Preservice Teachers’ Responses to Postmodern Picture Books and Deconstructive Reading
- Author: Yun Eunja
- Publish: The Journal of English Language and Literature Volume 57, Issue6, p1111~1130, Dec 2011
Reading postmodern texts certainly situates readers in roles different from the ones we have been used to. Recently, postmodern metafiction forms a significant body of children’s literature that is intended to challenge and transform the conventions of books in the digital age. While many studies have been done as to how child readers have capabilities to appreciate and interpret postmodern metafiction picture books, few studies on teachers and preservice teachers’ reactions are not readily available. The role of teachers and preservice teachers are crucial for child readers to have access to affluent reading resources. This study discusses how preservice teachers read and respond to postmodern metafiction picture books using a deconstructive approach by means of binary opposites. Data was collected with 14 preservice teachers as to their likes/dislikes, reading levels, and reading paths about postmodern metafiction picture books. Expected pedagogical implications for literacy and language education were requested to address in their reading diaries and response papers. With their likes/ dislikes, since binary opposites always imply the hierarchy of power and value, the likes is apparently more valued and appreciated over their dislikes. This differentiated values are discussed in more detail with three recurring themes—Education, Morals and Behavior, and Tradition. With reading levels, there seems to be a gap existing between the authors’ implied reader and literary critics’ and the preservice teachers’ ideal readers for the postmodern metafiction picture books. Although many studies have already revealed young readers’ capability of appreciating postmodern metafiction, it depends a lot more on the teachers and preservice teachers whether children’s right to have access to affluent literacy resources is respected or not. Preservice teachers’ awareness of the potential of postmodern metafiction will work as an initial step to bring and realize the new reading path and new literacies in classrooms. By challenging metanarratives of children’s literature, preservice teachers’ readings of postmodern picture books reveals potentials to raise different reading paths and develop new literacies and other educational implications.
Postmodern Picture Books , Metafiction , Deconstructive Reading , Binary Opposites , Reading Path , New Literacies
Postmodern picture books, for example,
Black and White1 (1990) by David Macaulay, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales2 (1992) by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, and The Three Pigs3 (2001) by David Wiesner, have been catching many young readers’, teachers’, and librarians’ sustaining attentions, being awarded Caldecott medals or Caldecott honor medals in the U.S.. Also, in Britain, Wolves(2006), Kate Green away Medal book of the year, by Emily Gravett is another metafiction that offers two optional endings, as well as a parodic appropriation of traditional wolf stories. The multi-ending gives freedom and power to the reader. One ending is commonsensical in that the rabbit is victimized and eaten by the wolf. The other is that the wolf turns out to be a vegetarian and lives along with the rabbit happily ever after. The alternative ending utilizes parodic effects, bringing creativity and fun to the story. Today, these postmodern picture books are not unfamiliar to the readers anymore, forming a new trendy genre in the field of children’s literature.
It is not only picture books but novels where postmodern features are employed. For example, Haddon’s
The Curious Incident of the Dog(2003), a detective story successfully touches both child and adult readers through its postmodern experimentation. Stefania Ciocia writes,
Dresang and McClelland question whether postmodern metafiction is a unique experience in reading or if the larger body of children’s literature is shifting and changing. They assert that it is an inevitable process for children to have those types of books, which are intended to challenge and transform the conventions of books in the digital age. Dresang acclaims
Black and White(1990) as a “prototype” of literature for a young person of the electronic age. She goes on to say that “It is the embodiment of profound and unalterable change in literature for young people. Understanding Black and White is a journey toward understanding literature in relation to how children approaching a new millennium are thinking and perceiving” (704). If this argument on postmodern metafiction is thought to be right, we might question, “How do postmodern metafiction picture books challenge metanarratives in children’s literature? And what implications might reading them have for language and literacy education?
It is not easy for us to be aware of how norms and conventions of children’s literature are made and changed in a certain way. It would not be until the conventions and norms in children’s literature are challenged or broken, as metafiction intends to, that we can realize them. Reading postmodern picture books can provide a good opportunity for child readers to be exposed to a broad range of reading experience other than traditional ones due to its postmodern and metafictive attributes such as juxtapositions, intertextuality, multinarratives, performity, and indecisiveness in form and content. Many studies have been done focusing on child readers’ responses to postmodern picture books and their possible pedagogical implications for child readers (see McClay; Pantaleo; Serafini; O’Neil), revealing how young readers possess full capability to appreciate them. For example, O’Neil asserts that reading metafiction can offer a chance to develop critical perspectives and to teach social justice as well. However, few studies on teachers and preservice teachers’ reactions are not readily available. What if the teachers themselves do not recognize and acknowledge those potentials of metafiction picture books? What if teachers and preservice teachers have no experience with or negative attitudes toward postmodern picture books? Teachers and preservice teachers’ perspectives and roles are significant in that their views on a certain content or genre of children’s books will consequently affect their future curriculum, teaching practices, and book selections in their classrooms. On what aspects of children’s literature do they give priority? What are counted as acceptable and valuable and what is not from teachers’ perspectives?
With all these questions, this study discusses how preservice teachers interpret and respond to postmodern picture books. First, preservice teachers’ likes and dislikes will be examined and analyzed, using their binary opposites as proposed by Tyson’s deconstructive reading. Secondly, appropriate reading levels and different reading paths for postmodern metafiction will be discussed. Lastly, this study looks at pedagogical implications of postmodern metafiction for language and literacy education.
1Black and White is a 1991 Caldecott Medal book. Each two—page spread is divided into four sections and tells four stories of Seeing Thing, Problem Parents, A Waiting Game, and Udder Chaos respectively, which seemingly may not seem relevant to each other but eventually are all connected. 2The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is a Caldecott Honor book in 1992, which is comprised of nine non-traditional twists of well known fairy tales such as Cinderella, Jack and the Bean Stalk, The Frog Prince, and The Princess and the Pea, etc. 3The Three Pigs is a 2001 Caldecott Medal book, a twist to the traditional story of The Three Little Pigs, featuring three dimensional comic book—like techniques.
The participants of this qualitative, discourse analytic case study are fourteen preservice teachers. As a case study, this study attempts not to generalize from its findings, but hopefully to envision possible pedagogical implications that postmodern picture books can have for the readers. The data was collected while the preservice teachers were taking the course of “Teaching Children’s Literature” during the summer at a university in the central US. The class had two male students and twelve female students. Of the 14 students, 3 females had recently resumed their studies after some time away from school. The names used in this study are all pseudonyms. The course covered different genres of children’s literature from fantasy to realistic fiction to poetry. The main course goal was to become familiar with diverse genres of children’s literature covering traditional literature, picture books, poetry, informational books, and fiction. Then, through the familiarity with different genres, the course inquired of how important stories are in all human lives, and additionally how social influences such as ideology, power, and socially constructed aesthetics affect reading of children s literature, questioning norms and conventions of children’s literature and acknowledging cultural and human differences. During the course, postmodern picture books such as
The True Story of the Three Pigs(1989) and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales(1992) by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, The Three Pigs(2001) by David Wiesner, and Black and White(1990) by David Macaulay were introduced and discussed while dealing with the genre of picture books.
Data collection was conducted through three different ways. First, the class discussions and the group presentations on the postmodern picture books were audio-taped. Second, students’ reading diary entries on postmodern books were collected. The course requirements included two reading diaries and two response papers. The two reading diaries included twenty entries in each diary about different genres of children’s literature. Third, students were asked to write their responses more in depth about the postmodern picture books, particularly
The Three Little Pigs, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, Black and White, and The Stinky Cheese Man. These books were also used and discussed when the class dealt with postmodern picture books. In their response papers, they were encouraged to put in their own reflections about their professional readings, classroom discussions, and group discussions. The students’ reading diary entries, the audio-taped class discussions, group presentations, and response papers about the postmodern picture books constutite the primary data for this study. For their response papers on postmodern metafiction picture books, the following prompts were provided:
Waugh defines metafiction, a most significant feature of postmodern picture books, as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality” (2). She argues, thus, that metafiction books promote readers to challenge questions of beings, truths, and ideology. This metafictive feature of postmodern picture books can make readers suspect what have been taken for granted, which is a seminal aspect of deconstructive reading. Hunt identifies deconstructive reading as reading against texts and the first step of deconstructive reading probably should be reading against texts. Defining deconstruction as a coinage that combines both “destruction” and “construction,” Nodelman and Reimer write, [D]econstruction explores the constructions of literature to determine the extent of the artificiality, how they are constructed or manufactured, and how they work to disguise their own artifice” (236). As we read, we seem to naturally and spontaneously understand what we are reading, but we are limited in reading by our learned and lived ways of seeing words and pictures. The way that we take for granted in reading is neither neutral nor universal. As Meek states, no one is free from the consequences of literacy. Tyson maintains that deconstructive reading has two purposes. One is to reveal the “text’s undecidability,” and the other is to reveal the “complex operations of the ideologies of which the text is constructed” (259). He details the two purposes of deconstructive reading by questioning;
Drawing upon Tyson’s deconstructive reading, in what follows, preservice teachers’ data is listed up as binary opposites. The listed binary opposites will be further looked into under three recurring themes found from the coding process—Education, Morals and Behavior, and Traditions.
From preservice teachers’ data, a train of binary opposites was collected as below. Each binary opposite wording below is taken from the preservice teacher’s own descriptions of their likes and dislikes about postmodern metafiction picture books.
Overall preservice teachers’ dislikes include distraction and confusion, skepticism, sassy attitudes, drastically diminished purposes and meanings, realistic endings, and scattered structures, and subversion in contrast to their likes such as fun and playfulness, new, creative, and challenging aspects, norm and tradition, conformity, and truth. Some features appeared as both their likes and dislikes at the same time. For example, while many students disliked scattered structures, some preservice teachers stated that they liked the postmodern books realistic endings, the unusual forms and formats, such as the use of conversation bubbles and characters who walk in and out of the story. Interestingly, they use ‘actors’ instead of ‘characters’ in describing the figures in postmodern picture books and ‘stag’ instead of ‘settings.’ Tina, in her response paper, writes that “
The story of the 3 pigs is somewhat more whimsical and offers a look at the characters in the book as play actors that can run on and off stage.” Referring to characters and settings as “actor” and “stage” bears testimony to the aspect of performity, a characteristic of the postmodern metafiction picture books.
In explaining binary opposites, Hall argues that that there is no pure white or pure black existing. According to Hall, since there are always power struggles within a binary system, when we write a set of binary oppositions, we should use either upper or lower case—for example, WHITE/black, MEN/women—to demonstrate the immanent hierarchy within the binary. As for the preservice teachers’ list of binary opposites, the left,
likecolumn is apparently more valued and appreciated over the right, dislikecolumn. The differentiated values are more notable when they are seen from three recurring themes- Education, Morals and Behavior, and Tradition.
From the list of likes and dislikes, the biggest concern that the preservice teachers expressed is whether the postmodern picture books are advantageous or not for children. For its possible advantages, critical and creative thinking and different perspectives for seeing things were addressed. However, preservice teachers expressed more apprehensions such as confusions and distractions that would be caused by different formats and perspectives. Another recurring aspect stated in the response papers is that children should have background knowledge before they read postmodern picture books. For example, when students read “The Princess and the Bowling Ball”
in The Stinky Cheese Man, they need to know the original story, “The Princess and the Pea” first. The lack of background knowledge about or unfamiliarity with the original story even caused the feeling of detestation among some preservice teachers. The first and foremost criterion preservice teachers have with good books for children is children’s comprehensibility of the story without distraction and confusion. This approach to comprehensibility seems to be grounded in the assumption that good reading and comprehension means that fast and effortless meaning gathering from one-time reading and at the same time that multiple readings and multiple meanings from the texts are not viewed as ideal. This approach to reading and comprehension needs to be questioned because it tends to prohibit the reader from seeing underlying meanings and ideas, furthermore leads to the acceptance and conformity of the norms with no condition.
Interestingly, several preservice teachers felt anxious about how postmodern metafiction books might promote an “in your face” attitude rather than teaching good morals and behaviors. In his response paper, Colby writes,
As Colby and Tina point out, the second primary concern about postmodern metafiction picture books is whether they convey good morals and lessons for children to learn and teach how to behave. Arguing that the stories for children should always teach good morals and lessons, Colby even writes,
“In some postmodern picture books, like “The Stinky Cheese Man,” there is either nothing to be learned or the wrong image is being portrayed”(response paper).
Egoff defines children’s literature saying, “children’s literature has two basic characteristics: it is writing for children (that is, people up to the early teens) and it is intended to be read as literature and not only for information and guidance” (1). In other words, children’s literature is a means to channel children into conforming the existing social norms and traditions, as well as a source for aesthetic pleasurable reading. Some preservice teachers feel uncomfortable and even unacceptable about how postmodern metafiction provides young readers with a space in which they can go against the norms and traditions in children’s literature. On the other hand, other preservice teachers write that confusion and disturbance can raise the reader’s curiosity and offer new, different, and critical perspectives. They could possibly increase children’s ability to bear ambiguity and unfamiliarity, which is crucial to enrich their reading. With forms and formats of postmodern picture books, they show conflicting responses too. In personal response papers, many preservice teachers expressed their dislikes of the unusual formats since they made them feel confused and uncomfortable. But through the class discussions, they could find a continuum for their interpretation of postmodern metafiction, a continuum between “the challenging and creative” and “pointless nonsense.”
From their likes/dislikes, a conclusion drawn is that there are no absolute binary opposites in postmodern picture books. Rather, they form a continuum with the characteristics of the postmodern picture books, and on the continuum, the binary-looking features are conflicting but sometimes complementary, or even synergetic to other features. Stuart Hall brings the notion of the “circle of meaning” (42) into interpreting texts, using Derrida’s notion of “difference.” Hall writes that interpretations are an endless chain because one interpretation causes other interpretations, thus any final definition is not possible but is rather always deferred. These circular and accumulative interpretations of texts cannot be contained within any binary system. Hall concludes, “So meaning depends on the difference between opposites” (235). Postmodern metafiction picture books could enable preservice teachers to build the “circle of meaning” on the continuum of the binary opposites, which eventually broaden their appreciation and interpretation of children’s literature.
Preservice teachers’ data indicates that reading postmodern picture books made them think of the notions of the “Tradition/Norm” vs. “Outside the Box.” Along with these notions, they brought up issues such as the correct way of reading, truth, and objectivity that the postmodern texts question. Whereas some ways of text representations and readings are more accepted and preferably recognized as traditional and canonical, other ways are not. Nodelman argues that the way we judge a text as worthy or not is always contingent and context-specific. He goes on to state that in order to answer the question of what categorizes a text as belonging to literary norms, we should first ask “for whom?” and “when?” and “in what situation?” and “for what purpose?” (247). Hunt defines a canon as a “group of superior texts whose superiority is validated by some set of privileged judges” (3). Sarah, one of presservice teachers, writes that the book format of The Stinky Cheese Man is “incorrect” in her reading diary and she would not use it in her future classroom.
Sarah writes, “
As for dislikes, I do not like that I am still unsure of the ‘correct’ way to read the story if there is one. I also do not understand why the author chose to create a story like this” (Sarah, response paper). If Nodelman’s and Hunt’s view of the texts above is thought to be right, where does Sarah’s judgment come from? What reading can be considered as “correct”? Who decides its correctness in terms of forms, formats, and the way to read? Which way of reading is preferred and suggested in the classroom? Do we respect and encourage plural interpretations from each different reader? What reading is supported under the current literacy policies? Do they facilitate our way to read in the age of multimodality and multimedia? The answers seem to be apparent when considering the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2001 in the U.S. or other countries like Korea where test-driven readings are prevailing. Again, the set of binary opposites of “a correct way of reading-multiple ways of reading” can prompt us to challenge the seemingly agreed-upon norms and conventions in children’s books. James also points out that even though his first impression of postmodern books was “too silly and impractical to be of any use,” after reading them, he changed his mind. He says that “ postmodern picture books are a great way to teach students that there is always more than one side to any story and that both sides must be considered before making your own decisions about how your feel” (James, response paper). James also writes that since the twisted versions of fairy tales in The Stinky Cheese Mando not stick to the original endings, “ this brings up the question of appropriateness.”
Postmodern metafiction, as illustrated by preservice teachers, can be a good tool to bring to the surface the issue of the appropriateness of child reading questioning the existing norms and traditions in children’s literature. Julie’s response below shows that how she could read the text from the “out-side box” stance and finally bring up the issue of raising compassion and bearing tolerance for differences.
Using binary opposites, their likes and dislikes, helped preservice teachers broaden their interpretations through raising questions such as what are supposed to be traditions and norms in children’s books, being skeptical of taken-for-granted notions, and, further, asking themselves why and what made them to believe so.
The recommended reading levels by preservice teachers for postmodern picture books have a lot to do with their assumptions about children’s ability to read and their ideas of children and childhood. According to the author’s note,
The Stinky Cheese Manwas originally targeted for lower elementary-graders. Scieszka says,
Since the idea of creating
The Stinky Cheese Manoriginally comes from their experience with teaching and meeting children as a teacher and author, Scieszka’s reasoning about his intended reader must be well grounded. Contrary to the author’s intent, however, data from the preservice teachers shows their prevailing concerns about children’s confusion or inability to comprehend non-conventional types of books. For example, Taylor says about The Stinky Cheese Man, “I feel that if I had difficulty following the text, children will also struggle. . . . I do not feel that young students will have the ability to follow the choppy text or the multiple perspectives that this story encompasses”(response paper). James expresses similar apprehensions, saying, “I think that this book [Black and White] would have to be read by students that have a firm grasp on reading because it can be confusing to try and put the story together”(reading diary II). Kristina also points out, “children may not have formed beliefs yet about certain issues so they are not able to question. Also, if they have, they may become confused or upset to have to change them”(response paper).
In addition, many preservice teachers expressed their concerns about the children’s schema, previous literary knowledge of the original fairy tales. In her response paper, Julie writes that
This idea is certainly grounded in her assumption that reading picture books means simply flipping through the pages and getting the meaning without much effort. However, this assumption is intentionally challenged by the authors of postmodern picture books. For example, David Wiesner’s long-explored idea of “white spaces” evidences this challenge. For Wiesner, “white spaces” is where the unexpected, weird, and unusual could happen and represents the idea of challenging, subverting, and exploring the world outside the box. Through the white spaces pursued in his postmodern metafiction picture books, he invites the readers into the space and offers the reader with authorship/authority.
In her study on the readings of
Black and White, McClay notes that teachers and librarians tend to think that the book is appropriate for junior high students or older, based on their own experience of rereading and taking a pause to understand the story. What McClay found is, contrary to the adults’ underestimation of children’s ability to read, younger children rather enjoyed solving the puzzles in the book with pleasure. Therefore, whether people think of picture books as too simple to offer to older children, or they see complex, non-traditional picture books such as the postmodern picture books as too challenging to offer to younger children, both kinds of assumptions can deprive children of their opportunities to become competent readers (Mackey and McClay, 2000).
In short, there seems to be a gap existing between the authors’ implied reader and literary critics’ and the preservice teachers’ ideal readers for the postmodern metafiction picture books. Although many studies have already revealed young readers’ capability of appreciating postmodern metafiction, it depends a lot more on the teachers and preservice teachers’ decision whether children’s right to have access to affluent literacy resources is respected or not.
During class discussion, one student points out that the stories in the postmodern metafiction picture books do not take place in a chronological order but rather in a simultaneous and three-dimensional manner, as if we would have many windows open on the computer screen at the same time:
The Stinky Cheese Man, Chris tells, in her response paper, how she was struggling to understand the book since she was used to a traditional reading path, saying “ At first this book was very confusing and seemed totally choppy and disjointed. I found that I couldn’t read this book in the same manner I read traditional literature.” However, soon she realized that the odd layout requires her to pause and create her own story.
Kimberly addresses how her thoughts on postmodern picture books have changed differently from her first impression. In her reading diary entry on The Stinky Cheese Man, she reveals how she was surprised and startled by that book at first sight. She says that “
Not only did Scieszka and Smith attack traditional and accepted fairy tales, but they also challenged the layout of a book.” She also writes, “ I found that I read the postmodern picture books differently than I read other books” (response paper). After she read the same book to her ten-year-old sister, she noticed her sister “ read the book the way she would read a normal book, starting at the top of the left page, reading down, and then moving to the top of the right page. This was the only way that she knew how to read a book.” Her finding was that The Stinky Cheese Manwould be useful as a “ way to break the mold, to get them to think critically about approaching each book as unique” (response paper). As shown above, Kimberly’s first perplexity changed and led her to think that “ These changes make the reader question why a book is always in the same format, the practicality behind it, and the conformity of the industry” (Reading diary I). As Chris and Kimberly write, the ways of reading can be expanded by comparing different reading paths, traditional and non-traditional, and postmodern picture books can help us see the difference. The notions of reading paths presented by the preservice teachers with the postmodern picture books can be explored further along with the exploitation of Kress’s arguments on reading paths and multimodal texts. Kress states that the “matter of the reading path is a cultural decision” (157).
He explains the distinctions between the traditional page and its reading path, and the new, multimodal, visual-oriented page and its reading path as follows:
Kress also states that according to the text, traditional or not, and the respective reading paths, the tasks of the reader vary. With the traditional text, the reader is to follow the given order and engage in interpretation within that order. On the other hand, with the new multimodal, visualoriented text, the primary task of the reader is not interpretation but designing and constructing meanings out of that. If we acknowledge Kress’s argument right, that is, the matter of the reading path is a cultural decision and the dominant medium of the text becomes multi-modal and thus this new digital era requires different reading paths, noteworthy is the different reading paths, multiple perspectives, and undecidable meanings that the postmodern picture books entail. Preservice teachers’ awareness of that potential will become a stepping stone to bring and realize the new reading path and new literacies in the classrooms.
With the different and twisted endings in the three books (
The Stinky Cheese Man, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and The Three Pigs), many preservice teachers write that since the realistic endings of those books are different from those of the traditional fairy tales, that could have a profound pedagogical impact on young readers. In other words, with the postmodern metafiction picture books, the meaning of literacy can be expanded beyond simply being literate. Erica writes in her first reading diary about how story such as The Stinky Cheese Mancan help children see what real life and the real world are like through fiction:
Despite their concerns with the texts’ confusion and distraction, one significant point made by preservice teachers is that their reading of postmodern picture books had them think of why things are the way they are and see “outside the box.” In her response paper, Julie writes,
As preservice teachers put it, reading these non-conventional, postmodern metafiction could get children to have multiple perspectives and multiple truths, which help them learn and acknowledge why we have to tolerate differences and cultivate compassion toward one another. Tina writes in her reading diary, these books could offer the “hope of change”;
According to Dresang,
Black and Whiteis a successful transformed picture book with “mental and visual challenges, nonlinear interactive, thought-provoking, multilayered, hypertext experience of the new” (708). However, postmodern picture books have not always been evaluated in such a positive way. Hunt writes in his article, “Futures for Children’s Literature: Evolution or Radical Break?” that electronic media have changed the nature of story as well as the way we tell stories, putting emphasis on how the concept of narratives is stretched (111). In this article, Hunt considers postmodern texts, taking Black and Whiteas an example, an attempt to represent the stretched narratives in this age of electronic media. However, Hunt does not take postmodern picture books into careful consideration; rather, he calls them “simply chopped up linear narratives.”
Whether we take either Hunt’s criticism or Dresang’s optimism towards postmodern picture books, given the preservice teachers’ experience with different reading paths, the authors’ intention in creating the transformed picture books, and other critics’ commentaries on new literacies and new reading paths such as those by Kress, Dresang, and Yates, it does not seem to be difficult to conjecture the strong relationship among the reading paths, the postmodern picture books, and the expanded literacies.
Many preservice teachers felt confusion, disturbance, and deviation with postmodern picture books at their first sight. However, they eventually could see how postmodern picture books offer possibilities to raise connection, compassion, and humanity drawn upon multiple perspectives and tolerance of differences, and non-tradition. Bruner states that stories reflect and envision our modes of behaving, and thus they provide a “map of possible roles and possible worlds” (65). Either possible worlds can be open to or obstructed from young readers can lie in the openness and the guidance of their teachers.