Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Monsters & Marvels of Metafiction

I have just finished reading Down the Mysterly River, and after reading it, I read reviews. All reviews crowed about the voice, premise, character development, dialogue, and settings, and I join this chorus.  But almost all reviewers expressed disappointment with the ending, including a reviewer Cory Doctorow (so you know it is a noticed YA title...).  I disagree.  I loved the ending.

I suspect that the reviewers (you can find them with a Google) did not understand that this is not just a fantasy; it is metafiction fantasy.  The ending is entirely appropriate to the genre. 

According to Pastoral Metafictional Action by John Ottinger III, "metafiction [is]— aware of itself yet also enjoyable as a simple quest fantasy."  In otherwords, metafiction writers work on two levels: they write in their genre, and they and/or their characters are aware of their roles within the play of the genre at the same time.  I add another dimension that I like and enjoy to this definition: Metafiction authors comment on some aspect the world in which they live, and this comment is often a strong statement.  As metafiction texts (fiction, movies, images) move up the scale in difficulty/grade level, these comments become more and more critical.  For example, a theme of a the children's book Chalk might be "Watch out! The story you make is REAL!"  An adult metafictional title might have the theme "Watch out! The story you make can also make you."

Watch this fabulous introduction to metafiction in children's books, Metafiction for Children: A User's Guide, from Phlip Nel.  Metafiction is NOT, Nel says, a form of postmodernism. It is its own genre.  He defines it as a book that reflects on what it means to be a book, or that has pictures that reflect on the nature of pictures - it is a book that self-consciously plays with its form.  His definition thus embraces pop-up books, interactive books, many classic picture books, very old, slightly old, and  contemporary pieces.  

Children's books, of course, are not the only - or the main - platform for metafiction.  The literary discussion/explanation online is fairly dense, but it amounts to this: metafiction is fiction that looks back upon itself, or that it out at itself from a fictional inside space. Periodically, and certainly in the endgame, the author/character connection is revealed to the reader and that character steps out of the story.  It is this intellectual fun-side that make metafiction especially appropriate to the classroom.  Students must engage in analysis and discussion, they must explore roots and connections, in order to fully grapple with the text.

These are not easy texts, precisely because the adult/creator voice and sensibility are omnipresent.  The vocabulary and syntax can be challenging.  To the student who does not enjoy fantasy, the narrative voice in a fantasy metafiction can be cloying.  There is, however, a metafictional text and movie accessible to every reader k-12.  Not all metafiction is fantasy; horror, mystery, historical and psycho-fiction also often fall into this genre. It is useful, however, for children to have a background in the most well-read fairy tales and fantasy before they dive into metafiction.  Readers of the more adult titles will benefit from having read widely in fiction. 

The best interactive books written especially for the iPad or Android tend to be metaphysical in nature. Some even transform a classical book or rhyme, like Pat the Bunny and Itsy Bitsy Spider, into a metaphysical experience.  After all, choice is a metacognitive act, and when that choice has been limited to elements of a text by the writer of that text...  The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore would be a good place to start the app experience.  For the most part, apps are not fully there yet, but those that truly take advantage of the interactive experience will push the metafiction genre forward.

I have listed below my suggestions.  Add to these the titles highlighted by Philip Nel and those listed in his companion web post (see below).


Philip Nel has a blog post, Nine Kinds of Pie - More Metafiction for Children, that lists all of the titles highlighted in the video AND many of the titles not mentioned but displayed behind him.  He also includes a list of graphic novels. If you read the Comments, the list goes on.

Below are the titles that I especially like.  Wikipedia has quite an extensive list, which I have drawn from, and there is some overlap with Nel.  An interesting aspect of metafiction is how personal the reader's response is. It is possible, in fact, to debate the metafictionalism of any one of these titles.

Picture books - a large list is also on Nel's site - my list includes highly recommended apps
  • The Book With No Pictures (B.J. Novak) - must be read aloud
  • Chalk (Bill Thomson)
  • It's a Book (Lane Smith)
  • A Coyote Columbus Story (Thomas King and William Kent Monkman)
  • There's a Monster at the End of This Book (Jon Stone) - also Another Monster at the End of This Book - also the iPad apps of the same name
  • Flotsam (David Wiesner) 
  • There's a Hair in My Dirt; A Worm's Story (Gary Larson) - perhaps best for the MS lovers of Far Side
  • Press Here (Herve Tullet) 
  • The Incredible Book-eating Boy (Oliver Jeffers)
  • There Are No Cats in This Book (Viviane Schwarz)
  • The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore - app
  • The Artifacts - app - MS and up
  • Roxie's Doors - app
  • Don't Let the Pigeon Run this App - app
Fiction - MS = probably not for middle school but you can guide this - in approximate order of age-interest, but any of these is appropriate for YA level study.  I have not includes Lexiles because they are often misleading with this genre, due to the importance of narrative voice and stylistic elements. Metafiction is wonderful for attacking those persnickity POV, narrator, narrative voice standards too, so test-prep can be done at any level of reading.
  • Walter: the Story of a Rat (Barbara Wersba) - high-reading elementary
  • Down the Mysterly River (Bill Willingham) -  high-reading elementary
  • A Whole Nother Story (Dr. Cuthbert Soup)  -  high-reading elementary
  • Archy and Mehetable (Don Marquis) - high-reading elementary
  • The Name of This Book is Secret (Pseudonymous Bosch) -  high-reading elementary
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events (series by Lemony Snicket)
  • A Tale Dark and Grimm (Adam Gidwitz)
  • The Last Unicorn (Peter S. Beagle) - film also 
  • The Neverending Story (Michael Ende)
  • Inkheart Trilogy (Cornelia Funke)
  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Salman Rushdie)
  • The Bartimaeus Trilogy (Jonathan Stroud)
  • Fablehaven series (Brandon Mull)
  • The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (Terry Pratchett) - another of my personal favorites
  • Unwritten (Mike Carey) - graphic novel series follows Tommy Taylor through time and space, a hero of a book written by his own father...
  • Not Everything Brainless is Dead (Joshua Price) - new series of mock-horror - exclusive on the Kindle
  • The True Meaning of Smekday (Adam Rex)
  • Before I Fall (Lauren Oliver) - late middle
  • Once (Morris Gleitzman) - Holocaust
  • My Name is Mina (David Almond) 
  • Sophie's World (Jostein Gaarder) - often a GT book in MS
  • Cosmicomics (Italo Calvino) - often used as GT text in grade 8 
  • Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglass Adams) - often a GT book in MS
  • "The Tunnel Under the World" (Frederick Pohl) - short story available for Kindle
  • The Plague Dogs (Richard Adams) - MS
  • House of Leaves (Mark Danielewski) - MS
  • Thursday Next Novels (series by Jasper Fforde) - MS - also his Nursery Crime series
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers) - MS
  • If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (Italo Calvino) - MS
  • Grendel (John Gardner) - one of my personal favorites - MS
  • Atonement (Ian McEwen) - MS
  • The Toyminator (Robert Rankin) - MS
  • In the Night Room (Peter Straub) - MS
  • Riverworld: To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat (Philip Jose Farmer) - MS  -  another personal favorite
  • Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut) - MS
  • Fables (Bill Willingham) - graphic novel/comics - wide-ranging series - MS
  • The French Lieutenant's Woman (Jonathan Fowles) - MS
  • The USA Trilogy (John DosPassos) - classic experimentation with form creates metafiction - MS
Arts tie-in (visual, film)
  • M.C. Escher
  • Found Art - there are great materials online for a student creative unit (I did it) - begin with Wikipedia, links to local museums and visits to local installations
  • Hugo
  • The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen)
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
  • The Neverending Story
  • Shrek movies
  • The Last Unicorn
  • The Matrix films - great to use and reference, if your students have a background already
  • The Truman Show
  • Hamlet & A Midsummer Night's Dream (many film productions of both)
Poetry & Drama - it can be argued that all drama and most poetry is metafictional in nature, but here are some titles that are more directly so (drama within drama, drama about life as fiction, poetry about poetry, etc.)
  • Mirror, Mirror; a Book of Reversible Verse (Marilyn Singer) - concrete metapoetry
  • Hailstones and Halibut Bones (Mary O'Neill) - poetry of color about color with color
  • Robert Frost - most of his well-known poems - I like his "Design" read with "Design" (Billy Collins)
  • "Ars Poetica" - links to poems on poetry from
  • Ted Nellen has a personal list of Poems on Poems - I like this list for its contemporary bent and its range of poets
  • Waiting for Godot (Samuel Beckett) - MS
  • Deathtrap (Ira Levin) - MS
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare) - can be read in MS (editing recommended)
  • The Skin of Our Teeth (Thornton Wilder) - MS
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Tom Stoppard) - MS
  • Hamlet (Shakespeare) - MS
Informational Text
  • Zen in the Art of Writing (Ray Bradbury)
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Stephen King)
  • Characters & Viewpoint (Orson Scott Card) - available for Kindle
  • "Writers on Writing: Carl Hiaasen" - find more essays in this NYTimes series
  • "Why We Make Art" (short personal statements by artists in various media)
  • Augmented Planet (blog) - short pieces on augmented reality (AR) apps, shows, creative ideas - I like the angels at Victoria station - this is a growing use of technology that will appeal to kids in a metafictional way
Activities - If you have to ask, you don't understand the genre.  But students might: imitate & update, create, self-question

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