The Tunnel by Anthony Browne Picture Book Analysis

The Tunnel Anthony Browne

The Tunnel is a picture book written and illustrated by British author/illustrator Anthony Browne. The Tunnel was first published in 1989.


In the 1980s it was far more common for kids to be sent out of the house because their mothers were sick of them (and it was almost always the mothers doing the caregiving). “Get out of the house, you kids! I don’t want to see you again til dinnertime!” The mother in this story is a little kinder than that, but I’m reminded of the vibe.

So the kids go to a wasteland which just so happens to have a fantasy portal in the shape of a tunnel. The tunnel appears to be manmade. Tunnels are an inherently scary feature of the urbanised landscape. Stephen King made the most of this in the 1980s with IT (you know, with the clown and the red balloon.) Australia’s own Paul Jennings also wrote a tunnel/sewer story. See “There’s No Such Thing” in his Unbelievable collection.

The tunnel/sewer is, symbolically, the man-made equivalent of the forest cave. It makes sense that humans have developed a fear of caves. Wild creatures tend to sleep in there, and if not wild creatures, perhaps other humans. Humans have always been the most dangerous ‘creatures’ to humans. We’re called super predators for a reason.

There’s a strong Narnia vibe to this one, though I guess all portal fantasies which start in the normal world and land kids in a wooded area are going to remind me of Narnia. On top of that, we’ve got the boy who is turned into stone, a trope utilised by C.S. Lewis, and which can be found in fairytales much older than C.S. Lewis.

Illustration by Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941). …and the next moment he was turned to stone and lay there immovable…” Story illustration for “The Golden Lads” published in The Green Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang (London: Longmans Green and Co., 1892)

Anthony Browne’s fantasy world offers nothing by way of explanation. We are never told what, how or who turned the boy into stone. Readers are left to create that part of the story for ourselves. Anthony Browne’s books expect the reader to craft at least half of the narrative, which is part of the Surrealist, postmodern experience.

As you read Anthony Browne’s books, look carefully at the skyline. In this story, as well as in Zoo, Browne lines the horizon with industrial buildings to convey a fearful, repressed emotion in the young characters. In this particular story, the skyline buildings change as the characters start to view them differently.

The painting below is by a Russian artist, and features a similar line of industrial buildings between landscape and sky.

Andrey Surnov, Russian digital artist
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Voices In The Park by Anthony Browne Analysis

Have you ever wanted to go back and redo old work? A Walk In The Park is one of Anthony Browne’s earliest picture books — his second published after Through The Magic Mirror. Twenty years later (in 1998), Browne decided to redo this book in Postmodern style. Now it is called Voices In The Park. In the earlier title, postmodern elements are nascently evident. Look closely and you’ll find minor elements that don’t quite fit the scene. The earlier version has a single voice. The updated book contains four separate voices in first person and is far more surreal.

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Zoo by Anthony Browne (1992) Analysis

Zoo is a postmodern picture book written and illustrated by Anthony Browne, first published in 1992. Browne’s story is not a pleasant or easy read, but it does the job it’s meant to. This is a critique of zoos as a fun day out (for children and animals alike), and subverts a long tradition in children’s literature as zoos as an arena for carnivalesque fun.

20th century children’s books set in zoos are not hard to find. Zoos also appear frequently in art aimed at an adult audience:

from Punch, 1867
from Punch, 1867 by Du Maurier
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) Gouache illustration for The New Yorker cover May 26 1945 zoo
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) Gouache illustration for The New Yorker cover May 26 1945 zoo
Walter Crane for London Town
Walter Crane for London Town
Walter Crane for London Town
by Tibor Gergery (1900-1978), 1944 New Yorker Cover fair zoo noah's ark
by Tibor Gergery (1900-1978), 1944 New Yorker Cover
Norman Rockwell Zoo Keeper lion
Norman Rockwell Zoo Keeper lion


  1. PERIOD — This picture book was published in 1992, a period in which traditional 20th century zoos were starting to reconsider their raison d’être. I’m of the generation who saw that change happen in real time. My early childhood experiences include visits to absolutely horrible zoos, which hadn’t quite gone by the time I was in my late teenage years. The most confronting zoo I visited was the Tokyo Zoo, in 1995 — a concrete establishment bereft of people. I went there with my fellow exchange student peers on a Sunday afternoon exploring central Tokyo and we left in a very dispirited mood. In my hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, I remember seeing a gorilla locked inside a cage about the size of a bedroom. He had nothing to do in there except masturbate, which he did frequently, looking visitors right in the eye. I feel he knew exactly how confronting this was. And I can’t quite fathom how adults felt it was okay to exhibit that gorilla as a spectacle in the very same environment in which talk of masturbation, let alone the spectacle of it, was utterly taboo.
Kabakun is a classic Japanese picture book published in 1962. Told by a boy who visits the zoo for fun, this is about a day in the life of two hippopotamuses. The illustrations make the hippos seem enormous on the page, so this picture book makes an excellent case study in how to achieve that effect. It is not, however, a critique of zoos.
  1. DURATION — Anthony Browne’s Zoo takes place over part of a day. A day trip.
  2. LOCATION — This fictional zoo is positioned in the middle of a busy city. Browne is clear about that — the family gets stuck in a traffic jam in order to get to this artificial wilderness.
  3. ARENA —But even once inside the zoo, Browne’s backdrops offer us glimpses of the surrounding arena, which is completely devoid of greenery. Instead we see the least beautiful parts of humanity.
  4. MANMADE SPACES — I’m talking about the power pylons and the tall buildings, shown to us only in silhouette, making them seem even more ominous.
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS — The story has no natural setting at all, which is entirely the point. Although Browne’s critique of the zoo experience as Not Fun was new to picture books in 1992, there is a lengthy history of children’s storytellers subtley and not so subtley conveying the message that the country is wholesome and the city is dangerous for children, and that cities stifle childhood itself.
  6. WEATHER — If Browne wanted to create a genuine utopia he’d have created a blue sky with plenty of greenery, but in Zoo he does the opposite. The sky is as grey as they concrete zoo inside the concrete jungle of humanity.
  8. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? Politically, animal rights activists were starting to gain traction and the a greater proportion of the general public was starting to think a bit more critically about how we treat animals, especially wild animals, especially endangered species. I’m confident that zoos (and circuses) will one day be no longer a thing that exist. Most zoos in the year 2020 are doing a better job of creating the illusion of nature, and some perhaps genuinely provide a decent life for some of their animals. But there’s still a lot going on behind the scenes that would shock visitors. For instance, the giraffe at our local zoo is a main exhibit, and if you turn up for the talk you’ll hear all about what he eats, how he spends his days, and he’ll come close enough for you to admire his beautiful long lashes. Left out of the child-friendly talk: how a new giraffe was murdered one night in a territory fight, because giraffes are a violent, territorial species, and one zoo ain’t big enough for two males.
  9. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — Here we are talking about the difference between what is real in the veridical world of the story and how a character perceives it — never exactly as it is, but rather influenced by their own preconceptions, biases, desires and personal histories. The characters in this particular story exist on a continuum between laughingly blasé (the father) and quiet, sober and concerned (the mother). The boy who narrates is noticing his parents’ reactions and, at the reflective time of retelling, seems to be making up his own about zoos. At this point he simply knows zoos are not fun. The details he tells us are centred on him, his own family and his own family’s experience of the zoo, not on the experience of the animals. The reader, however, with careful reading of the images, will see the exact ways in which this zoo is not fun: For the empathetic person, a zoo can’t be fun for humans if it’s not fun for animals.
Gorilla by Anthony Browne zoo
Gorilla by Anthony Browne zoo



Zoo Anthony Browne cover
Zoo Anthony Browne cover

Unusually for Goodreads, the publishers have said nothing about this book other than:

Winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal.

The most upvoted consumer reviewers fall on a narrow spectrum between ‘I did not like this book’ and ‘I did not like this book but it’s important’.


Zoo by Anthony Browne is an especially good case study in meaningful framing. Illustrators make various use of frames — doorways, windows and arches make for naturalistic architectural divisions of a scene. Frames can be created in other ways, too, for example in the opening image below. This looks like a simple page of portraits but on a re-read you’ll notice that those boxes separate each family member from each other, and the white space between them is the psychological distance between them. This is the story of a family separated from each other by metaphorical bars and white space.

zoo characters introduction
There is a lot of ironic distance between words and pictures in this book. The words say the boys are excited; the facial expressions tell a different story.

Stripes are another symbolic feature of the illustrations, most obviously in the stripy shirt worn by the father, the character most responsible for splitting the family apart.

dad horn clouds
The symbolic stripes (meaning bars on a cage) may need to be pointed out to the youngest readers, but those clouds forming devil horns are not at all subtle, and should alert the most naive of readers to the idea that these pictures contain plenty of symbolic meaning. Seeing these obvious horns, the young reader is encouraged to find more clues in the pictures, in a Where’s Wally kind of way.

The mother doesn’t seem to have any power in this family. She does have a voice, though her observations don’t have any impact on her husband. This is an example of the well-established female maturity principle at work, in which female characters are the people in a story with extra insight, well-developed empathy. It is rare to find a gender inversion of this parental dynamic.

The boys might as well be zoo animals themselves because they are stuck in this family, forced to do whatever the adults require of them. At times they break out and rough and tumble with each other, much like monkeys.


The action is driven by the father, who is the only one in this family who thinks a trip to the zoo would be fun. We are shown this in the car, when the father is the only one to laugh at his own joke. Browne, in turn, makes this into a joke for the reader by saying ‘everyone laughed except’ (everyone else in the car). This solipsistic father has no empathy for the desires of the rest of his family.

However, Browne knows that children in children’s stories need their own desires in order for a story to work, so the boys do have wishes of their own: They want to see the monkeys and apes, not all the other ‘boring’ animals. When they do see the large ape, this will comprise the climax. (Subverted.)


The parents have their own idea about how the day should pan out. It should be fun, dammit. Even though the boys are hungry, they are not allowed to eat until designated lunchtime. In this respect, the boys are like the animals, who must wait for their feeding time rather than hunting and eating according to their own rhythms.

Browne’s illustrations of the father emphasise his bulk, with worm’s eye views (rather, child-eye views) and in one disturbing picture he has his mouth wide open, similar to depictions of cannibalistic ogres.

The boys are depicted as monkeys. The father makes a joke about their monkey hats, and Browne has emphasised the boys’ faces to better resemble monkeys’ faces. In comparison to the gorilla, these small monkeys are helpless.


The adults’ plan: To get value for money by visiting all of the animals. Browne shows us that the father doesn’t want to pay the entry fee because he lies about the son’s age to get a cheaper price. He also doesn’t pay for a map. (I deduce that’s why they don’t have one.) The family is therefore lost within the zoo, which is not at all like a wilderness but functions more like a labyrinth, in which the family are on this path and must walk around and around until allowing themselves a psychological out. No one has forced them into this labyrinth, but as in any mythological labyrinth, there will be a Minotaur at the centre, when the main character reaches the darkest depths of his soul.


So who is the Minotaur of this zoo-labyrinth? Is it the father? I believe it’s the father AND the gorilla, who is an absolutely pitiful creature. We don’t even see the gorilla’s face, just the hunched over, completely withdrawn, pathetic figure of a magnificent wild creature with beautiful reddish fur.

Anthony Browne uses the same illustrative trick in his retelling of Hansel and Gretel, in which the stepmother EQUALS the witch. Using illustrations, Browne melds a familiar (family) characater into the supernatural, mythical character, showing the reader that mythological creatures aren’t real, sure, but are even scarier than we thought; they walk among us. They live in our homes.


The boy narrator does not experience an “Oh my, zoos are horrible! I’m never visiting a zoo again!’ kind of epiphany. It would be unbelievable, and unlike a children’s story, if he did. Joycean epiphanies happen rarely in real life, and postmodern stories reflect that. This child’s naivety is established in the opening, when he uses ‘incorrect’ grammar ‘Me and my brother were really excited’. The introduction itself is naive, written in a ‘what I did on my holiday’ kind of way, as if required by his schoolteacher. One does not become all-seeing and wise over the course of a single outing.

Instead, the boy realises that zoos are not fun, which is just the first step towards full awareness of humans’ relationship to animals, and how far humans have become removed from our natural environments, of small communities, of ready access to nature, and everything that goes with that.

In a story like this this, the reader is supposed to have more of a revelation than the naive narrator. When developmentally reader to do so, the reader picks up the double meaning of the mother’s final observation:

“I don’t think the zoo really is for animals… I think it’s for people.”

First meaning: Zoos are no good for animals. They are good only for people.
Second meaning: Zoos are a type of cage for people, as well as for animals.

The illustration on the recto side of the spread encourages the second reading because now we see a close up of a gorilla not through bars, but through the archetypal storybook window frame, divided into four segments. This family is about to go home, and they talk about eating dinner, and what they will have. In a Magic Eye book kind of way, we can imagine seeing the family through that same frame, eating their burger and chips and beans — foods chosen by Browne specifically for being highly processed, removed from ‘nature’, not through the bars of a zoo, but through the equally restrictive ‘bars’ of a suburban window frame.


That night I had a very strange dream.

Do you think animals have dreams?

The final sentence shows the reader that the boy narrator has finally started to think about the ‘humanity’ of the animals. He’s just starting to look outside the concerns of his own family.

The full-page recto imagery is a wide angle shot of a zoo in silhouette, but most of the page is sky and includes the moon. This functions as an outro shot seen frequently in film — big skies and oceans are commonly used to show the main character has achieved a wider view of the story situation. (Sometimes the storyteller elevates the main character by putting them on a hill or a roof.)


This boy could go either way. He could side with his wholly unempathetic same-gender parent and become a big, strong man who laughs and cracks dad jokes and impresses his own thoughts and desires upon everyone around him, using his bulk like a wild male gorilla. Or he could forge a more modern path, using his mother as cue. The final sentence has suggested he’ll take the second path, but sometimes characters in stories have a temporary (“phantasmagoric”) epiphany then go right back to how they were before. (The Literary Impressionists were a fan of this kind of ending.)


In the 19th century, families used to visit asylums for the insane as family outings. We now call this Asylum Tourism.

Modern families would shudder at asylum tourism, which is why I think future families will, in time, shudder at zoos (and circuses), if not already.

Lemon girl young adult novella


The History of Hansel and Gretel


Hansel and Gretel is one of the best-known fairytales. Almost everybody knows the basic story but, more than that, this tale is the ur-story for many seemingly unrelated modern ones. For example, whenever a character meets a character in a ‘forest’ (whether the forest is symbolic or not), the audience is put in mind of wicked cannibalistic witches.

Let’s face it: The tale itself is basically terrifying. Anthony Browne, with his postmodern approach to its retelling, does not shy away from the terror. Later, Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Matotti created an even darker version.

‘Sweetened’ Versions of Hansel and Gretel

Ladybird Hansel and Gretel

My kid does not like the Anthony Browne version of Hansel and Gretel. For them it is too scary. They don’t like the dark version illustrated by Lorenzo Mattoti, either, preferring the cheap Ladybird edition with its brighter colours. This might explain why many illustrators of Hansel and Gretel — and there have been many — are not interested in what the story is really about, because the original is just too horrible.

The sweetening of this tale started with the Grimm brothers, who needed to make money to support their collection hobby, so they rewrote some of the horrible tales into versions they considered appropriate for middle class children.

in the dark woods

Japanese Story With Similar Plot Points

There is a Japanese folktale called ‘The Three Brothers and the Oni‘ that is similar to the German tale known as Hansel and Gretel. In the Japanese tale, a mother who couldn’t afford to feed her three children takes them deep into the woods and asks them to wait while she goes to hunt for food. The three boys soon realised that she was not coming back. The two youngest boys began to cry, but the older boy (who was only seven years old) suggested they climb up a nearby tree to see if they could find anywhere that they could sleep for the night. In the distance they noticed a little house and so they set off and wandered through the woods towards it. By the time they arrived at the house it was already dark.

Curious Ordinary

The Grimm Brothers Made It Worse, As Usual

By that I mean, they made it horribly patriarchal. And we’ve been using their version ever since, sweetening it up a little, but the basic patriarchal message is the same:

The Grimm brothers rewrote and refined their version of the tale before it was published in 1857. It bears little resemblance to the original oral tale told to Wilhelm in 1810. While the mother figure is clearly demonized in this story, the father’s involvement in abandoning his children is carefully downplayed.

from Carolyn Daniel’s book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The main differences in the oral version:

  • The opponent was originally a mother, not a stepmother. The Grimm brothers obviously thought that having your blood mother turn on you was too scary. They did retain the shortened form of ‘mother’ in some passages though.
  • The mother/stepmother grows harsher.
  • The father grows more introspective and milder.
  • Wilhelm made the tale more dramatic, more literary, and more sentimental. For example, the children’s escape from the sinister woods across a large body of water, one at a time, on the back of a duck. In the original they simply run home.

Anthony Browne’s Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel by Anthony Browne cover
Hansel and Gretel by Anthony Browne cover

Anthony Browne is one writer/illustrator who does understand what this tale is really about, though he does go with something more like the Grimm modification rather than the original, oral tale.

This is no sweetened version. The fact that this is a modern setting, with a TV and a step-mother who smokes cigarettes, and that they live in a brownstone detached house mean that the child reader can no longer pretend abandonment and famine happen only in ‘fairytale land’.

dining room table
The mother does not consider herself a part of the family, based on her refusal to sit at the dinner table. Instead she gazes into the TV.
walking into the woods

Here’s the thing Browne underscores the most:

The mother and the witch are the same person.

In Hansel and Gretel, the mother figure is split … and clearly has cannibalistic desires.

from Carolyn Daniel’s book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Daniels further explains the double/duplicitous/split nature of the (step)mother/witch with the help of some 20th C psychoanalysis:

The witch locks Hansel up in a cage and wakes Gretel up by yelling: “Get up you lazybones! I want you to fetch some water and cook your brother something nice. He’s sitting outside in a pen, and we’ve got to fatten him up. Then, when he’s fat enough, I’m going to eat him.”

This is a portrait of a powerful cannibalistic woman, the bad mother, who is directly juxtaposed with the good mother figure. Two facets of the mother figure are represented in this fairy tale: the evil, threatening, cannibalistic one embodied by the witch/stepmother and the comforting, feeding persona initially presented by the old woman to lure the children. The link between the stepmother and the witch is made explicitly — they both wake the children with the phrase “Get up, you lazybones” and they are both dead by the end of the story: the stepmother is the facet of the bad mother/breast who denies the children nourishment and abandons them; the witch is the mother/breast who threatens to retaliate. The duplicitousness of the bad mother is also emphasized: in her manifestation as the stepmother she pretends to be as pleased when the children find their way home; as the witch she pretends to be a kind, generous, good mother in order to lure the children into her house.

stepmother and shadow
The mother equals the witch. The clue is in the way her shadow is cast, and the way the curtains form a witch’s hat in the perfect position.

Oral Aggression?

Bruno Bettelheim [who was a total asshole, by the way — I can’t write about him without slipping that in there] considers “Hansel and Gretel” to be a tale about a child’s inappropriate oral aggression, that “gives body to the anxieties and learning tasks of the young child who must overcome and sublimate his primitive incorporative and thus destructive desires.” But it is noteworthy that in this tale the children are orally nonaggressive. They do break off pieces of the house and “nibble” them but then they are about to “perish of hunger and exhaustion” (Grimms.) It is the witch who is aggressive and cannibalistic, but Bettelheim does not discuss this.

Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

the cottage made of sweets

Hansel and Gretel and Child Development

Anthony Browne Hansel and Gretel pushing witch into oven
When children defeat a witch in a fairy tale this signifies separation from mother — a necessary stage in psychic development.

I’m no Freudian, but here’s some quoted psychoanalysis if you like.


It is interesting to consider the ending of the tale in terms of psychoanalytic notions of child development. The children’s task is to escape the clutches of the devouring mother and to proceed from the oral phase to the oedipal stage and a meaningful relationship with their father. They live in her house for a month while she feeds Hansel on “the very best food” and waits for him to get fatter. Hansel, then, partakes of the good breast while Gretel, who “got nothing but grab shells” to eat, is denied it. They are clearly in the oral, pre-oedipal phase. By threatening to eat Hansel, the witch/bad mother clearly intends to incorporate and psychically obliterate him. Gretel kills the witch/bad mother by pushing her into the oven so that she is “miserably burned to death”. The threat of incorporation she poses is thus neutralized.

Since the children have now successfully separated from the witch/mother, they are able to re-enter her house/domain “since they no longer had anything to fear.” There are children find “chests filled with pearls and jewels all over the place” and they fill pockets and apron with this treasure before leaving the house for good. Tracy Willard contends that while the good mother is not reclaimed literally or explicitly in this tale, she is symbolically reclaimed through the treasure the children find in her house. I suggest that this tale illustrates the process whereby children reconcile themselves to the duality of the mother; her presence and absence, her giving and withholding of food, and the gratification and frustration that result. The children in the tale not only kill off the bad mother but they also leave behind the oral phase. When they arrive at the house in the forest, all they are interested in is food (gratification from a maternal source), but when they leave the house/maternal domain they take treasure (economic wealth associated with the father) with them which enriches their lives, so that they can enter the paternal oedipal domain, and live with their father in “utmost joy”.

Willard […] sees the children’s home (or mother’s body) as a place that becomes hostile to them, expelling them into the forest and denying them food. They try to return but are rejected and thrust out to fend for themselves. The children find a house in the woods that appears to offer them what they desire (a return to the mother’s body) but it turns out to be a trap. Thus “the dangers of returning home are clearly outlined.” The children, Willard argues, must deal with the image of the split mother so that they can attain “a fully integrated image of the mother”. They do this by committing matricide, an act which Kristeva argues is the clearest path to autonomy. By killing the witch/bad mother, the children are free to return to their father, but they take with them the “best parts” of the split mother figure, symbolically represented by the jewels. […] The symbolism of food and the theme of eating (including cannibalism) in the story have profound psychic resonances with infantile anxieties relating to the mother which is arguably why the story continues to be popular.

Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The Role Of The Father and ‘Mothers In Fridges’?

But what of the role of the father in this tale? The Grimm brothers’ version celebrates the oedipal complex and reinforces patriarchal hegemony. As Zipes argues, this story twice demonizes the omnipotent mother figure but it also, significantly, was rewritten by the Grimms in order to rationalize the abandonment of the children by their father and to bolster phallocentric discourses.Hansel and Gretel must, Zipes argues, “seek solace and security in a father, who becomes their ultimate authority figure” while the mother is conveniently killed off. This situation marries with Jessica Benjamin’s theorization of object relations whereby the child identifies with the mother and maternal power and turns to the father for help in order to overcome the perceived negative aspects of the mother. However, once his help/authority has been accepted the father figure remains in control, continues to dictate the child’s life, and can be “benevolent or sadistic”. Patriarchal hegemony and phallocentric logic are thus reinforced in the Grimms’ narrative and the outcome is rendered natural or rational.

Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
reunited with dad
water from the well


The Red Shoes

witch shape in curtains

What do you associate red shoes with? Perhaps you associate them with the film version of The Wizard of Oz, in which the bad witch is squished under the house, her ruby slippers poking out?

The Red Shoes” is a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, so not of the Grimm variety, but ‘fairytale’ enough for readers to get the possible meaning in the picture above, in which red shoes sit next to the mirrored wardrobe door.

A peasant girl named Karen is adopted by a rich old lady after her mother’s death and grows up vain and spoiled. Before her adoption, Karen had a rough pair of red shoes; now she has her adoptive mother buy her a pair of red shoes fit for a princess. After Karen repeatedly wears them to church, they begin to move by themselves, but she is able to get them off. One day, when her adoptive mother becomes ill, Karen goes to a party in her red shoes. A mysterious soldier appears and makes strange remarks about what beautiful dancing shoes Karen has. Soon after, Karen’s shoes begin to move by themselves again, but this time they can’t come off. The shoes continue to dance, night and day, rain or shine, through fields and meadows, and through brambles and briers that tear at Karen’s limbs. She can’t even attend her adoptive mother’s funeral. An angel appears to her, bearing a sword, and condemns her to dance even after she dies, as a warning to vain children everywhere. Karen begs for mercy but the red shoes take her away before she hears the angel’s reply. Karen finds an executioner and asks him to chop off her feet. He does so but the shoes continue to dance, even with Karen’s amputated feet inside them. The executioner gives her a pair of wooden feet and crutches, and teaches her the criminals’ psalm. Thinking that she has suffered enough for the red shoes, Karen decides to go to church so people can see her. Yet her amputated feet, still in the red shoes, dance before her, barring the way. The following Sunday she tries again, thinking she is at least as good as the others in church, but again the dancing red shoes bar the way. Karen gets a job as a maid in the parsonage, but when Sunday comes she dares not go to church. Instead she sits alone at home and prays to God for help. The angel reappears, now bearing a spray of roses, and gives Karen the mercy she asked for: her heart becomes so filled with sunshine, peace, and joy that it bursts. Her soul flies on sunshine to Heaven, where no one mentions the red shoes.

Wikipedia summary
pink fripperies

The pink fripperies spilling out of the dresser drawers suggest several things about this step-mother:

  1. She is not a good housewife (when the implication is that a good housewife is also a good mother, and that being a good housekeeper is the job of the woman.
  2. That women who are over-the-top feminine — look at all the feminine accoutrements, signified by the colour pink — are over-the-top vain. The mirror adds to the impression of vanity, and we will subconsciously conjure up Snow White and the magic mirror in that tale.

Note that the step-mother has not one but two mirrors in her bedroom, which is considered excessively vain, but apart from that, there’s the whole ‘witch/mother’ mirroring going on.


10 Historic Famines That Caused Cannibalism

Repulsive as it sounds in times of plenty, cannibalism in times of famine isn’t all that unusual.

George Devereaux, citing “Multatuli (1868),” pseudonym of novelist Edward Douwes Dekker, reports that during medieval famines and “even during the great postrevolutionary famine in Russia” the “actual eating of one’s children or the marketing of their flesh” occurred. He concludes that “the eating of children in times of food shortage is far from rare.”

Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Maria Tatar argues that although mothers did eat their children, it was generally only due to mental derangement caused by her own starvation. In medical/legal documents it was always a baby who was eaten rather than an older child.

In modern literature, there is a horrific scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in which the main characters happen across a baby being roasted on a spit. It seems McCarthy, also, understands that babies are more likely to be eaten than older children in times of famine.

Hansel and Gretel wicked witch for a Grimm Collection, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith
Hansel and Gretel wicked witch for a Grimm Collection, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith

Paternal cannibalism is of a different nature and can be seen in The Juniper Tree (sometimes called The Almond Tree). In cases where the father eats his child in a fairytale, Tatar sees it as an expression of ‘biological ownership through incorporation’. The child can (in a strange sort of way) live on via being made into the father’s own body. The father in the Juniper Tree is not cast as good or evil in the same way fairy tale mothers are.


Other fairytales that start in a time of famine:

  • Tom Thumb
  • The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn
  • God’s Food
  • The Sweet Porridge — better known in English speaking countries as The (Magic) Porridge Pot
  • The Children of Famine — exemplifies the plight of families unable to feed their kids. The mother becomes unhinged and desperate when she is unable to feed her own children.
  • Little Red Riding Hood also has cannibalistic elements which are sometimes sanitised. This tale is pretty much the only European tale in which a good — a good girl no less — is involved in cannibalism.

Anthony Browne wasn’t the first to take two separate women from “Hansel and Gretel” and merge them together as one. In her short story “Angel Maker” (1996), Sara Maitland Maitland rewrites ”Hansel and Gretel” from the perspective of the witch. Over her adult lifetime, Gretel regularly visits the witch for abortions. At the age of 38 she now wishes to become pregnant, and this time visits the witch for a different reason. The witch and Gretel are the same person.

Anthony Browne’s compositions remind me of the version below, illustrated by Frank Adams.

Many fairy tales have their roots in a much darker past, but these origins are watered down to make the tales more wholesome or moral. But did the story of Hansel and Gretel really stem from a case of entrepreneurial intrigue and murder in 17th century Germany? And did the Grimm Brothers know more than they were letting on it their version of the story? Why do the illustrations in their book look so similar to modern day locations? In this episode of The Folklore Podcast, creator and host Mark Norman examines a case to which their is certainly more than it seems at first glance.

Gaiman and Matotti’s Hansel and Gretel

One of the best ways to retell a familiar story is to add plenty of minor detail. The trick is to make this detail seem both unexpected and surprising. There are things I really like about Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel:

1. In earlier retellings, it is Hansel who has all the bright ideas. Hansel realises what the parents/step-mother has done to them — abandoned them in the woods. By comparison, Gretel seems naiive and even stupid. In this retelling, Gaiman offsets this interpretation by making Hansel — but not Gretel — privy to an overheard midnight conversation between the  mother and the father.

2. So often in fairytale retellings, it is a step-mother rather than a birth mother who is evil. It is generally thought that a story with an evil mother is too terrible for a young reader to contemplate. If there are unwritten rules in children’s literature (and indeed, there must be few these days, if we include young adult literature), it is that mothers must love their children unconditionally, even if they themselves are too screwed up to care for them properly. If you went looking for terrible mothers in children’s literature you’d be hard pressed to count the evil ones on one hand. But Neil Gaiman does not shy away from the reality that some women do indeed lack mothering instincts, just as many men lack fathering instincts.

3. Not only that, Neil Gaiman portrays gut-wrenching emotion in the father. Counterintuitively, this is what makes this story feminist — a story in which women are not put on a pedestal as mothers, where women have only one representation: self-sacrificing and emotional. In stories, men are often allowed to be just men, even when they have children. They are not judged so much on how effective they are as fathers. In this story, however, the father is the parent with the nurturing instinct, and is at the mercy of his wife’s terrible decisions rather than the other way around. We won’t have gender equality until we have as many bad mothers as there are bad fathers, I guess.

Food In Fairytales

Carolyn Daniel writes in Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature:

The woodcutter’s family is poor and they “did not have much food around the house, and when a great famine devastated the entire country, [the woodcutter] could no longer provide enough for his family’s daily meals”. At the suggestion of their stepmother, Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods. The hungry children come across a house made, in the Grimm version, of “bread” with “cake for a roof and pure sugar for windows”. Cane sugar was a very costly commodity and had been imported from India or Arabia since the eleventh century. It was used for making marzipan and other sweetmeats. Sugar would only have been available to rich nobles and not to woodcutters and their families. The house made of sweet food represents something exotic, very rich, and beyond the reach of the peasantry. When your diet is poor and monotonous, a story featuring plentiful, appetizing food is bound to have appeal, but I believe this fantasy goes beyond the desire to alleviate hunger: it also represents economic desire. The exoticism and richness of the sugary food in the fantasy represent not only the riches of the nobility but also their ability to avoid the hunger and drudgery of the peasants’ daily life. The Grimm version ends with the children filling apron and pockets with the pearls and jewels they have found in the witch’s house and taking them home to their father. “[In] the meantime” their stepmother has died and so “Now all their troubles were over, and they lived together in utmost joy”. Their future is secured by the wealth with which, like the nobility, they can now live in relative ease and luxury. Unlike the magic porridge pot that merely alleviated hunger, the jewels provide the woodcutter’s family with riches and instant freedom from their menial existence.


I knew before picking this book up that the illustrations were in black and white, but what I didn’t expect was that many of the illustrations would be — literally — black and white, with basically no greys, just #FFFFFF and #000000. There is a little green on the cover, but not within the pages. Mattotti does not always paint in black and white. In fact, a lot of his work has quite interesting use of colour. Note all the different colours in the shadow of the ping-pong table — the shadow is as alive as the foliage. The woman’s blonde hair turns to red as it blends into her dress. The green of the table reflects onto the yellow t-shirt. Colour or no colour, there’s something ‘creepy’ about Mattotti’s people. Here they have no faces, and their profiles are uncompromisingly angular, as are the elbows. Body proportion is slightly morphed, with an unusually long-waisted man.

Lorenzo Mattotti New Yorker Cover
Lorenzo Mattotti New Yorker Cover

For Hansel and Gretel, the choice was made to leave out any colour. It is extraordinarily difficult to paint detailed scenes using only the whitest white and the blackest black, unless you’re working with black outlines on white paper, of course, but these illustrations are filled in with blocks of black and we still know what the scenes are. This is quite a magic trick.

Lorenzo Mattotti Hansel and Gretel
Lorenzo Mattotti Hansel and Gretel
Lorenzo Mattotti Hansel and Gretel house in distance
Lorenzo Mattotti Hansel and Gretel house in distance
Why the absence of colour?

Of David Macaulay’s book Unbuilding, Perry Nodelman writes in Words About Pictures:

In black and white, [the drawings] achieve the tongue-in-cheek pseudoconviction of fairy tales, that characteristically matter-of-fact reporting of utterly nonfactual events.

Is that partly what’s going on here, too, when the publishers decided to employ an artist who would work in black and white? I suspect the ‘documentary realism’ is part of it; added to that is the universal fear of darkness, most dramatically rendered in black. Nodelman says that although some artists achieve a sense of reality by imitating and thus evoking our conventional expectations of conventionally realistic depictions/photographs and artists’ sketches

in other circumstances, black-and-white drawing is not necessarily a good medium for the representational depiction of the way the world looks. It shows us less of the visual world than our eyes do—shades, but no hues—and forces us to fill in what is not actually shown. Perhaps that explains why black-and-white documentary seems so truthful and serious—it demands our mental activity, so that we cannot just sit back and soak it in. But since black-and-white pictures are, in fact, less complete than those in colour, they actually reveal less of surfaces, of physical objects and facial characteristics.

Furthermore, colour, placed in between the lines that represent objects, fills in shapes and gives the objects solidity; so without colour, the lines become more obvious, and without the solidifying qualities of weightiness and bulk they can more forcefully depict motion. Generally speaking, and unlike the work of Van Allsburg and Macaulay, most of the black and white drawing in picture books is cartooning and caricature, and most of it emphasizes action over appearance-not how objects look but what they do.

This focus also explains why black-and-white illustrations seem so much more appropriate in longer books than in picture books. Picture books emphasise showing as much as telling, and their pictures often fill in the details of emotion and of setting that their words leave out and that color seems most suited to convey. But in longer books, words can convey at least some of those details, and pictures in color seem superfluous when they merely duplicate information the text itself communicates. On the other hand, good black-and-white pictures that emphasize line over shape can add energy to long books in which details of emotion and of setting might otherwise retard the action.

As examples, Nodelman offers the work of Garth Williams (Charlotte’s Web), Tenniel (Alice In Wonderland) and Shepherd (Winnie the Pooh). All three examples emphasize line over shape. Even the blackest of spaces retains evidence of crosshatching in small bits of un-inked white, but not in the work of Mattotti. Mattotti’s pictures are without cross-hatching or other traditional methods of rendering form.


At 54 pages, this is longer than a picturebook for preschoolers. This is more of an ‘illustrated short story’ for older children and adults.
Published October 28th 2014

This book was released in a ‘Standard Edition’ and in an ‘Oversized Deluxe Edition (A Toon Graphic)‘. In the deluxe edition the pages are larger (9.125″ x 12.625″), there is a die cut in the front cover, and some of the after matter is missing.  Due to the larger size, there is more white space around the text. This raises interesting questions about what a ‘deluxe’ version of a picture book should include over the standard version. There is also a collector’s edition, which is signed and includes a screen-printed box and artist print.

Juliet Blake has the rights to turn this version of Hansel and Gretel into a film. (See Juliet Blake at IMDb, in which we learn the film stars Josh Hutcherson and Elle Fanning.)

from Hansel & Gretel, Susan Jeffers- illustrator, pub. 1980
from Hansel & Gretel, Susan Jeffers- illustrator, pub. 1980


For A Similar Art Style

Wanda Gag (1893-1946) illustrated the children’s book Millions of Cats (1928), and pioneered the double-page book spread, using both pages for one illustration that furthered the story. In Millions Of Cats there is use of bright colour, but a lot of her work is high-contrast black-and-white. This is achieved via lithography, whereas Mattotti uses a paint brush.

The billowing tree and off-kilter palings of the foreground fence remind me of similar techniques used by Mattotti in Hansel and Gretel. This way of drawing makes for a creepy vibe.

Perry Nodelman in Words About Pictures finds the curved forms comforting as much as creepy, and speaks of the comfort of a predictable, oft-told tale:

[Not all] artists in black and white focus on the energies of line. Some, like Wanda Gag, use black-and-white’s potential for heavy contrast to create more restfully decorative effects. Even though there’s must use of line to create shadow in Gag’s Millions of Cats, the heavy contrasts between light areas and dark ones orient the pictures toward pattern rather than toward action. In techniques like block printing, in which the ink is not laid down on the paper by the line of a pen, the blocks of black and white tend to operate more like colors, creating solid shapes rather than energetic lines. Furthermore, such a technique associates these pictures with the static conventions of folk art, which tends to be more oriented to pattern than to action. Not surprisingly, Gag’s story also focuses more on pattern than on movement, on repetition rather than on forward movement. While a lot happens in Millions of Cats, the story tends to offer more pleasure to those who have heard it before than to those who are hearing it for the first time. It is comfortingly predictable rather than threatening or even very exciting.

But if Millions of Cats is comfortingly secure, it is not just because it emphasizes shape over line, pattern over energy; it is also because the shapes happen to be primarily rounded and curved ones—the sort of shapes we associate with softness and yielding. Such associations have an obvious effect on our attitudes to pictures.

Nodelman then mentions the art of Tim Burton, which has been replicated by subsequent animators in films such as Paranorman.

I would also compare the art of Manttotti to that of Armin Greeder, who has illustrated The Great Bear and The Island in a style which you’re more likely to find in an unsettling art exhibition than a book for children:

When a fairytale is republished for the modern reader, the new story may function as several different things: Is it a comfort read, ideally suited to pre-bedtime reading? Or is the very familiarity of the tale a great bedrock upon which to branch out with unsettling art, creating something brand new?

For Another Re-visioned Classic Fairytale For Older Readers

Shameless plug: Compare with our own retelling of a classic fairytale, Lotta: Red Riding Hood. Of course, there are many other modern retellings of fairytales, and like ours, many of them are written for young adults and above, as were the original tales. (I mean pre-Grimm. The Grimm brothers needed to raise money, so published old tales as children’s stories, because children’s stories are what sold.)


Is there a classic tale from your childhood which feel to you like some parts are missing? Perhaps one character doesn’t get a fair deal. I often feel that way about female characters in fairytales when retold by Perrault and Grimm; in the Victorian era, women were ideally stupid and innocent. Around this time step-mothers started to become most vilified. Beautiful people are portrayed to be good; ugly people are bad.

What might an ameliorated, more socially just version of your tale look like? Like Gaiman’s Hansel and Gretel, it may be quite similar to the classic version, but with a few details altered.


Maria Popova of Brainpickings links to some videos of Gaiman talking about fairy tales.

American author Robert Coover wrote a short story called ‘The Gingerbread House’ and it can be found in his collection Pricksongs and Descants. It’s Angela Carter style, if you’re familiar with those.

Lemon girl young adult novella


Header illustration by Sheilah Beckett.

Intertextuality of Into The Forest by Anthony Browne

Into The Forest by Anthony Browne is story book, part ‘toy book’. Young readers learn to look at pictures and search for intertextuality, as each illustration links to a well-known fairy tale. This makes the book popular for classroom use, along with the Shrek films and modern stories with fairy tales as ur-texts.

Anthony Browne writes postmodern picture books and Into The Forest is an excellent example of intertextuality.


The relationship ‘between texts’.

“No poet, no artist of any art, has its complete meaning alone.”

T.S. Eliot

Works of art don’t exist in isolation. Readers bring a lot to a story, including their entire lives until that point, but also every story they’ve ever been exposed to. When an author points the reader’s attention to another text, this technique is known as ‘intertextuality’.

French philosopher Gilles Deleuze used the word ‘rhizone’ which maps onto the literary concept of intertextuality.

Continue reading “Intertextuality of Into The Forest by Anthony Browne”

Gorilla by Anthony Browne Picture Book Analysis

Gorilla Anthony Browne cover

Gorilla is the book that made Anthony Browne’s name as a creator of postmodern picture books. It was awarded the Kurt Maschler Award (1982-1999), which specifically rewarded British picture books demonstrating excellent integration between words and pictures.


A girl called Hannah — about 6 or 7 years old — feels that her father doesn’t spend any time with her. She often wants to do something with him but he is always busy. One day her father gifts her a toy gorilla, as she has a special interest in gorillas, seeing gorilla related things everywhere. That night Hannah dreams she goes on a dream date with her life-sized gorilla, who is now a stand in father figure. He takes her to the zoo and then to a cafe. In the morning we learn that it is her birthday, and her father has a surprise — he is going to take her to the zoo.

See more on hallways and corridors in art and illustration.


There is something wonderfully unsettling about the picture books of Anthony Browne, who is a postmodern picturebook writer/illustrator.

Postmodern picture books are a specific genre of picture books. Characteristics of this unique type of book include non-linear narrative forms in storybooks, books that are “aware” of themselves as books and include self-referential elements, and what is known as metafiction.

Wikipedia (BTW, anyone would think from the Wikipedia write-up that postmodern picture books are created only by men.)

Features of Postmodern Picture Books

  • they expand the conventional boundaries of picture book formats
  • contain non-linear structures and storylines
  • offer multiple perspectives or realities to the reader (in common with Impressionist literature)
  • 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

– Frank Serafini

For more on postmodern picture books see David Beagley’s lecture on iTunes U, or my notes on that, here.

A less well-executed story may have started with something like, “Tomorrow it was Hannah’s birthday…” It is particularly masterful that Anthony Browne withholds this information until the conclusion. Why? Because the brightness associated with birthdays lightens the ending. Since the first part of the book is melancholic, a birthday tone would not fit well.


A feature of Anthony Browne’s work is that although the characters are depicted in almost naturalistic style, “in all styles we can only interpret faces with certainty as positive, negative or neutral in affect, with more subtle readings dependent on contextual and intermodal guidance. (Tian, 2011.)

As is the case in all of Browne’s books, the illustrations contain surreal details which reward the reader for lingering. This is not a page-flipper. A young reader will feel smart, in a Where’s Wally/Spot The Difference kind of way, for picking out what’s strange about each picture.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Newspaper Breakfast Scene

First, Browne sets up a desire in Hannah: She wants her dad to show her some affection. The reader must emphasise with Hannah and feel some of her isolation and loneliness. Above, the father holds up a newspaper as a wall.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Dad Is Busy In His Office

In the image above, the father has his back to his daughter. Hannah’s isolation is emphasised by the rectangle of light coming through an off-stage door. The rectangle forms a border between Hannah and her father. They may as well be in different worlds.

There is no comfort in this house — not even a sofa to sit on, and no carpet. Notice the map of Africa on the wall — a part of Hannah’s imagination. The truly masterful part of this illustration is that the light coming out of the television turns the pattern on the wallpaper into butterflies. The light coming out of the television is Hannah’s only company — her only brightness in an otherwise dark home environment.

What does it mean when a background merges with the real life of the story?

  • The character feels ignored/isolated/lonely, having more in common with the background than with the action going on around her
  • The character is retreating into her imagination/dreamscape/fantasy
  • The world around the character is not what it first appears, suggesting there’s a hidden depth to everything. Here, the father’s feelings towards Hannah are warmer than initially suggested. (He is redeemed at the end.)
Anthony Browne Gorilla Kiss

There’s something a little disturbing about this, unless we realise that the gorilla is a fantasy stand-in father.

I must admit there are a few scenes that had me arching my eyebrow at what she was up [to] in the way of questionable behaviour, but the end explains everything nicely.

from a 3 Star Goodreads Review
Anthony Browne Gorilla Superman Movie

Superman is the symbol of supreme strength and prowess. This little girl thinks of her father as a superhero. But, like Superman, he is also some glamorous figure who remains out of reach.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Swinging Through The Trees

The city is a jungle and the jungle is a city. Most stories set in cities have elements of the jungle in them, and vice versa.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Eating Out

Food is immensely important in children’s books. Though there is a bit of a movement towards depicting healthy food in picture books, this is almost impossible to do when the feast takes place inside a child’s imagination, in which case (in the West, at least) it’s almost always cakes and sundaes.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Happy Birthday Hannah

Not seen in this shot, but the father has a banana poking out of his back pocket. There are little details like that which tell the reader visually: “The gorilla IS the dad.” Anthony Browne reuses this trope in his postmodern Hansel and Gretel, in which the mother IS the witch.

The reader (along with Hannah) now learns that Dad really does think about his daughter. He has intuited that Hannah is fascinated with gorillas, and has planned exactly the birthday outing she has been dreaming about. He’s the sort of dad to hang Hannah’s pictures on the wall, framed. The young readers are left with the message that even when they feel that their caregivers don’t care about them, parents actually do love them, no matter what. This is a reassuring story: children will eventually receive the attention they crave.

Of course, terrible caregivers do exist in real life. But they don’t tend to populate picture books. Even in the young adult category, truly terrible parents are extremely rare.

Although very sad at the beginning I found this story to be refreshingly honest and deeply gratifying.

from a 5 Star Goodreads Review


Gorilla won a number of significant awards:

There have been a number of reprints with different covers over the years:

This image with the surprised cat is my six-year-old’s favourite. The expression on the cat is funny to a kid, and is perhaps the one bit of true hilarity in the whole book, which is bitter-sweet and melancholic. Perhaps this is why it was chosen as a front cover image.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Swinging

This cover makes readily apparent the jungle/city metaphor.


A number of artists merge backgrounds with ‘the real world of the narrative’. Here’s an example:

My Family by revolenka
My Family by revolenka

Gotye blends into the wallpaper in Someone That I Used To Know.

Flight of the Concords had spoofed this earlier, in their song I Told You I Was Freaky.

Other Postmodern Picture Books

  • David Macaulays award winning Black and White (1990)
  • David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs
  • Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man
  • Bamboozled by David Legge
  • Shaun Tan and Gary Crew’s The Viewer
  • Emily Gravett’s Wolves
  • McGuire, R. (1997). What’s Wrong with This Book?
  • Burningham, J. (1977). Come Away From the Water, Shirley.
  • Watt, M. (2009). Chester.
  • Child, L. (2002). Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book?
  • Ahlberg, A. (1987). The Jolly Postman
  • Pretty much all of the other Anthony Browne picture books
  • A Goodreads List of Postmodern Picture books

The adult equivalent of a slightly disturbing story about a gorilla’s relationship with a human is Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish (Australian).

Lemon girl young adult novella


Postmodern Picture Books

Before taking a look at postmodern picture books, let’s take a look at how the postmodern short story has been described.


The postmodern short story came in the middle of the 20th century. Stories became ‘anti-stories’. Postmodernism is “art’s way of replenishing itself by way of returning to the past in general, and to itself in particular”.

  • Postmodern plots don’t have cause and effect relationships. One word to describe such plots is ‘disjunctive’ (lacking connection between parts).
  • What do disjunctive plots look like? They might be palimpsestic, collage-like, almost certainly non-linear.
  • “Reality” appears in quotation marks. There’s no such thing as “reality”.
  • Metafiction is commonly utilised.
  • Characters are flattened.
  • Symbols convolute upon themselves.
  • Postmodern work is intertextual and allusive (“Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal” – T.S. Eliot) Stories might be a pastiche (an overt re-visioning of something that has come before).
  • Postmodern work takes a synchronic approach to time (Synchronic: Concerned with something as it exists at one point in time.)
  • There’s a tendency to deconstruct binary oppositions.
  • Postmodern works are often playful, parodic and self-reflexive.
  • They question authenticity. (Artifice is foregrounded.)
  • Postmodern work is inherently creatively artistic
  • Postmodern work encourages interest in the past.

While children’s literature is generally considered less rigorous and interesting than literature for adults, this is not the case. Case in point: postmodern picture books, which require work on the part of the reader before they make full sense.

Different cultures expect different interactions with story. It’s possible Western audiences do less work.

I’m reminded of an observation a friend of mine made when he lived in Japan for a while, about the difference in audience reactions to narrative twists and storytelling expectations, and how that shapes the way stories are told.

“In America,” he said, “Audience will see a movie and say ‘That made no sense, what a dumb movie’. In Japan, they tend to say, ‘That made no sense, so I need to see it again so I can understand it better.” I don’t know if the cultural observation is accurate, but…


A key concept when discussing Postmodern works: Postmodernism describes how the audience interacts with a work. A Postmodern work is not inherently Postmodern, though we can’t cop out there. Certain works do lend themselves towards a Postmodern relationship with audiences.

  • Anthony Browne – very much at the forefront of the postmodern picturebook
  • Shaun Tan — Australia’s own standout example
  • Chris Van Allsburg — American
  • David Wiesner
  • Jon Scieszka [his website tells you how to pronounce his name] – strong humour – most books which use this style do so as a joke.

I have no doubt that the word Postmodern annoyed people when it first appeared.

The Gendered Nature Of What We Call “Postmodern”

I note with interest that all of these tentpole postmodern picturebook creators happen to be men. Are we publishing and then talking about women who create postmodern picturebooks?

Let’s not forget the wonderful postmodern work made by non-men e.g.

  • The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski is similar to Anthony Browne’s Into The Forest in many ways. It operates on two diegetic levels (which makes it meta), a girl enters a Surreal dream space full of collage-like illustrations full of fairytale allusions. These allusions encourage readers to flesh out the imaginative part of the story themselves. At the end, the veridical world of the story and the imaginative world remain intertwined, which is in line with the Postmodern idea that nothing is certain.
  • Reflections by Ann Jonas encourages readers to examine pictures by using the same trick as Anthony Browne — things in the trees. The story happens within a ‘reflection’ of the real world, which definitely defamiliarises — another Postmodern trick. The reader is even required to turn the book itself around, which reminds the reader they are reading an object and is therefore meta. It operates like one of those optical illusions in which the same image can look like two people in profile or like a vase, depending on who is viewing it and when.

The following books are created or partially created by non-men. Do they fit into existing definitions as Postmodern?

  • There Is No Dragon In This Story by Lou Carter
  • Our Little Inventor by Sher Rill Ng
  • Books by Jeannie Baker e.g. Mirror
  • Books by Baek Heena
  • Tove Jansson’s Moomin books??
  • The Great Realisation illustrated by Nomoco
  • The Three Bears Sort Of by Yvonne Morrison
  • Here and Now by Julia Denos
  • Z Is For Moose by Kelly Bingham
  • There Are Cats In This Book by Viviane Schwarz
  • Wolves by Emily Gravett
  • The Red Book by Barbara Lehman
  • Snappsy The Alligator (Did Not Ask To Be In This Book) by Julie Falatko
  • The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski
  • The Book Chook by Amelia McInerney
  • Wolfie the Unlikely Hero by Deborah Abela
  • Not a Stick by Antoinette Portis
  • Woolvs in the Sitee by Margaret Wild
  • Are commentators unwittingly failing to see standout Postmodern picturebooks created by women?
  • Are covers with women on the title deemed subconsciously less interesting? I really hope not.
  • Is a more feminine style of humour being edited out of very funny books before reaching the reader?
  • Are publishers more willing to gamble on novel and not-seen-before books from men, either subconsciously or consciously? Postmodern books are often aimed at older picture book readers, and unless they achieve cult status in schools, are therefore more difficult to market.

I don’t know. But these are all very interesting questions. There is a widely held misconception that girls do as they are told whereas boys push boundaries. I’ve heard friends say this with certainty, based on observation of the children in their lives. It’s quite possible this same cognitive bias (we see what we expect to see) applies to literature. Postmodern works are inherently boundary-pushing.


Interaction Between Reader and Storyteller

Postmodernism doesn’t describe a work of art so much as a way of looking at a work of art. When you first read a postmodern picturebook, chances are you’ll find it confusing. Then you’ll do some mental work, add your own portion of the narrative, and it will make more sense.

This is how you know you’re dealing with a postmodern work.

How is postmodernism different from what came before?


Postmodern works challenge the idea of things as complete entities.

Analysing a postmodern work involves deconstruction. To deconstruct an idea means to look at the final idea and at what created that idea. What assumptions do readers bring to the work? What are the parts that make it up?

Deconstructing a work of literature is akin to starting with a great Lego creation then taking it apart to see how many blocks are used and how they fit together.

Meaning is not inherent TO THE WORK

Another reader will get something different from a work of art. The meaning does not exist within the work, but is derived via an interpretation of it. Each interpretation is therefore valid. The works on the ‘canon’ are therefore challenged. All works now have validity. This also brings a lot of ambiguity and irony. There are layers of meaning. We have to keep drilling down through the layers to find out what something means. A movie like Shrek has a lot of layers of meaning through it — much of which is superficial and humorous — but it makes pop-culture references and weaves them into a reversed traditional tale. [Inversion does not equal subversion, which is much harder to achieve.] To subvert something means to cut away what people would expect to be the stable elements.


Stories come in a variety of different shapes. The straight shape is the linear one, based on the ancient mythic form. Postmodern works don’t tend to make use of that one.

Postmodern plot shapes tend to take readers back and forth in time, and often include other strands (sometimes called subplots). These subplots add to the theme, perhaps by contrasting with the main narrative. Postmodern narratives work on several different metadiegetic levels.

Voices In The Park by Anthony Browne includes four separate stories which only form a complete and interesting narrative once the reader has compared and contrasted the stories of each character.


Postmodern picturebook frequently feature a sarcastic or self-mocking tone. This is more clear in David Weisner’s books than in Anthony Browne’s. The sarcasm in a postmodern picturebook is not the negative, mocking kind, but playful and intertextual.

The Stinky Cheese Man by Scieszka and Smith (1992) is an excellent example of a sarcastic, self-mocking postmodern picturebook.

Jack uses narrative knowledge, not quick feet, to challenge the giant. He tells a story; but the story is an ever-repeating tale that creates a narrative trap, thus freeing Jack to run away as the giant is tied up in the endless words of the story. The degree to which the giant becomes lost in language is also expressed on the page through the size and contours of the font. In this case, Jack’s repeating tale grows smaller and smaller with each retelling until it is so small it cannot be easily seen — or heard. The increasingly small font not only suggests the Giant’s entrapment, but also the distance Jack has gained between the giant’s table and freedom.

A Unique Visual and Literary Art Form: Recent Research on Picturebooks

The audience may be a part of the joke or even the butt of the joke. In Shrek so many things are parodied: the children’s world of fairytales, the adult world. Intertextuality runs throughout Shrek (based on a picturebook by William Stieg).

However, the ‘sarcastic’ and ‘self-mocking’ aspect of the definition might need a bit of expansion in light of a (general, well-researched) difference between masculine and feminine approaches to humour. Feminine humour tends to focus less on the ‘self’ and more on the group, which may suggest ‘self-mocking’ is slightly more masculine.


Self-referential describes text which refers to elements which remind readers that the book itself is an object which has been created.

Chris Van Allsburg includes the same dog across all of his work.

Anthony Browne also refers to his other books within the illustrations. These function as Easter Eggs for readers and are a metafictive device (reminding us that we are reading a work of art, pulling us out of the fictional world).

In The Three Little Pigs by David Wiesner (2001), pigs jump out of a pedestrian version of this fairytale and into a more exciting story.

Postmodern works are often METAFICTIVE

Metafiction is fiction which is conscious of itself as a created artifact. [Beagley mentions that metafictive works don’t take themselves too seriously, though I’d argue plenty do.]

Postmodern works are a ‘discourse‘. Storytellers creates meaning via a back-and-forth between readers via the work itself. If you read the same thing ten years later you will read a different piece of work.

With postmodern picture-books, the reader “enriches and supports the storyline by infusing personal emotions and experiences but also actively creates parts of the narrative.”

Goldstone (2002)

In postmodern works, audiences become accomplices. The specific kind of interactive reading that happens between pictures, text and reader has been called interanimation.

Is any metafictive book Postmodern? Or does it depend on how much deconstruction is required on the part of the reader? Can Postmodern books exist for the early reader-preschool set? Is the existing criteria for Postmodern picturebook too narrow and too skewed towards a masculine sense of humour and a masculine way of seeing the world?

Metafiction does not do any one single thing. Like the different media utilised by artists, or all the different forms of figurative language utilised by writers, a metafictive device is yet another tool in the storyteller’s toolbox. A highly metafictive picturebook such as This Book Just Ate My Dog by Richard Byrne is not Postmodern simply because it turns a book into an object. That book, for young readers, is a complete entity in its own right — a clever gag, with the gag dependent upon a metafictive device. This Book Just Ate My Dog does not encourage readers towards a Postmodern relationship with the text. Once the story is over, it is over. Like any successful gag, the reader will understand it after a single reading.


All carnivalesque picturebooks are anti-authoritarian, but not all postmodern picturebooks are carnivalesque. You won’t find postmodern work which conveys the message adults are the authority and we should always listen to the adults. Quite the reverse. Fictional child main characters must pay close attention to the world around them and work things out for themselves. By encouraging child readers to closely examine the text and pictures, postmodern storytellers are teaching real-world children to do the same.

What are postmodern picturebooks for?

Postmodern picturebooks upset the taken-for-grantedness of things. They do this by defamiliarising the audience.

For example the storyline of a postmodern picturebook might meander all over the place and never actually finish. Or it might stop suddenly and you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen next. Like a number of lyrical short stories, a postmodern picturebook may offer no sense of closure.

Postmodern picturebooks teach readers to pursue the interrelationships that storytellers create between words and text. They teach children to look for the space between. They encourage children to bring their own experience and thoughts to the story. They teach children that there is no authority greater than their own minds.

All good works, postmodern or not, require readers to bring their own prior experiences to the page and arrange new stories on an existing cognitive hanger.

Postmodern work goes beyond this. If the reader does more work. The story will feel incomplete without their cognitive input. The universal story structure necessarily apply so neatly to postmodern work, until we count the portion contributed by the reader.

The difference between Postmodernism and Surrealism

Elements of postmodern picturebooks may be Surreal.

Surrealism is used wrongly in everyday speech (meaning: I don’t get it, I don’t understand), but in an academic sense it means almost the opposite: Surreal is an abbreviation of ‘super-real’, in which we do understand a surrealist work of art by going past the surface and looking at the essence behind. The idea you achieve after digging for it is more important than any conveyed by the first impression.

Surrealism, like postmodernism more broadly, makes the viewer do work.

A dinosaur dressed in a hat driving a car is Surreal. This is also an example of hat-on-a-dog humour, which young children love. So there’s no surprise picturebooks lend themselves to Surrealism. Humour is rampant across Surrealist picturebooks and children’s films.

All this to say, children’s books are as intellectual as books for adults. They expect the reader to exert as much mental effort as an adult book does. Quite often, they require far more, because the reader does not have the contexts (and therefore the limits) that an adult reader has. In general, children are more able to let their imaginations go, and engage fully in ludic reading.


It is thought that when a postmodern book is remediated as an app, the postmodern effects may be rendered null due to the change of medium. The following aspects of postmodernism may not work very well in apps because in order for postmodern techniques to work, the reader must remember they are reading a book:

  1. Indeterminacy: there are ambiguities because there is a lack of information or too much information
  2. Reverberation: the story echoes other stories or material. In its more extreme form the result is similar to a collage
  3. Short-circuit: happens when the narrative communication hierarchy is altered
  4. Play: if the important thing in the story is to enjoy the signifiers rather than the signified, or the work considers the reader as a player
Lemon girl young adult novella


David Beagley from La Trobe University gave a lecture called Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 05: Postmodern Picturebooks. The following notes draw from that lecture.