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Getting Meta With Children's Books

Phillip Nel of Kansas State University tells us that "people who don't know any better call it post-modern" and after you watch this fun little video you'll never be one of those people again. What's nice about this piece is that it ties together a lot of seemingly disparate strands in children's literature and makes you see how so much of what seems contemporary in literature -- and therefore either refreshing or frightening -- is as old as the urge to tell stories. It also illuminates how playful metafiction is -- and thus, how much it belongs in children's literature. Kids love to explore the boundaries of things, test what makes it what it is and how it is you make one yourself. Metafiction says that stories are something you make.

Nel leaves out my favorite metafictioneer in kidlit, Emily Gravett, whose books Wolves amd Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears are both classics of the genre. But he includes pop-up books in the metafiction category, which I'd never have thought of on my own. There's been some recent discussion about pop-up books being less educational than their conventional cousins, which is the kind of thing that book purists like myself tend to crow about. But in this case the crowing -- and I saw plenty of it among bibliophiles -- seems misguided at best.

The discussion was triggered by a pair of studies led by University of Virginia psychologist Medha Tare and published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology found that children who were given the same information in books with conventional and pop-up illustrations learned more from the two-dimensional illustrations than the three dimensional ones. To quote from the Miller McCune article on the experiments:

A second experiment featured 48 children ages 27 to 32 months. Like their younger counterparts, they looked through one of the three books. As they did so, the experimenter pointed out certain facts, such as “chicks like to eat worms” and “monkeys like to eat bananas.” They were later asked to recall this information, answering such questions as “Which one likes to eat worms?”

The results mirrored those of the first experiment. The kids who looked at the photo-illustration book did the best, while those exposed to the pop-up book did the worst.

I tend not to be impressed by the reader comments on news stories, but in this case readers spotted the flaws with the studies immediately – faster, apparently, than the editors of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. First off, two year olds aren’t really the target audience for pop-up books – they’re too young to be able to manipulate the paper constructions without breaking them. But more importantly, what’s your definition of “learning?” As one savvy commenter observed:

“I love the obtuseness of the researchers. OK, so the child didn't pick up the specific information he's to spit out like a machine in order to become a good corporate drone someday. Instead, he entered a three-dimensional world, played with spatial relations, and probably had some fascinating discoveries and thoughts going on in that little brain of his.”

By including pop-ups in his definition of metafiction, Nel allows us to see pop-ups for what they are – a way of inviting children to play with the bookness of a book, to break the two-dimensional barrier and shorten the literal distance between reader and reading material. While I’d agree that pop-ups don’t bring you into the story in the way that a conventional picture book does, it doesn’t need to. It’s doing something else.