These notes on postmodern picture books are largely from David Beagley, La Trobe University. His lecture is available as a podcast on iTunes U.
A Walk In The Park is one of Browne’s very earliest picture books — his second after Through The Magic Mirror.
25 years later, Anthony Browne decided to redo this book in a much more postmodern style. The postmodern elements are just starting — they’re mainly in the background. There are little elements that don’t quite fit the scene. The updated book is a lot more surreal. (The first was called A Walk In The Park — now it is called Voices In The Park.)
All of the other media (comic strips etc) derive from the cinema.
Why not play with the physical properties of the book? A lot of postmodern picture books include, if not LOL jokes, riddles. They’re trying to be a little bit obscure/uncertain. Only some of the audience will get every reference, every joke. Anthony Browne does this hugely. He looks at the backgrounds, the foregrounds, what you may have known in the past, what you may not know yet, almost asking you to go and find out. The book is just a point in time, which brings together all your experiences in the past and will then lead on to somewhere else.
The traditional picture book: A linear storyline, self-contained entity, ‘realisticness’ is taken for granted. Even in Rosie’s Walk, the chicken behaves as a chicken might. Even when the characters are animals in human situations, the ‘mimetic humans’ are still behaving as humans would. Later pages are consequences of what’s happened earlier in the book. The pictures may not say exactly the same as the words, but both contribute to that single linear storyline, which means they don’t ‘shock’ you. The storyline may be ‘unexpected’, but not shocking. But the endings are expected in the tradition of the modernist picture book.
Voices In The Park is a very standard picture book, with clearly stated themes: Children can be friends even if adults can’t.
(There are a couple of characters but at first we see them from behind.)
There is a change in the seasons. What’s usually associated with those elements?
We have the children’s friendship blooming, but obviously highlighted is the difference in class between the two families. There’s the very working class Mr Smith (clothing, speech, home), similarly with Mrs Smith.
There is an external (extradiegetic) narrator — a passive observer who is outside the book, looking down on what is happening.
There is a very common style of visual presentation. It barely changes throughout the book. The format, the style, the placement of the words, the pictures occupying pretty much the same place. Repetition of low and high, high and low. The children are at pretty much the same distance — as if looking out of a window. It has an end: ‘Smudge kept the flower.’ There is much repetition. The adults are just sitting there, still sitting there, still sitting there.
There’s an implicit code that some things are good and other things are not. The children are happy, with the reward of the flower, but the parents aren’t behaving well and therefore they get nothing.
But there is still a nuclear-normative family. Within that, the individuals learn to relax and be friends, so the reader gets that message too. So we end up with a single truth at the end.
The update is now surreal: ‘Surreal‘ in this context does not simply mean ‘I didn’t understand it’. It means ‘over and above’, ‘more’. Paradoxes, riddles, allusions to something else. Things are ‘superimposed’ over the top. The reader must contribute to the meaning.
One of the things the surrealists were trying to do was to put disparate objects together in a common context. They thought it helped us see objects we usually take for granted — as if we’re seeing them for the first time.I use surrealism a lot is because I was very affected by surrealist paintings when I was young. I also believe children see through surrealist eyes: they are seeing the world for the first time. When they see an everyday object for the first time, it can be exciting and mysterious and new. — from Teaching Books interview below.]
The update is now first person narration. We are hearing Mrs Smythe directly in her own voice. This gives us a much clearer, stronger idea of her personality. The dogs frolicking in the background contradict what she has said. No one else is included in that scene. All that matters to her is herself and her son and she shuts out anyone else.
The seasons are different for different characters, even though it’s the same bench.
In ‘Voices In The Park’ the reader doesn’t know what is real and what is in the imagination. The boundary has been blurred. So which is the ‘real version’? There is none.
The way the book is constructed is the technique of telling the story. Dividing the narrative into four episodes is a metafictive device. We get multiple layers of meaning. Metafiction is basically a type of fiction which draws attention to its status as a work of art.’ We know as readers that we’re being played with as a reader. But we go along with it. The update is deliberately staged and artificial.
How much do you need to know of Anthony Browne in order to understand the book? (The fact he had an older brother and he could never do things as well as him, and bullying of smaller people etc.)
The animals still have an animalness about them even though they’re obviously meant to be humans. We associate gorillas with ‘big, tough, strong’, therefore ‘big, tough, strong’ nature of humans which then stand for teachers, adults, big people, bullies. This is the sort of thing it is assumed the reader will know.
Anthony Browne uses traditional art style of the sort you’d find hanging in galleries a lot. Like Rene Magritte, Browne uses the same symbol over and over again to get the meaning across. (Magritte was a Belgian surrealist artist.)
In Browne’s Voices In The Park, we see bowler hats in trees and what not: Everything symbolises the boy’s mother, over the top, oppressing him. Eventually the repressing hats disappear from his view.
Truth and meaning: The truth does not exist, not by itself as a single thing in the book. Someone creates the truth and the meaning? The book itself, the maker of the book who makes these choices, but more than anything the reader makes the meaning. There are as many meanings as there are readers. Every reading of the book is equally valid.
The difference between post-modern and modern? A modernist book supports the standard ways of doing things, but a post-modern book challenges all of those views.
REFERENCES: Orana : journal of school and children’s librarianship. Australia : Library Association of Australia, School & Children’s Libraries Sections 1977 – 2005
MORE ON VOICES IN THE PARK: Analysis by Kylie Johnson