The Oxford Dictionary defines metafiction as… fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions and traditional narrative techniques.
Metafiction is a postmodernist device in which the author transgresses conventional approaches to storytelling. This manifests itself as the fourth wall (when the narrator addresses the reader directly), which can in turn lend itself to incongruous humour. This is a surrealist technique of subverting the reader's expectations of the narrative structure.
The Monster at the End of this Book by Jon Stone and Michael J. Smollin.
Okay, this book is not exactly new. It’s a classic - a pioneer of metafictive humour. It’s hard to find a more perfect example of the use of the refrain ‘DO NOT’, to tie its young readers up in knots and stitches. Loveable Furry Old Grover from Sesame Street, takes the part of the narrator. In fourth wall-style, he lets the reader in on his fear of monsters and implores them NOT to turn the page. Of course, this is a red rag to a bull, for every child reading along, and storytime becomes a flurry of interactive laughter and humour. The reader attempts to stick to convention and read the book in a linear way, but the child repeatedly transgresses this convention. They grab the pages, turning them with gusto, in defiance of Grover’s warnings. The twist at the end provides the final incongruity – Grover is the feared monster at the end of the book!
You know you are onto a winner when other books mirror your style and for a more contemporary spin on Stone’s 'DO NOT' technique, you may wish to check out Australian comedian Andy Lee’s commercial hits Do Not Open This Book (2016) and sequel Do Not Open This Book Again (2017). The forbidden fruit premise drives the kids nuts and reels them in seemingly effortlessly, or is that Lee's metafictive skill at play?
Do Not Lick This Book (It's Full of Germs) by Idan Ben-Barak and Julian Frost.
Not sure if US and UK readers will have heard of this one, so it’s my opportunity to put it on your radar. It’s an excellent example of a humorous narrative non-fiction. The Children’s Book Council of Australia has just short-listed Do Not Lick This Book in its Book of the Year Awards. Full marks to the creators for originality, and acute awareness of the incongruous power of DO NOT. Being at the gross age he is, my son simply could not hold himself back from licking this book on numerous pages, despite the narrator warning him not to. I think the author and illustrator team would consider this their jobs done. Ben-Barak, Frost and Linnea Rundgren are introducing the scientific concept of microbes and germs in an accessible way for young readers. The narrator actively encourages kids to touch the book, pick up the protagonist Min the Microbe and take her on a journey over their bodies, where she will pick up a whole gang of microbes. This seemingly incongruous idea of avoiding germs (do not lick) and openly embracing the microbes we encounter at every turn, is a transgressive yet effective way of teaching kids what germs are and how easy it is to pick them up.
The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak.
And finally, I can’t leave off blogging without a superb example of the Power of No as a humour device, in one of the funniest read-aloud books you’ll encounter. In this 2014 non-illustrated picture book (an incongruity in itself), the author breaks the fourth wall with point of view moving between the author/narrator and the reader. The reader is masterfully drawn into the narrator’s subversive world, explaining how a book with no pictures works. It relies on the reader being forced to say incredibly silly things in incredibly silly voices. The child listening to the story, initially mistrustful of a picture book that breaks convention, is quickly sucked in by the word play and creative use of type-setting. This is surely the best literal example I’ve found of not judging a book by its cover. I recommend you seek it out, if you've not yet read it.
There are seemingly a million examples of metafiction I could have discussed in this piece, but hopefully these books have inspired you to take a closer look at this genre. It may very well be a publishing trend that exhausts itself, but it has certainly done its job of engaging young readers. Any book that does that is a winner, transgressive or not.
Brydie Wright Bio
Graduate, Craft & Business of Children’s Picture Book Writing Course
Chief Editor, Sydney Mums Group and Reviewer, WeekendNotes
Author of Daddy and the World's Longest Poo, IAN Awards 2017 Finalist, & Magic Beans from the Creative Kids Tales Story Collection
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