Making Mischief: Subversive Picture Books that Invite Reader Participation
The great subversive works of children's literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten.
- Alison Lurie (Don't Tell the Grown-Ups)
As an aspiring author/illustrator, I pay close attention to the books kids check-out when I help at Bush Elementary School's library in Salem, OR. I take note not only so as to be better attuned to children's interests when making my own books, but also out of curiosity. Over the past year, I have noticed that three picture books are especially popular at the school: No, David! by David Shannon, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems, and The Book That Eats People by John Perry and illustrated by Mark Fearing. The kids cannot wait to get their hands on these books or hear them read aloud. Why these books? When juxtaposing these picture books, I find the stories share subversive elements that are presented through the interplay of words and pictures in such a way as to invite children's participation. These stories either reverse normal roles (i.e. putting the child in a authority position), celebrate naughtiness, or present taboo subjects (i.e. eating people). As Lurie explains in the epigraph, such rebellious aspects have an appeal rooted in questioning the status quo and presenting possibilities for creating new understandings.
No, David! by David Shannon
is a celebration of mischief! David (the little boy who is the main character of the story and based upon a five-year-old version of the author/illustrator) careens from one unruly act to the next. "Come back here, David!" yells the off-stage mother as the spread depicts David running naked down the neighborhood street. "Be quiet!" she wails as David bangs on kitchen pans. "No! No! No!" she shouts on numerous occasions such as in one spread where David swamps the bathroom with a torrent of bathroom water. The numerous illustrations of David causing trouble are a source of amusement and liberation for the reader. David is the embodiment of childhood indiscretion and there is very much a subversive dimension to this as most of David's mother's pleas for him to stop are in vain. David gets into relatively little trouble. Yet, this is just what is immediately recognizable as subversive. What is much more subtle is the role reversal that occurs when a child reads this book.
In No, David! the child who reads the book acts as David's mother due to the interplay between words and pictures. David's mother appears in only two of the illustrations: the title page and the final spread. Even in these two instances we only see part of her and never her face. Accordingly, in 15of the book's spreads we see the words the mother shouts at David but not her. Instead, it appears as if the reader is in the mother's position. I have noticed that kids love to shout the mother's lines (that comprise most of the text) at David. Consequently, the reader becomes the one telling David not to do these things. In this act, they are transformed into the authority figure. The child is presented with the opportunity to participate in the story by saying the things usually said to them by their parents or other adults. This presents the child with a sense of empowerment to have this reversal in power relations, and, at the same time, recognize the power of David's "wrongdoings." This would probably not occur if the book was only illustrations or only words: "each tells us of something the other is incapable of telling or that the other could tell only with difficulty; together, they mean something quite different and a lot more specific than each on its own" (Nodelman 728). The pictures set the stage for seeing through David's mother's eyes and the text provides prompts for the reader to take on the mother's voice. The two combined put the reader squarely in the mother's perspective. This interplay is also important for making the story accessible and inviting the creativity of the reader. The powerfully simple illustrations have a child-like quality that invites still further participation. I have noticed many children at Bush Elementary draw their own versions of David and come up with their own scenarios for his trouble-making ways. Once again, the words play a complementary role as kids come up with lines for the mother to be saying to David. What is particularly striking about children making their own stories about David is that this mirrors the way in which the book frees the child to consider new relationships with their parents and other adult authority figures. By reversing roles, the book facilitates learning about different perspectives and questioning why the roles are the way they are currently positioned. This recognition forms the base for making new or alternative meaning out of traditional roles.
Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems presents a participatory role reversal similar to No, David!. A bus driver asks the reader at the beginning of the book to watch his bus and make sure the pigeon does not drive it. Hence, immediately the child is presented with uncommon responsibility. The reader is given authority to care for the bus, which is atypical power for a child in American society. This begins the role reversal, whereby the child takes on the position of the adult. When the bus driver leaves, the pigeon makes his appearance and asks: "Hey, can I drive the bus?" When reading the book aloud for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the response of the child audience to this question. They shouted out together: "NO!!!" It was exceptionally forceful and an immediate sign of the joy the kids took in the subversive nature of authority role reversal. They had been given uncanny agency. Unlike in No, David!, the reader does not read their line but is prompted by the pigeons various inquiries. The reader acts much like a parent in consistently saying "no" to the pigeon. At the same time, the reader can relate to the pigeon who comes up with all sorts of creative ploys to get permission to drive the bus. The pigeon plays the role of the child in the book. He wants to do something but has to seek permission from the authority figure, which is the reader. Part of what makes this role reversal subversive is that it is contradictory to normal life for the contemporary American child. Usually children are, "required to adhere to schedules, to complete homework assignments, to conform in class or on the school bus, and to cooperate with parents and teachers—or else face disciplinary action or, in an increasing number of cases, compulsory medication" (Stahl, Hanlon, and Keyser 128). In Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and No, David!, the child takes on the forbidden position of the restricting adult and sympathizes with the character who defies the authority figure.
Similarly to No, David!, the pictures and text of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus have a crucial interplay that embraces subversive action and helps the reader be participatory. The pigeon is depicted throughout the story as looking at the reader when asking to ride the bus. It is evident from the direction of the pigeon's eyes at the wording of the text that the reader is the person the pigeon is asking questions. The text and pictures are also quite simple and lend themselves well to new interpretations. Based off the various posts on Mo Willems' blog, he receives loads of fan mail in which kids propose and depict other things the pigeon is told not to do. The book fosters creativity and thus encourages creative interpretations on traditional roles.
While The Book that Eats People by John Perry and illustrated by Mark Fearing does not have the same role reversal situation as the other two books, it is similarly subversive and participatory through its treatment of a taboo subject: eating people. The way in which it is participatory is that the book leads the reader to believe that it is actually Thee book that eats people. Kids at Bush Elementary School have lots of fun wondering whether or not the book actually does eat people and nervously enjoy carefully reading it so as not to lose any fingers. Once again, the interplay between text and pictures forms the base for the participatory nature of the book. The words of the book tell you it is actually a book that eats people: "so now everyone knows what kind of book this is. Who knows where YOU found it. But be careful. Because this book is ALWAYS hungry. AND IT EATS PEOPLE." The cover complements the text. The outside of the physical book matches the depictions of the "book that eats people" such as the "label on it that says THE BOOK THAT EATS PEOPLE in big, bold letters." This could of course still be a participatory book if the book was "The Book that Smiles," but the eating people dimension makes it subversive. Talking about eating humans is a generally taboo subject in American society and with the myth of childhood innocence still prevalent; this topic is especially taboo for children. Consequently, children may feel they are doing something "wrong" in adult eyes by reading the book and take pleasure in resisting adult authority through reading the book.
What makes a book pleasurable for a child to read? Based on the comparison of the popular No, David!, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, and The Book that Eats People, the subversive picture book appears to have a particular appeal. Especially when the book is participatory! The interplay between words and pictures helps facilitate role reversals and dealing with taboo subjects. At the same time, this dynamic allows for a re-imagining of the world and a consideration of what society could be like. These books challenge common relationships and what is and is not acceptable. By doing so, I am sure these picture books will be considered classics.
Lurie, Alison. Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: Why Kids Love the Books They Do. New York, NY: Avon Books, 1990. Print.
Perry, John and Mark Fearing. The Book That Eats People. Toronto: Tricycle Press, 2009. Print.
Shannon, David. No, David! New York, NY: The Blue Sky Press. 1998. Print.
Stahl, J.D., Tina L. Hanlon, and Elizabeth Lennox Keyser. Crosscurrents of Children's Literature: An Anthology of Texts and Criticism. Ed. Stahl, J.D., Tina L. Hanlon, and Elizabeth Lennox Keyser. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
Willems, Mo. Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc., 2003. Print.