Happy Anniversary: Black and White and Read All Over Again

Black and White by David Macaulay was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1990. We look back on this rule-breaking Caldecott Medalist as it celebrates its thirtieth anniversary.

 

By 1990, children’s literature professionals had come to expect the unexpected from David Macaulay. An innovative artist and illustration teacher, Macaulay knew well the artistic possibilities and limitations of the picture-book form. He knew the potential of the double-page spread, the effects of framed art or art that bleeds off the page, the animation of strip art, the correlation between artistic style and narrative voice, the layering of storytelling in words and pictures. He understood visual and verbal pacing and the “drama of the turning of the page” (as Barbara Bader put it). He tackled the physicality of the book through its trim size, gutter, endpapers; the texture of its paper, floppy book jacket, and paperboard covers.

With the publication of Black and White thirty years ago, Macaulay went beyond mastering the conventions of the picture book to making them a subject of the story.

Throughout the book, double-page spreads are divided up into four quadrants, each telling a story, each executed in a distinctive and separate medium, style, and font.

In the top-left quadrant, a boy looks out the window of a train, observing the landscape; in the bottom-left quadrant, a usually staid mother and father act out after their commute home; at top right, commuters stand on a station platform waiting for their delayed train; at bottom right, cows escape their pasture (with the help of a masked burglar) and begin to blend, surreally, into the landscape.

Macaulay teases the reader to figure out the relationships among the four quadrants of narrative. To make meaning of Black and White, the reader decodes connections that cross story lines, writes and rewrites plotlines, tracks characters as they cross boundaries, and constructs a whole from parts — and parts from the whole. This book transcended our understanding of readers as meaning-makers to positioning them as co-scriptors.

In 1990, the term metafiction was coming into its own as a viable perspective through which to explore the writerliness and the readerliness of literature. Although philosopher William Gass had coined the term in the 1970s, it wasn’t until 1984 that theorist Linda Hutcheon provided the practical description of metafiction as a “narcissistic narrative” that emphasizes the self-awareness of the artist as an artist and the reader as a reader. In the decidedly metafictive Black and White, Macaulay’s copyright notice appears at the end of the book and depicts a thumb and fingers lifting the train station up and out of the picture space, while a dog holds a newspaper in its mouth and casts a masklike shadow. Not only does the image make reference to each of the book’s four (in)dependent stories, but it is also a visual quotation of M.C. Escher’s Drawing Hands (1948). This self-conscious reference insists that readers see the hand of the artist in what he’s making and what they’re reading.

The Library of Congress cataloging information also appears at the end of the book rather than at the beginning, its traditional placement. It reads, “The author recommends careful inspection of words and pictures to both minimize and enhance confusion” — thus declaring the reader’s complicity in the story’s creation and re-creation. Macaulay advances the metafictive self-awareness of the reader one more step. This final page becomes a moment of recognition that lifts readers, like the train station, out of the fictional world of the story/stories and places them at a critical distance from which to consider anew the work of art. Echoing the “warning” on the title page, the last page breaks the fourth wall and nudges readers back to the book’s beginning for “careful inspection of words and pictures.” Who inspects words and pictures, who examines how books make meaning more than the critic?

This page combines words and pictures in metafictive harmony as the reader becomes aware of the book’s creation as fiction, of the artist as creator of the fiction, and of the reader’s role as co-creator of the fiction. Most brilliantly, though, Black and White culminates with readers’ ultimate recognition of their place as critic, a place outside the book, looking at it, appreciating its parody, and celebrating their own cleverness in its shrewd making. The LOC information aptly declares the book a “literary recreation,” a place of building and unbuilding, a place of play.

From the May/June 2020 Horn Book Magazine Special Issue: Breaking the Rules.

Cathryn M. Mercier
Cathryn M. Mercier

Cathryn M. Mercier is director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature and chair of the children’s literature department in the Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts, and Humanities at Simmons University in Boston, Massachusetts.

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