I love children’s books that surprise and challenge readers. Books that make their readers think about the very act of reading with the art of metafiction may indeed may be my very favorite. The more you look, the more you will find great examples of metafictional writing in children’s books. A metafictional text is one that subverts traditional, straightforward storytelling.
What is Metafiction?
Metafiction is a form of self-reflective writing in which the narrative refers to the very act of writing. This is a very broad definition and metafiction can take many forms, as you will see with the books I’ve included on this list. While reading metafictional texts, the reader is constantly reminded that they are reading a book, a work of fiction. Some may refer to it as “breaking the fourth wall.”
Once you become familiar with the concept of metafiction you will notice how often children’s book authors employ the technique, especially in picture books! Indeed, I could have doubled or tripled the size of this list quite easily.
Below find both metafictional picture books, and at the end of the list, a few metafictional children’s novels. Enjoy!
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Metafiction in Picture Books
Don’t be fooled into thinking these picture books are only for young kids! Older kids and even adults will enjoy their narrative-subverting nature!
Here and Now
by Julia Denos
I adore this book. Reflecting upon the act of reading is a mindfulness exercise and this wonderful book encourages kids to be “in the moment.” On the first page we see several hands of different skin colors holding the page the reader is holding. “Right here, right now, you are reading this book.” The narrative continues, detailing the beauty of reflecting on the here and now. In the end note, the author explains how her meditation practice influenced the writing of the book.
Chapter Two is Missing
by Josh Lieb
7-year-olds will enjoy the metafictional narrative of this clever mystery. A young boy narrates the story and asks readers to assist in his search for chapter two. Fun wordplay, missing words, topsy-turvy punctuation and hilarious illustrations make this a great read aloud and no child will resist giving his input as to the nature and perpetrator of the crime!
The Book with No Pictures
by B.J. Novak
This book may be the most famous example of the use of metafiction in picture books. While listening to the self-conscious text, kids are reminded how books work ; how they make us feel and react; and how they are created. But most of all, this book is hilarious.
by Christopher Myers
Myers’s stunning black and white illustrations demonstrate the magic of what a simple writing implement can do. The story starts with a boy commenting that while he may not have material riches, he has immense wealth in the tip of his pen. Marvelous!
Z is for Moose
by Kelly Bingham
Zebra, in his striped referee shirt (get it?????) is trying to keep the alphabet in order, but Moose is impatient and causing trouble! But that is nothing compared to his disappointment when he finds out Mouse is the one to represent M! A super zany take on the classic alphabet book which draws the reader to reflect on the physical borders of a book.
Black and White
by David Macaulay
Macaulay tells four stories at a time. Each pages is divided into quarters and the reader is challenged into determining if the stories are connected or not. The juxtaposition of 4 story lines is a bit esoteric for the younger set but presents a thought-provoking read for older kids.
There Are Cats in this Book
by Viviane Schwarz
If you have cats, you will adore this book and Schwarz’s follow up books, There are No Cats in this Book, and Is There a Dog in this Book? Three cats, Tiny, Moonpie and Andre roam through the pages in the book, getting distracted by yarn, hiding in cardboard boxes and getting deluged by a flood, after which, the cats implore the reader to try them off. Endless fun.
Chloe and the Lion
by Mac Barnett
In this hilarious tale the author and the illustrator talk to each other. The author points out that the illustrator has included the wrong elements in the story. The author tries to problem solve, enlist the help of other illustrators, but only the character in the story can actually set things right. The setting of the tale on a theater stage adds in another meta-layer.
by Allan Ahlberg
A pencil draws a boy, who then commands the pencil to draw more and more objects and people until a fully realized environment is created. However, things go awry when the pencil draws an eraser, which turns out to have a mind of its own. Note that Ahlberg has several other picture books with strong metafiction elements, most notably, his recent, My Worst Book Ever.
by Emily Gravett
Most of Gravett’s books have a strong metafictional element, which automatically makes her one of my most favorite children’s picture book authors! In Wolves, Rabbit reads a book about wolves. But, lo and behold! Something furry is not confined to the pages of Rabbit’s book. And is it confined to the book YOU are reading? Only one way to find out!
The Three Pigs
by David Wiesner
Wiesner’s take on the classic nursery tale starts out normally. The three pigs busy themselves with making their respective houses but when the wolf starts huffing and puffing, he blows the pigs out of the story and into a whole new world altogether! Wiesner’s watercolors absolutely dazzle. He includes illustrations in a variety of recognizable styles. This is a book that younger kids will enjoy but in which, older kids will be able to spot many, many layers!
The Red Book
by Barbara Lehman
Many of Lehman’s wordless books are about journeys, and The Red Book is about how a book takes two children on a journey. A child picks up the book and begins reading. In the pages, she sees a boy picking up a red book on a beach. He sees in the girl in the pages. By the end of the story, the two children have come together and the book awaits another child to pick it up. Kids will love to try an puzzle out the sequence of events!
Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to be in this Book)
by Julie Falatko
This is a great example of how metafictional picture books encourage kids to be active reading partners. The narrator describes Snappsy’s daily business, while Snappsy objects every step of the way. My son thought the feud between narrator and character was quite hilarious and we were both amused by the revelation of the narrator’s identity. Great fun, and a good book for taking turns reading aloud. Parents can read the narrator role, kids can act out Snappy’s lines.
A Perfectly Messed-up Story
by Patrick McDonnell
This is such a fun read aloud! Louie is skipping through a bucolic illustration when all of a sudden a splat of jam falls onto the page. Louie wants to know who is messing up his story. No, not the story he is reading, the story he is in! The illustrations are so fun because the messy drips are realistic while Louie’s world remains traditionally illustrated. Hopefully, Louie’s world will get cleaned up!
Metafiction in Children’s Novels
These books are great for readers ages 8 and up!
The Great Good Thing
by Roderick Townley
Roderick Townley is one of my favorite lesser-known authors. Do characters seem real beyond the pages? Well, that’s because they are. In this metafictional tale, Sylvie decides that 80 years of living the same story over and over as the character in a book has gotten a bit dull. She decides to break the most important rule of all book character rules: she looks up at The Reader. Townley explores the wonder of books and how they merge with our imaginations and lives. I heartily recommend this for grown-ups, too.
by Linda Sue Park
Project Mulberry will appeal to middle grade readers who enjoy contemporary, realistic fiction. Julie and her friend Patrick are raising silkworms as part of an animal husbandry project. But in between the chapters, the author, Linda Sue Park, and Julie have conversations about the choices Park makes in the plot and characters of the story. The asides are a really fun way to give kids insight into the act of writing, while also adding an additional layer to Julie’s character and her growth as a person. Highly entertaining.
The Pepins and Their Problems
by Polly Horvath
Oh, how we laughed when reading it aloud. The Pepins and their very fine neighbor Mr. Bradshaw get into very peculiar scrapes while the author breaks the fourth wall, asking the reader to help solve the Pepins’ problems. The Pepins are not the sharpest tools in the shed and some of their antics reminded me of the hilarious stories of Chelm. If you want a book that will make your kids laugh, pick this one up next.
The 13-Story Treehouse
by Andy Griffiths
Andy and Terry, the author and illustrator of this book live in an amazing 13-story treehouse. And amazing it is, indeed! They claim that everything in this book has actually happened. Seems far fetched, what will your kids think?
The Neverending Story
by Michael Ende
This classic German’s children’s novel is about a boy and his magical book. When Bastian steals a book called, The Neverending Story from an antique bookshop it takes him on an unexpected adventure. While reading about the events in Fantastica, the fantastical world of the book, Bastian becomes a character in it!
More books to love: