the pub and so on.

“In active pursuit of complex meanings” the reader flips back and forth from decade to decade in an attempt to place each separate place and family in the previous and following time-slot. The Aboriginal flag barred behind the window frame in the first page, 1988, is reflected in the final double-page landscape; the Aboriginal lifestyle in 1788, was vastly different from their lifestyle in 1988 (posing the question: is it better now?) – details obtained by interaction between the reader and book.

Moving in a circle there were aboriginal dwellers at the beginning and at the end of the book – but which is which?  Another boundary-breaking facet of postmodern texts is that they can be picked up and read from the middle outwards, from front to back, and from back to front, still forming an overall whole – subverting the way books are usually read.  This book does just that.  By writing from 1988 to 1788, backwards through time, is the book itself written back to front? Chronologically the decades run from the back of the book to the front, posing the question: is the back the front?

The multi-cultural nature of the occupants, not only of the house, but of the street, also provides a variety of narratorial voices.  Moving backwards, the families in residence were Aboriginal; Greek; Irish; Australian; German, with Chinese gardeners; American; English aristocracy, servants and convicts, and finally Aboriginal.  Many nationalities have many stories to tell, from their cultural viewpoints.

The revelation of the change in life-styles from the progressive 1988’s back through the two centuries to the more simple and less polluted times is quite ironic.  It questions what ‘progressive’ really means.  Are times better now with our technology, scientific knowledge, supposed social tolerance, and pollution problem, or were they better for the land when there were less people, less development and harder times socially and economically for the population?  This irony makes children, the book’s primary audience, aware that there is more than one way of looking at their world, and that “there is not one story one voice here, but many”.

(C)  Jud House   2/09/1997


Bradford, Clare. ‘”Along the road to learn”: Children and adults in the picture books of John Burningham’, Children’s literature in education V25(4) 1994, pp. 203-211.

Burningham, J.(1977) Come away from the water,Shirley  London: Red Fox Books

Lewis, D. ‘The constructedness of texts: Picture books and the metafictive’  Signal Vol 62, May 1990, pp.131-146.

Moss, G. (1992) ‘Metafiction, illustration and the poetics of children’s literature’ in Hunt (ed.) Literature for children: contemporary criticism.  London: Routledge.

Wheatley, N. & Rawlins, D. (1987)  My Place  Melbourne: Collins Dove


Bradford, Clare. ‘The changing picture book’ in Magpies v.5(5) Nov. 1990, pp.5-8.

Bradford, Clare. ‘The picture book: Some postmodern tensions’ in Papers: Explor- ations into children’s literature  v.4(3) 1993, pp.10-14.

Grieve, Ann. ‘Postmodernism in picture books’ in Papers: Explorations into children’s literature  v.4(3) 1993, pp.15-25.

Moseley, A. (1988)  ‘The journey through the “space in the text” to Where the wild things are’ in Children’s literature in education  Vol 19, No 2.

Nodelman, R. (1988) ‘Pictures, picture books and the implied viewer’ in Words about pictures: The narrative art of children’s picture books. Uni. of Georgia Press.

Rasmussen, B. (1987)  ‘Irony in picture books’  Orana  November 1987.

Richard, O. & MacGann, D.  ‘Audacious books and liberal education: The art of John Burningham’   WilsonLibrary Bulletin, May 1994, pp. 26-31.

Segal, Elizabeth (1981) ‘Picture books and princesses: The Feminist contribution’ Proceedings of the eighth annual conference of the Children’s Literature Association  in Ord, P. (ed.) University of Minnesota.

Sendak, M. (1977)  ‘The artist,as author: The strength of the double vision’  in Meek et al (eds.)  The cool web  pp. 241-256  London: Bodley Head.

Sorenson, M. (1993)  ‘The best job in the world’  A.B.R. No 154.

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  1. Pingback: Notes on the Craft Vol. 4 « Excursions Into Imagination

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