Meta, man

2013 Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book Open This Little Book by Jesse Klausmeier, illustrated by Suzy Lee (Chronicle Books), takes page-turning to a new level. Here are some other meta-fictional books that bend our minds.

Gerstein A Book Meta, manA Book
by Mordicai Gerstein; illus. by the author
Primary    Roaring Brook    40 pp.
4/09    978-1-59643-251-2     $16.95     g

“What’s my story?” asks a girl on an otherwise blank front flap. The title page answers: “Once, in A BOOK… there lived a family of characters.” Turn the page, and the reader meets the characters: asleep at first (in an amazing black-on-black illustration) but awake and in color on the next spread, off to breakfast and, one by one, exiting A BOOK to attend to their respective lives/stories. All except the girl, who continues to turn the pages looking for her story — and finds plenty of others’ along the way. The visual perspective locates readers where they actually are vis-à-vis the physical book: looking down on the action from a bird’s-eye view above the page. Gerstein’s characteristic pen-and-paint-on-vellum technique creates a vivid depth, accentuated by use of shadows, that makes the reader feel as if they could literally drop into the scene. When the girl’s family comes home for dinner, she is ready to announce what she will become: an author! With that authority, she starts writing…until it is time for bed, and she passes authority to the reader: “Now that you’ve reached the end of the book, would you mind closing it please? I’d like to go to sleep. Thank you and sweet dreams…” Both character and reader are left feeling they are in the right place, with the right task, and capable. [Nina Lindsay]

From the May/June 2009 Horn Book Magazine.

gravett again 247x300 Meta, manAgain!
by Emily Gravett; illus. by the author
Primary    Simon    32 pp.
4/13    978-1-4424-5231-2    $17.99

Gravett, whose stories often include surprising die cuts and satisfying metafictive elements, takes the I-don’t-want-to-go-to-sleep trope to a new, fiery level. The book begins on the front endpapers with a little dragon starting its bedtime routine. On the second title-page spread (yes, there are two), readers get the feeling that things are not what they appear when the dragon, clutching a book, winks at them. The creature snuggles in to hear the book — a tale of a dragon named Cedric who has “never, / His whole life, / (Not once) been to bed.” Uh-oh. After the reading, our little green dragon sweetly says what most small folks say when faced with bedtime: “Again?” The dragon parent, completely draggin’, reads the story again, but abridges it. This causes the book’s illustrations to shift, as does the appearance of the increasingly impatient little dragon (e.g., as the story changes and the parents’ eyes droop, the creature takes on an angry red hue). Soon the little one turns fully red, screams to have the book read again, and, in a raucous burst of flames, breathes a (die-cut) hole into the end of the book. Though it’s hard to think that human child readers will want to sleep after this abrupt yet satisfying ending, it is clear that they will be screaming “AGAIN!” [Robin L. Smith]

From the July/August 2013 Horn Book Magazine.

macaulay black and white 205x300 Meta, manBlack and White
by David Macaulay; illus. by the author
Primary     Houghton    32 pp.
4/90     0-395-52151-3     $14.95

This picture book toys with the reader just as it experiments with the concept of time, simultaneity of events, and the question of one story impinging on another. The author-artist has created an addictive puzzler which can, like a Nintendo game, draw a susceptible audience into an endless exploration of the book’s many possibilities. The story — or stories, depending on one’s perspective — comprises four sequences, each consistently placed in a particular quadrant of successive double-page spreads. Each is executed in a distinctive style — ranging from the impressionist quality of “Seeing Things” through the more precisely limned “Problem Parents” and “A Waiting Game” to the dissolving figure-ground images of “Udder Chaos.” In the first, a boy observes the changing landscape from the window of a train; in “Problem Parents” two children are amazed by the antics of their usually staid mother and father after commuting from a long day at work; “A Waiting Game” records the endless boredom of standing on a train platform while listening to accounts of unexplained delays; “Udder Chaos” proves that Holstein cows, once released from pasture, are difficult to locate, which may be useful information if you’re an escaped con — yes, the masked escapee from Why the Chicken Crossed the Road (Houghton) makes an appearance. One solution proposes that all the episodes are connected through the train motif; on the other hand, the author-artist states on the title page that “this book appears to contain a number of stories that do not necessarily occur at the same time.” Perhaps there is no one explanation but rather a series of playful allusions and clever delusions which are meant to be enjoyed by the freewheeling and free-spirited as an escape from the ordinary. [Mary M. Burns]

From the September/October 1990 Horn Book Magazine.

no bears Meta, manNo Bears
by Meg McKinlay; illus. by Leila Rudge
Primary     Candlewick     32 pp.
3/12     978-0-7636-5890-8     $15.99

Ella proclaims that she is in charge of this book, and this book will have no bears, not a one: “Every time you read a book, it’s just BEARS BEARS BEARS.” She decrees that her book will have a monster and a princess and a fairy godmother instead, makes herself a crown, and begins her bear-free tale. Readers, however, can see perfectly well in the delicate and droll illustrations that there is a bear in the book they’re reading, one wearing a green print dress with a nice bee pattern. Ella’s fairy godmother endeavors to keep the bear out of the story, but when she puts down her magic wand for a moment, the bear picks it up and eventually uses it to rescue the princess from the monster. This is a picture book that will send the reader delightedly back again and again to sort out the layers of reality. In one illustration, for instance, Ella is reaching into the book to add a castle while her fairy godmother is painting a no-bears-allowed sign on the page and the bear stands forlornly across the book, holding a picture of itself holding a jar of honey. Both the story and the inventive digital pictures draw readers in deeper and deeper, along with the many fairy-tale details to discover (clever viewers will spot all the usual suspects, from Little Red Riding Hood to Rapunzel to the Three Little Pigs). [Susan Dove Lempke]

From the May/June 2012 Horn Book Magazine.

scieszka stinky 239x300 Meta, man

star2 Meta, man The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales
by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith; illus. by Lane Smith
Primary      Viking/Penguin     56 pp.
10/92     0-670-84487-X     $16.00

Scieszka and Smith have done it again! Blend “Saturday Night Live” with “Monty Python,” add a dash of Mad magazine with maybe a touch of “Fractured Fairy Tales” from the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show, and you have an eclectic, frenetic mix of text and pictures with a kinetic display of typefaces, rivaling the fireworks extravaganza on the Fourth of July. Even the page arrangement is unconventional, so that the entire book is a spoof on the art of book design, the art of the fairy tale, and whatever other art one might wish to parody. The individual tales are part of a zany whole in which the Little Red Hen, a kvetch if ever there was one, reappears periodically to complain about the dog, cat, and mouse who refused to help her plant her wheat. She and Jack (of beanstalk country) serve as a kind of running commentary on this theater-of-the-absurd in picture-book format. The concluding spread suggests that the annoying fowl gets her comeuppance — and not one she expected. Individual tales, such as “The Princess and the Bowling Ball,” “The Really Ugly Duckling,” or the title tale, “The Stinky Cheese Man,” can be extracted for telling aloud — with great success. Who, after all, could resist a prince with foresight enough to substitute his bowling ball for the traditional pea under the feather mattress to insure that he and his beloved live “happily, though maybe not completely honestly, ever after”? In addition, the collection includes “Chicken Licken” (newly revised), “The Other Frog Prince,” “Little Red Running Shorts,” “Cinderumpelstiltskin,” and “The Tortoise and the Hair.” The farcical tone of the whole may carry this concoction to the attention of primary schoolers, but it will enjoy its real success among middle-school through senior-citizen audiences. Another masterpiece from the team that created The True Story of the Three Little Pigs! (Viking) [Mary M. Burns]

From the November/December 1992 Horn Book Magazine.

presshere 297x300 Meta, manstar2 Meta, man Press Here
by Hervé Tullet; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary   Handprint/Chronicle   64 pp.
4/11     978-0-8118-7954-5     $14.99

The ongoing debate regarding the future of picture books in a digital age has left many struggling for evidence to back up their assertions that traditional books will survive. Here is an interactive book that gives the iPad a licking, and does it without fancy graphics, tabs, or flaps. Tullet’s modestly proportioned square book goes out of its way to appear low tech, with a handwritten all-caps typeface and art so simple it can barely be called art. The heavy, coated white paper with rounded edges is as smooth to the touch as any glass-covered digital device. Speaking directly to the reader, the first spread (“Ready?”) shows a filled-in circle about one inch in diameter apparently drawn quickly with a yellow marker. On the next spread, the same yellow dot appears unchanged while the text reads, “Press here and turn the page.” On the third spread, the ingenuity of this book becomes clear when a second yellow dot appears to the left of the first. Assuming that the participant has suspended disbelief and actually pressed on the page of the book, Tullet has set his hook and now only needs to reel the reader in. Pressing, tilting, blowing, and clapping transform the colored dots (red and blue soon join yellow) in a manner that shows how thoroughly the author understands children, setting up predictable patterns to promote accurate guessing, and then introducing some surprises. The simplicity of Tullet’s presentation illuminates the tactile and kinetic aspect of every picture book (i.e., turning the page) and suddenly makes the old form seem the height of postmodernism. [Lolly Robinson]

From the July/August 2011 Horn Book Magazine.

Grover Monster 219x300 Meta, manAnd, not officially sanctioned by The Horn Book — but very popular at my house — is The Monster at the End of This Book. Bonus: Katie liked the app!

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Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is senior editor of The Horn Book Magazine and online content editor for The Horn Book, Inc. She is a current member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.

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