Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Audience? What Audience?

I have just read yet another reference (in a review on Fuse #8) to "the current 'Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus' trend of breaking down the fourth wall and allowing the reader the chance to affect a picture book character’s actions." Surely I am not the only out-of-the-loop person wondering what are the first three walls. Could you please explain?

"The fourth wall" is an expression that comes from theater. The people on stage are pretending they are in a room: three of the room's walls are right there, on stage, with the furniture and other props. The fourth wall, the one closest to the audience, is not there. But because it is a play, the actors pretend there is a wall there (and not an audience), and interact solely with each other (and not the audience).
So "to break the fourth wall" is when an actor addresses the audience, breaking the suspension of disbelief that allows us to pretend what we're watching is its own self-contained world.

By extension, the expression has come to mean any situation in which the presence of an audience is acknowledged. Do you remember in Ferris Bueller's Day Off when Matthew Broderick looks directly at the camera, sharing a joke with the audience? That's breaking the fourth wall.

In children's books, this is not a new thing. You've read The Monster At the End of This Book, yes? Basically, breaking the fourth wall is just another way (though not the only one) to work in audience participation. Audience participation is very compelling to audiences everywhere, but especially so to children. Children don't see why they should be patient and let the artform reveal itself before they start being entertained. And, for that matter, neither do I.

Readers, what other children's books can you think of that ask for audience participation?


Editorial Anonymous said...

Know what the point of comments are? Audience participation.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Because I have two young daughters with an indulgent grandma, my first thought was
(blush) (cough...cough)

Dora the Explorer 8x8s...... My two year old is especially thrilled when Dora needs her help to find Swiper, Tape, or the next thing on the map.......

(Thankfully my four-year-old is finally getting bored of Dora stories... unless they're the homemade "Dora and Boots save Tico's cousins from the bad king and steal the sheriff's tax money and distribute it among the orphans before melting back into the greenwood to sharpen their arrows" variety...... )

Also, while it doesn't QUITE break the fourth wall, "Brown Bear, Brown Bear" bends it by encouraging the child to answer the "What do you see?" questions throughout the book......

Stephanie J. Blake said...

Lemony Snickets

eluper said...

Here I was hiding nice and quietlike behind my fourth wall. And you had to come along and break it down.

Anonymous said...

Any picture book where the illustrations provide a subtext to the story invites participation and implicitly breaks the fourth wall--I like to think of it as the illustrator winking at the reader from over the story-teller's shoulder.

Anonymous said...

Margaret Wise Brown's Noisy books come to mind. And virtually any picture book with animal noises will break down that fourth barn wall whether it was the author's intent or not.

I was once reading aloud an animal noises book to a group of preschoolers, who were happily mooing, clucking, neighing, and baaing along, until I got to the page where the text read, "And the children go..." Dead silence. They hadn't a clue about their own species.

Disco Mermaids said...

Pat the Bunny. It even includes a book within a book!!!

- Jay

Stephanie Denise Brown said...

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo.

Sam said...

I was wondering what the earliest example of this in Kidlit was. I'm sure it goes back farther, but the oldest I could think of was:
Emma Stirling's 1868 book "The History of a Pin."

Stirling not nly talks to the reader, she insults them!

"Now, young ladies, don’t smile and look wise, for if you have only just discovered who Lady Dripley was, and what parts the present
company performed in the drama of my life, all I can say is, your perceptions are not of the most acute ;—in plain language, you are
very stupid!"

By the way, in adult fiction, Trollope broke the fourth wall with a title: "Can You Forgive Her?"

Anonymous said...

I haven't read them for a while, but I'm pretty sure C.S. Lewis breaks the fourth wall in Chronicles of Narnia.

Carly said...

I'm not sure "breaking the fourth wall" is the same thing as addressing the reader directly. (Or maybe it is... EA, do you want to clarify?) I'm thinking of Stephanie's example of Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux. From what I remember (I strongly disliked the book, so I try to remember as little as possible about it), the author often lapses into bits when she writes something along the lines of, "oh, dear Reader" or "oh, gentle Reader, what a terrible situation Despereaux was in," etc. etc. etc. I would also put A Series of Unfortunate Events in this category.

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and There's a Monster at the End of This Book, on the other hand, almost demand participation from the reader. They ask the reader questions, they force the reader to make decisions, and they pester the reader so directly that he or she simply must play along.

They seem like two distinctly different types to me.

carterbham said...

One of my favorite new picture books, "The Girl in the Castle in the Museum," does just that. Audience within audience.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm puzzled. For how long has it been drummed into us that you can't do "Dear Reader" anymore and haven't been able to for about a hundred years. The occasional Kate DiCamillo can do it just that blantantly, and I notice more and more of it happening, usually more discreetly, but not always, The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall being another example. I like that book a lot, and as a reader I enjoy being addressed if it's done well. Are we now openly admitting that the pendulum has swung back and we can do this?

Anonymous said...

The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and The Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Wood

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't Laura Numeroff's books, If You Give a Pig a Pancake, and If you Give a Moose a Muffin, etc... break the fourth wall?

Anonymous said...

A Story With Pictures by Barbara Kanninen breaks the fourth wall.

Anonymous said...

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson.

Don't even tell me I didn't warn you about the talking dinosaurs. They are mentioned on page 37.

Laurie said...

If You're Happy and You Know It by Jane Cabrera. My kids LOVE that book.

Anonymous said...

In Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters From Obedience School by Mark Teague, Ike, a wayward dog sent to obedience school, longs to return to his master. Through a series of contrite letters Ike sends home, we read about the gruesome prison camp he's in and the inhumane treatment he receives, all illustrated in bleak black and white. But at the same time (and over the same page spread) we are shown Ike in vivid color as he writes his letters from the posh comfort of a boarding school. Scattered throughout the story are newspaper clippings revealing yet another version of reality—how the world at large views Ike's "imprisonment" and eventual "escape." I wonder if allowing the reader to see these multiple views of "reality" can be considered tearing down the fourth wall?

In Story of a Little Mouse Trapped in a Book by Monique Felix, the narrator uses the actual pages of the book as an object in the story. Others even refer to the creation process of the book. This is done in my favorite postmodern picture book, The Three Little Pigs by David Wiesner. The book is asking the reader "What is real?"

David Macauley's Black and White (which is in color) is actually four different stories at once, each with their own illustrative styles, that can be read from any direction. The reader must discern the various relationships between the written message and the illustrated message.

When the messages are at odds with each other, as in Dear Mrs. LaRue, that's when the reader is let in on the secret reality. I think of this as breaking down the fourth wall, but perhaps it doesn't involve enough direct character interaction with the reader to qualify?

Anonymous said...

Dr. Suess, The Cat in the Hat: "Well, what would you do if your mother asked you?"

Hey, Little Ant, by Phil and Hannah Hoose ends:
Should the ant get squished?
Should the ant go free?
It's up to the kid, not up to me.
So we'll leave that kid with the raised up shoe.
What do you think that kid should do?

Anonymous said...

Breaking the fourth wall in a slightly different way: Allan Ahlberg's The Bravest Ever Bear, in which the characters rebel and start rewriting the story, each casting him or herself as the hero.

Anonymous said...

I like the 'Black and White' book, too, Lenzi. But I feel that it is more of a book for adults. I feel it is too sophisticated for most children. My local librarian said the same.

Still I am glad it is on the shelves.

Cheryl said...

Do Not Open This Book by Michaela Muntean, illustrated by Pascal Lemaitre. Though to me it replicates a lot of There's a Monster at the End of This Book (also called, I think, Please Do Not Open This Book), which I *love*. I still enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

How about Don't Make Me Laugh, and No Laughing, No Smiling, No Giggling by James Stevenson? "I am in charge of this book. I make up the rules....Do not laugh! Do not even smile! Don't do anything you are told not to do." The reader is tempted to tickle, poke and otherwise disrupt the characters in these books, trying to get them to laugh.

Also, getting back to the Dora phenomenon, Blues Clues and other, newer children's shows base their appeal on the same interactivity -- talking to the children, waiting for their responses. As commercial as these are, this "breaking down the 4th wall" has led to more interaction and thinking instead of just glazed over eyes and slack jaws!

Anonymous said...

ae, I suspect you're right that books like Black and White require a bit more sophistication--a certain level of multiliteracy--to be fully appreciated. But I assumed there were plenty of kids out there who were up for it. I don't know how Black and White has been received by its intended audience--I'd be interested in finding out how well those kinds of books fare.

Anonymous said...

I think, like most matters of technique, breaking the fourth wall has a span of degrees.

The Pigeon books (MW's Elephant and Piggie, too) are a very direct, word-and-picture conversation with the reader (which is one of the reasons they make such great group read-alouds).

The much more common occasional direct address ( Tale of Desperaux, et al.) is a milder version of this: the book takes a quick break from its own world to speak to us in ours. I think this technique went out of fashion with the Victorians, who loved it and used it constantly (Jane Eyre wouldn't be Jane Eyre without it). Lately, it's crept back in as writers play with the post-modern idea of formally self-conscious text (or rather the new post-modern version of what's actually a very old idea: the epic of Gilgamesh begins with a direct address to the reader).

This idea also has visual expressions: the wonderful anarchy of The Stinky Cheese Man is driven by exactly the same self-consciousness and self-reference. The much more formal game-playing of Black and White is the same.

Another, maybe milder, version of this is a text that contradicts in some obvious way the facts the reader already has: examples here would include all of the 'radical retellings' of well-known stories from the early Lane Smith/Jon Scieszka effort The True Story of the Three Little Pigs to almost anything by Gregory Maguire to John Gardner's Grendel.

In all of those stories, the reader 'knows' things that the text in front of him is contradicting. The text engages him/her in a whole battle of wits that takes place outside the words on the page as the reader reacts to the challenge: objecting, defending, reconsidering, re-assesing.

Again, this works in pictures as well. Some of the best picture book moments are moments when the pictures and text contradict each other in a way that lets the reader in on a secret. As christy lenzi points out above, Dear Mrs. LaRue does that. One of my favorites, Good Night Gorilla does more or less the same in a still softer way.

At some point on this scale, decreasing intrusiveness becomes indistinguishable from the active engagement of normal reading.

I bother laying all of this out because I think recognizing this span as a span in important both for writers and editors.

'Breaking the wall', like a lot of lit-crit usage, is a blanket term: a useful enough phrase for beginning a discussion, but too blunt an instrument to be useful on its own. "Red" will do for most people in describing a tulip, but an artist or a florist is going to have to have a more nuanced vocabulary.

How much do I break the wall? In what way? To what purpose? What am I gaining by doing it and what am I losing?

These are the questions that are subtle enough to be interesting. And they're only answerable in the places writers and editors really do their work: in the very particular moments and problems of very particular texts.

Anonymous said...

Working Illustrator, I think I love you. And you've read the Epic of Gilgamesh--it's like a cherry on top.

Anonymous said...

Working Ill, I love you too!

Lenz, the librarian I spoke to said kids don't get this one. My writing teacher presented this one to us as his personal favorite. Only me and one other person in the class understood it. Same with the Sweetest Figaroooo. I consider these books to be the kind you mull over and look thru many times. They are not quick reaction getters. They are cerebral, I guess. But I love both of them and put them with my 'wow' collection. It might be because I am a visual animal.

Anonymous said...

Not to love you right back in public, Christy, but I just visited your blog: Jane Austen! Point Reyes!Stonehenge! Gilgamesh! Shakespeare! Whitman!

I think we might secretly be the same person.

Deirdre Mundy said...

My siblings and I loved "Black and White" -- It was a great book to sprawl out on the family room floor with.

But We were older--I was probably 14 or so when my dad brought it home, so my youngest brother was 7.

But many of McCauley's "Picture Books" aren't for children at all. Think Motel of the Mysteries or Baa...... even the classics, (Castle, Cathedral, City, Unbuilding, etc.) aren't really for children below the age of ten or so.......

McCauley isn't really a "Children's" illustrator at all! The only reason his books get shelved in the kids section is because of the dogmatic "pictures=kids" position.

As for Black and White, etc. breaking the fourth wall...

I don't think so. Creating a work that the reader needs to think about and puzzle through isn't the same as breaking the illusion of a self-contained world.

You're just asking the reader to figure out the rules of the world (like in The Westing Game....)

Even having an unreliable narrator doesn't break the illusion--if anything it deepens it because you're really seeing the world through those eyes....

Books are not designed just to be dispensers of information to be accepted by a passive reader--- They all demand some degree of thought and interaction.....

(Or maybe this is just my liberal-arts-major "How to Read a Book" loving self coming through......)

Rose Green said...

To some degree (sorry, I don't have any such books on hand and I'm thousands of miles from the nearest English library), a lot of chic lit, first person, chatty YA do that. The asides to the reader, the verbal eye-rolling over situations, etc. I don't mind those, and I don't mind the CS Lewis examples, but some of the more recent literary MG novels don't do it for me--they feel too heavy-handed for me, and tear me out of the story.

In a picture book, though, I think it's a fun technique. After all, an adult has to read a picture book to a child who can't, so you're already putting something between the text and the intended audience. Playing on that is just fun.

Anonymous said...

No, I don't think McCauley's books are for children under eight. They are most popular with third thru sixth, or seventh or maybe even eighth graders. And most like "Mosque" etc. are educational/trade in my mind. You see them in schools, libraries and bookstores and at bookfairs.

They are not read alouds for sure.

And they are not fiction for the most part.

But what they are is very well made and illustrated, informative and kinda cool in presentation, angle and thought, which attracts its own fan base.

I like pbs for older kids. It is not a broad a market but it is a vital one if the product is quality.

You know that book "A Street Through Time" by Dr. Anne Millard and illustrator Steve Noon (talk about meticulous)? This is a book you can look at and read over and over again.

And "So You Want to Be President"

These are fabulous pbs for older kids. And well executed.

They are not interactive but they do cause a reaction....like that is so cool!

Anyway,I digress.

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, Someone is Reading This Book by Alice Priestly breaks the 4th wall.

[Unlike the reviewer at the link I've provided, I really enjoyed the book. Either the book's humor wasn't up the reviewr's alley or mine is a bit off-beat. Who knows? It may be a bit of both. :o)]

Adrienne said...

"Peter Pan" has a bit of breaking the fourth wall (though it is exemplified in the stage show when Peter asks the audience to clap and save Tinker Bell's life).

And . . .

*cough* my book *cough*

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to note that audience participation and breaking the fourth wall are different things. A lot of books for very young children are designed with audience participation in mind...breaking the fourth wall takes that extra "pigeon" step by addressing the reader directly, whereas something like Black and White or one of those animal sounds books invites the reader in in a participatory experience, but does not explicitly acknowledge the reader. Both are cool techniques when done well...like who can forget clapping their hands to save Tinkerbell?

Christine Tripp said...

Well I didn't even know there was a "term" for it but the author of the "Penelope" series I illustrate "broke down the fourth wall" on the last page in the second book, where the monster is facing the kids and asking them to "shhhh, don't tell him though".
ha, I had no idea.
My grandson LOVES the cartoons that require participation, as Deirdre has mentioned. He and his baby sister yell excitedly, things like, "NO, don't go there", or, "Yes, behind the flowers" or whatever the scenario is. I can forget (not being around children on a daily basis anymore) how really involved they can and love to get in the shows, plays, movies and books.

Brenda said...

I don't think anyone has mentioned TICKLE THE DUCK, a personal favorite. It's kind of like PAT THE BUNNY on steroids.

Anonymous said...

"Don't put Your Finger in the Jelly Nelly" is perhaps more of a novelty book... where one puts his/her finger thru the hole and it ends up in the food.

Natalie said...

Markus Zusak's I AM THE MESSENGER. Of course, for those who have read it, I wonder what the ending would be called...a door in the fourth wall?

Suzanne Lieurance said...

I think kids love to be pulled into a book this way. It makes them feel the story was written just for them.

Suzanne Lieurance
The Working Writer's Coach
"When Your Pen Won't Budge, Read The Morning Nudge"

Bob Schechter said...

I think there's a difference between the author/storyteller addressing the reader directly, which has been done practically since the first stories were told, and having a fictional character within the story turn to address the reader directly and let us know that he/she is conscious of his/her fictional status and the audience's status as audience.

The best early examples I know of come in The Tempest. In Act IV, the audience is slyly being addressed here:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

But there's no slyness as the last moving words are spoken directly by Prospero to the audience, though Prospero has now become the playwright simultaneously:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint. Now, ’tis true,
I must be here confin’d by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev’d by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Bob Schechter said...

There's also an interesting Wikepedia article on the Fourth Wall:


pat said...

I miss your posts. I hope you're on a fabulous vacation.

Anonymous said...

My BET is that EA, you were at the Bologna Book Fair...

Just a thought Mr. Fox. Every read the book MY LUCKY DAY? It's Fabulous.

Anonymous said...

The first title that popped into my head is We're Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen/illustrated by Helen Oxenbury.