UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Grows Up: Children’s Literature and the New Media Novel

Christen Elizabeth Hammock

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Although new media novels written and designed by authors like Danielewski, Tomasula and Farrell, or Foer attract both praise and criticism for their “revolutionary” approach to textuality in the novel, I argue that these works actually return to formal qualities common in children’s literature. Using a comparative approach that invokes emerging studies of multimodality, I examine a variety of books meant for preschool-aged children alongside books like VAS: An Opera in Flatland by Tomasula and Farrell and Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer. In particular, I return to Eric Carle’s classic children’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar to argue that children’s books and new media novels alike use similar functions of pedagogy and play to open up the world of reading and create a new stage of emergent literacy for adults.


But genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped now with man’s physical means to express itself, and with the analytical mind that enables it to bring order to the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed.

– Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life”

Reviews of new media novels like Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland, Foer’s Tree of Codes, or Danielewski’s House of Leaves tend to be dramatic, describing the books as “an unforgettably unique reading experience,” “reinvention of the book,” and “a true work of art to hold in your hands” (Olson on VAS, Kachka and a not-credited Times writer on Foer). Although each of these books is certainly an interesting, compelling example of the creative forces currently influencing form and content, I question whether a book like Tree of Codes is actually “revolutionary” like the New York Times blurb on its back cover insists. To answer this question, I do not plan to argue against the sophistication of these texts (at least, not on purpose). Instead, I plan to argue for the sophistication of what I see as the predecessor and cultural benefactor of postmodern formal innovation—the children’s book. Children’s literature articulates the same kind of formal awareness that each of these books aspires to and often attains by including qualities common to books geared toward children, like images, sounds, and textual variation. That being said, I do think that the novelty and wonder expressed by critics based on the books’ strange form and consciousness of book-as-object is exaggerated.

Rather than dismissing these books as grown-up versions of what we read as kids, I intend to examine the different ways in which children’s literature serves as a template to read this “new media” literature of the twenty-first century. Form complements content rather than overpowering it, and the content of VAS is certainly inappropriate for a young child despite its playful appearance. For this reason, I plan to focus on the idea that these new media books reflect and encourage a return to emergent literacy, which includes approaching books with an open mind and learning how to engage with new types of text, regardless of previous experience with other texts. I acknowledge that books like VAS, Tree of Codes, and House of Leaves are revolutionary in this way; the knowledge that Western texts are traditionally read left-to-right and up-to-down provides little assistance when approaching these texts. Without the comfort of formal stability, these texts encourage questions about reading methods that other books take for granted, such as determining which font to follow (and to interpret them seamlessly or take them each as an independent narrative), mentally incorporating visual elements into the text, and even deciding when to turn the page. In other words, we (used to denote the adult reader) approach these texts with a juvenile level of comprehension. This may be uncomfortable at first, but soon it gives adults the freedom to read like we did as children—to explore without the formal boundaries of dense text.

When children read, the objectives of play and pedagogy prove to be inseparable. A five-year-old does not consciously read one book for pleasure while reading another to increase the complexity of sentences she can handle. Instead, all children’s books serve a dual purpose: to teach the child to read while also encouraging a view of books as objects to be experienced—read, touched, interacted with, seen, even smelled or heard; namely, played with. New media texts create an analogous experience for the adult reader by altering the traditional formal qualities of straight black text on a white page. Adults may not need text to be turned sideways to experience the disorientation Danielewski invokes in House of Leaves, but recognizing this weirdness as a return to childhood also invites us to learn more about how and why words matter in an age dominated by the visual. After all, the images and interactivity in children’s literature supports the experience of words first; the point is to sustain attention long enough to create adult readers.

Multimodal Experience of New Media Novels: “Imagetext” or Illustration?

For the reasons discussed above, I question the necessity—or even the utility—of creating a new vocabulary for book-to-person interactions that have been taking place for hundreds of years. In her recent book Multimodality, Cognition, and Experimental Literature, Allison Gibbons makes a strong case for her discussion of what she views as “multimodal” works distinct to the past fifteen years; her examples include VAS by Tomasula, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Foer, and House of Leaves by Danielewski.[1] Gibbons defines multimodality in these books as using “a plurality of semiotic modes in the communication and progression of their narrative” (17). Gibbons insists that these modes work together equally to communicate with the reader, saying that “one mode is not privileged, but rather narrative content, type-face, type-setting, graphic design, and images all have a role to play” (17). Although Gibbons acknowledges the formal similarities between children’s literature and new media novels, she quickly moves on without discussing issues of inheritance that rise after recognizing these similarities:

‘[M]ultimodal printed literature’ could nevertheless be seen to include graphic novels and children’s picturebooks. It is also important to acknowledge other creative multimodalities, such as forms of shaped texts like concrete poetry. While the form of experimental literature that is the focus of this book does, to greater and lesser extents, share commonalities with other text-types such as these, on the whole multimodal printed literary fiction is treated as a genre in itself (16).

Gibbon’s syntax dismisses potential arguments to discuss children’s literature alongside her own examples of multimodality; her passive voice distances any particular scholar from the idea of separating “multimodal printed literary fiction” from other works. Considering her argument alongside VAS, though,the number of formal qualities that make the novel“experimental” also make it reminiscent of childhood picture books. First and most obviously, the book is illustrated. Despite the insistence of the back cover to categorize VAS as“wordimage” or “imagetext,” very few of Tomasula and Farrell’s images fall outside the convention of illustrating a picture book. Many of the illustrations look like pages from a coloring book. Similarly, Tomasula and Farrell translate the “opera” (traditionally thought of as an adult genre) into a childlike comic book. Even the crediting of authorship and design follows the model of attribution typical to children’s literature—one person writes, the other illustrates. Although VAS is “by” Steve Tomasula, the front cover also lists “art and design” as being “by Stephen Farrell.” Tree of Codes, another of Jonathan Safran Foer’s “experimental novels,” is a strangely reductive illustration of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles:Foer creates images through the original story’s erasure. In each of these works, creative collaboration brings up new questions about the primacy of word or image that never need to appear in a discussion of children’s literature. Despite this, most of the discussion of “multimodality” involves this hybridity between the words on the page and the way the page is designed.

In the discussion that follows her initial definition of multimodal literature, Gibbons clarifies a fairly comprehensive list of characteristics that texts use to perform multimodality, largely taken from VAS and her other three examples. She cites:

(1)         Unusual textual layouts and page design.

(2)         Varied typography.

(3)         Use of colour in both type and imagistic content.

(4)         Concrete realization of text to create images, as in concrete poetry.

(5)         Devices that draw attention to the text’s materiality, including meta-fictive writing.

(6)         Footnotes and self-interrogative critical voices.

(7)         Flipbook sections.

(8)         Mixing of genres, both in literary terms, such as horror, and in terms of visual effect, such as newspaper clippings and play dialogue. (17)

Most of these come directly from her four examples, but I would argue that with the exception of (6) [2], each of these is featured prominently in the formal qualities of children’s literature. In response to Gibbons, I have chosen four examples of children’s books published between 1990 and 2000: The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (1994)[3], Where Are You, Blue? by Deborah Reber and Alice Wilder (2000), Can You Count in the Dark? by Annie Ingle (1993), and Birds: A First Discovery Book by Jennifer Riggs and Nancy Krulik (1990). Taking Gibbon’s characteristics in order, all of these books for young children employ unusual textual layouts and page design, varied typography, and colour in type and images for otherwise they would fail to capture the attention of someone who is still operating on a primarily visual level. Can You Count in the Dark?, for example,features comic books, pop art, and product placement within the text, asking the reader to count the “3 magnets shining on the Frigidaire” (Ingle 3). The book offers two distinctly different visual reading experiences: one in the light, and one in the dark. The colophon offers instructions to the reader: “First count things with the light on. Then when you see the * symbol, switch off the light. Switch it back on after you’ve counted in the dark. Proceed in this fashion all the way through the book” (Ingle). Here, Count You Count in the Dark? takes Gibbons’ visual multimodality one step farther than color or pictures; the book responds to different environments manipulated by the reader.

Where Are You, Blue? features metafictive writing, especially considering that the book’s concept and characters come from the popular children’s television show Blue’s Clues. The book follows the same format as the television show: Steve has a problem (in this case, he cannot find Blue), and the children use visual clues and verbal interaction to help Steve solve the problem. On the television show, Steve often pauses to allow the children to answer his questions. Where Are You, Blue?, very aware of its crossover in genre, includes technology to allow children to record and playback their own in response to Steve’s questions. The text is constantly interrupted by red and green circles, indicating the appropriate times for the young reader to record his or her own voice answering Steve’s questions. The text that accompanies these interruptions forms a pattern of interpolation, repetition, and affirmation: Steve asks a question, the child answers to the prompt of the red dot, he repeats the question by asking “What did you say?”, and then the book instructs the reader to push the green button, which plays back the response. Consider the instructions and “Note to Parents” found on the back of the book:

One of the goals of Blue’s Clues is to empower preschoolers to learn through active participation. As you read, your child can answer all of Steve’s questions out loud and play back the recorded response. Your preschooler’s voice is an integral part of the reading experience!


Join Steve and all his friends as they try to find Blue in this interactive sound book! Use the special sound module to record your own voice. Then play back your voice and become part of the story! (back cover)

The key to this book is interactivity; the combination of technology and text encourages the child and adult readers to engage with the book on multiple sensory levels. The philosophy behind the book is just on the back cover, just like the philosophy behind Tree of Codes appears in its afterword. It is meant for separate (although possibly overlapping) audiences. In the latter’s case, this a literary audience, one who wants to learn more about the content, not just those who care about it as visual art or image. In the former’s case, this would be a parent who cares about the pedagogical value of the book.

The function of children’s books necessarily involves a crossover in genre between narrative and information. For example, Birds: A First Discovery Book teaches about the skeleton, feathers, and hunting habits of different kinds of birds but also structures a narrative about these birds by relating their actions to those familiar to children. Alongside information about how adult birds feed baby birds, a child reader might see commonalities between a bird’s habitat and daily life and her own. Similarly, Can You Count in the Dark? is a math book, instructing young children how to count, even though it masquerades as a story about a little boy going to bed at night. Where Are You, Blue? perhaps features the most genre hybridity, featuring the lyrics to multiple songs like “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (7-8, 12). The content is familiar and unsophisticated, but the lyricism injected into prose reads like the collection of poems that appears within House of Leaves.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar also displays sophistication in its combination of genre. The story is fairly simple: the very hungry caterpillar is hungry, eats for several pages, forms a cocoon, and metamorphoses into a butterfly. Visually stunning, Carle makes his hand evident in the content of the book: the illustrations feature large circles of paint through which brushstrokes still appear. The painting is not neat as Carle often features asymmetrical shapes and strokes that do not quite fit within the boundaries of the object he paints. Clearly created for children, the “First Board Book Edition” features thick cardboard pages and bright colours, a beautifully crafted art object.

As far as children’s books go, the layout is fairly sane. One remarkable feature of the book is that holes appear in the illustrations as the very hungry caterpillar chews his way through the narrative, inviting the reader to literally participate in the story. As Margaret Higonnet remarks, “When the child puts a little finger through the hole, we ‘see’ the caterpillar coming through the fruit….To step back from the book for a second, we may think of the hole and of the child’s finger as extrinsic to the story of the caterpillar, which indeed is completely formulated as a verbal sequence” (“Peritext as Playground” 48). Another interesting feature that serves to fulfill Gibbon’s “flipbook” category (7) is the weeklong sequence in which the very hungry caterpillar eats his way through five different kinds of fruit, adding in number as the days go by, each featuring holes that mark the caterpillar’s progression. Before flipping the pages, each of the fruits has one representative: an apple for Monday, a pear for Tuesday, a plum for Wednesday, a strawberry for Thursday, and an orange for Friday. When considered together, the separate fruits appear to make up an entire page. But moving through the narrative with the caterpillar fundamentally changes the form of the book. When you flip through Monday and Tuesday, three plums appear for Wednesday’s meal; however, Tuesday’s two pears and the fruit from Thursday and Friday are still visible. What looks like two pages of the book actually offers more than a dozen visual possibilities, with each meal from the past and future haunting the present:

Figure 1: Pages from The Very Hungry Caterpillar, featuring Tuesday’s meal.

The content of The Very Hungry Caterpillar also serves to make the text unique. Fundamentally, Carle writes a story of development and transformation with moments of existential crises: a postmodern bildungsroman. After he eats the fruit, the caterpillar spends two pages (equal to one Saturday) eating an array of human food: “On Saturday he ate through one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon. That night he had a stomachache!” (7-8[4]). Formally, the holes are consistent throughout these two pages, giving tiny clues of what is to come, as well as reminding the reader what the caterpillar already ate. On a level of content, this narrative move guarantees entertainment for the child experiencing the text, but also represents a moment of climax in traditional narrative structure. The subsequent denouement documents the caterpillar’s change: first, from a “little caterpillar” to a “big, fat caterpillar” and then the ultimate moment of transformation, to a “beautiful butterfly.”

Children’s Literature as Postmodern Model

This brief comparison of books ranges over only two decades, but children’s literature has long been at the forefront of innovation. Beverly Clark cites the 1740s as the era in which children’s literature was “invented.” (Higonnet and Clark 1). Within a decade, Gillian Brown notes that John Newbery sold books that “closely followed [John] Locke’s alignment of reading with playing, titling books ‘play-things’ and ‘gifts’” (Brown 352). Centuries later, Margaret Higonnet argues that children provided an ideal audience and model for Modernist groups like the Surrealists and Futurists: “Such thinkers took pleasure in the ways books for children fused text and image on a page; invited the reader’s interaction through moveable mechanisms; and crowded sounds and images arbitrarily together in alphabets, as a model for surreal, dream-like associations” (Modernism and Childhood 89).

In a similar vein, Kimberley Reynolds’ book Radical Children’s Literature argues that children’s literature played a key role in modernism and the avant-garde, invoking the figures like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce who wrote works specifically for children. The chapter “Breaking the Frame: Picturebooks, Modernism, and New Media” opens with a quotation by Juliet Dusinberre in her book Alice to the Lighthouse, saying, “Radical experiments in the arts in the early modern period began in the books which Lewis Carroll and his successors wrote for children” (24). I argue that this relationship of influence carries over to the postmodern era for a couple of reasons. The first is foundational; that is, the form of postmodern texts seems to be particularly bound by the time in which they were written (i.e. some time between the 1990s and present day, mostly occurring in the twenty-first century). My second reason is also a matter of chronology; as Reynolds says, “[F]ar from turning its back on modernism…children’s literature—and particularly in the form of the picturebook—has actively explored its concepts and styles, in the process providing precisely the kind of arena for radical experiments Dusinberre describes” (Reynolds 24). Because writers of children’s books experimented substantially and broadly with form first—that is, making use of peritext and the idea of book as object—they provide an appropriate arena for postmodern experimentation just as they did for modernism.

Nearly all of the reviews and criticism surrounding new media literature mark these books as specifically located in time, reflecting the anxiety of authors and readers alike entering a fragmented digital age. In an interview with The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Tomasula “suggests that novels are always a product as well as reflective of the period in which they are created” (Gibbons 87). Gibbons quotes Tomasula from her own personal correspondence:

I never really thought I was writing a hybrid novel, per se, while writing it—I guess I didn’t think about it except to think that this was a way to write that seemed natural, given the times we live in, i.e., given all the graphics, collaged video etc. in something as pedestrian as the nightly news; this just seemed to be plain old realism to me—the way we communicate today—and I remember being surprised the first time someone suggested that it wasn’t. (March 16, 2007)

Earlier in the book Multimodality, Cognition, and Experimental Literature, Alison Gibbons cites research that also suggests the temporal bounds of new media novels:

[A]s Van Peer (1993:59) and Verdonk (2005:235) suggest, increase in the popularity of multimodal forms is closely tied to the zeitgeist of their era of creation. More specifically, multimodality generally takes on new strength in periods of significant communicative and technological development. Van Peer asserts, ‘new media require new forms for dealing with language and literature’ (1993:59). The development of new media consequently leads to a ‘tension between the text and the specific medium in which it is produced’ (1993:59). The twenty-first century is a multimodal era and it is therefore beneficial to analyse multimodal artefacts from the period. (18)

I agree with Gibbons’ characterization of the twenty-first century as a multimodal era, especially in the rapidly changing genre of adult fiction. I do question, however, why Gibbons insists that this multimodality is new or emerging now. The cynical answer is that the digital age has reduced capacity to pay attention to long, pictureless novels. In many ways, though, VAS presents more difficulties than a traditional novel like Pride and Prejudice because it renders traditional reading skills useless. For this reason, I suspect that the multimodality of postmodern fiction and design relates more to the development of consciousness than to chronological time.

Emergent Literacy

This development of consciousness renders readers of books like VAS, House of Leaves, and Tree of Codes childlike in their ability and comfort with interpreting text. New media novels require more work and frustration than traditional novels, a process not unlike what I remember from learning to read as a child. Although I agree with Tomasula, Gibbons, and others that the rise of multimodal, new media novels do seem oddly inextricable from postmodernity and the digital age, I argue that these novels come from a different measurement of time–not chronological in nature, but relating instead to the age of consciousness. I use the term “age” literally; the same consciousness that reads and interprets is in a period of emergent literacy that gives us the chance to gather more from books, as well as learn more about the ways we read.

From infancy, books can teach children nearly everything, from fine-tuning motor skills to Twilight vocabulary books that train high-school students for the SAT. In “Sensing Success,” Patrick Goodman discusses the importance of sensory integration theory for inaugurating toddlers into the world of multisensory exploration. “This theory,” he says, “drives the idea that by appealing to a wide base of senses, humans are able to gain greater information about a subject or object. For toddlers, who are right at the beginning of exploring and understanding the world around them, it seems practical to offer them a wider panoply of information through multiple sensory stimuli” (12). As children grow up, this practicality becomes less necessary and more of a supplement to understanding.

Returning to The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the multisensory qualities of the text (including sight, sound, and touch) teach multiple lessons multiple times. Consider again, for example, the holes that appear as the caterpillar works his way through a week’s worth of food. In “Peritext as Playground,” Higonnet remarks that:

[T]he hole is also an intrinsic narrative device. With hole and finger, the listening child duplicates the story as it is told, translating from words to pantomime; indeed, the child triplicates the story, which is already represented a second time through the colored illustrations….[B]ecause the hole which is part of the narrative is also a physical part of the book, the child is taught to grasp the physical character of books as a symbol for their potential tools of imaginative play. Finally, then, we may consider the hole to be kind of metacommentary, for it bespeaks the openness of every text to interpretation and reinterpretation by the reader” (Higonnet, “Peritext as Playground” 48)

The physical qualities of The Very Hungry Caterpillar teach a child whose literacy is developing how to interact with the text, thereby also informing the narrative potential the text points to. Research shows that communicative initiatives increase in traditional adult-led storytelling as opposed to electronic storybooks. In other words, being physically attached to a literal book encourages interaction with the outside world, suggesting that “both media and manner matter” (Moody et al 264).

In an interview with Jonathan Safran Foer about Tree of Codes, he admits that “[i]t’s not an easy book to know how to read….You look at it at first and you think this is just a jumble of words; and then you see that if you peel off a page at a time a coherent text is revealed. So you enter it through the physicality of the book, and leave through the story — that’s the ideal experience” (Times). This “ideal experience” is not unique to Foer’s book; every book reveals a coherent text one page at a time. The only difference is that Tree of Codes offers itself all at once, and realizing that each page must be read independently from others is a process rather than an instant solution. In terms of emergent literacy, Foer creates a preschooler out of adult readers, forced to redevelop conceptions about what a book is.

Because research about literacy primarily focuses on the development that occurs when children learn to read, studies on emergent literacy can also illuminate the ways through which adults approach new media. In an article discussing the rise of new media in children’s literature, publisher Rachel Deahl argues that

Kids, more so than adults, are ready for books delivered on a multitude of platforms, willing to follow stories that begin in print and wend their way onto computer screens and various hand-held devices. This makes for both an exciting and anxious moment in children’s publishing, as longtime progenitors of print and ink tales are trying to figure out how to present content, and a reading experience, in a wholly different way. (Deahl 18)

Although kids may be more receptive—and prepared—for the development of new media books, the trend in adult literature also chases the rise of eReaders and computers as methods of reading. Simultaneously, books like VAS and Tree of Codes resist this evolution through a return to ink on paper. Their formal qualities emphasize the idea that a book is a “hand-held device” that can present a “wholly different” reading experience.

Tomasula’s oeuvre does this in a number of ways. VAS, in particular, mimics the formatting of a children’s book by taking up more space than the text and illustrations need, leaving literal space for the reader to explore. The pattern of genetic code, ACGT, repeats itself to an overwhelming extent, mimicking the way an alphabet book might teach the pattern of letters to a child. Ed Falco describes the experience of reading another of Tomasula’s books, TOC:

Readers unfamiliar with new media writing typically find their initial reading experiences baffling. They conceive of reading as a linear act: they need to know where a story begins and where it ends, and they absolutely want to know when they’ve consumed the whole narrative….If reading a traditional narrative can be thought of as a journey along a path with a clearly marked beginning and end, then reading a new media work is like a journey through a field where there are several possible entrances and exits. Readers are asked to immerse themselves in images, language, and sound, to pursue meaning where they find it, and to exit when they will —and they are invited to return to the writing whenever they choose, with the promise that it will always be different and there may be whole areas to be explored that were missed in previous readings. (Falco 21)

Falco engages the trope of journeying through a book, a progression that mimics physical and mental development. Of course, the conception of reading as a “linear act” is not appropriate for a child who must cognize words, images, and sounds at the same time. The changes in new media that “baffle” unfamiliar readers are not just formal in nature; they fundamentally alter the priority that previous adult literature placed on logical progression. The feeling that we get from reading novels like VAS—the thrill and confusion of learning how to read again—replicates the combination of learning and playing that compels children to engage with literature.  This experience is not revolutionary; it’s déjà vu.

The Book as Play and Pedagogy

Gillian Brown traces the idea of combining play and pedagogy back to John Locke. Most famous for his political philosophy, Brown cites the 1693 treatise “Some Thoughts Concerning the Education of Children” as his contribution to studies of emergent literacy. Quoted in her article “The Metamorphic Book,” John Locke insisted that

“[t]eaching children to read and value reading….should ‘be made a Play and Recreation to Children.’ Because ‘[w]e naturally…even from our Cradles, love Liberty and have therefore an aversion to many Things for no other Reason, but because they are injoyn’d us,’ we should take great care that learning to read ‘never be imposed as a Task [upon children] nor made a trouble to them.’ Children’s love of liberty ‘gives the true Relish and Delight to their ordinary Play-Games’ (175, section 76)” (352).

Locke’s conception of making concessions for children’s “love of liberty” when engaging them in reading suggests that adults, too, might be susceptible to combining business and pleasure in reading. A child in a stage of emergent literacy would have a difficult time understanding the content of a new media book like VAS independently, but would have no problem processing the images alone. Similarly, at least some of the text would make sense with the presence of an adult reader—a mediator. Tomasula’s insistence on mediation through image and text mimics an adult reading to a child. Farrell’s design makes it impossible to read the text on page 158 without the image of stitches being sewn interrupting the process. In their research on the discursive threats hiding behind children’s literature, Bullen and Nichols examine the role children’s literature plays in the adult’s mind:

Adults are always implicated in children’s literature: if children’s ‘books are to be published, marketed, and bought, adults first must be attracted, persuaded and convinced’ (Wall, 1991, p.13). More recent research on the relationship of adults to children’s literature has focused on its appeal to dual audiences of adults and children and the phenomena of cross-writing and crossover fiction (see, for instance, Beckett, 2009; Falconer, 2008)…Picture books for children are widely recognized as having ideological, pedagogical, and constitutive functions that extend well beyond the aesthetic pleasures. (Bullen and Nichols 214)

Without the label that indicates an audience of children, these functions become hyper-apparent in new media literature. VAS comes in several different formats, just like The Very Hungry Caterpillar does[5]. You can buy the “Cyborg Edition” on Amazon, which includes a CD with opera music and reading by the author, his wife Maria, and Christian Jara. The picture on Amazon (Figure 2) looks like a toy, packaged in plastic and accompanied by the CD:

Figure 2: VAS: A Limited, Cyborg Edition with accompanying CD.

This edition adds yet another sensory level to the experience created by the first edition, marketed toward adults. Even though the content filters children out as potential readers, VAS suggests the mark of a child throughout its strangely physical pages. One of the intertextual references in the book is Oval’s science kit; the phrase “Science Rocks!” in childlike handwriting appears throughout the book, along with crayoned genetic charts that differ from Square’s research only in appearance. The novel is also interactive, complete with foldout charts that must be physically manipulated to be totally understood. Toward the end of the novel, Square directly addresses his reader in his own handwriting, telling you to “Cut my form from this book….Fill in your ____ and hold it in your hands. Make it as real a presence in your hands as are the countless other bricks that make up your invisible city” (318). Although adults might not be willing to breach the book’s form to actually cut the form out, a child probably would. Square’s instruction to “make it…real” would be unnecessary. Similarly, Tree of Codes is meant to be interactive. The pages are intentionally thicker than a normal book. In the Times interview, one of the editors at Visual Editions, who published Tree of Codes explained the structure:”We want this to be a book you can read on the Tube,” Britt says. “You had to be able to hold the pages without them tearing; so the space between the cuts always had to be of a certain width.” Proper interaction with the book requires durability, just as it does with a child in the early stages of literacy. To reach their pedagogical goals, children’s books must double as objects of play.

Physical interaction with novels like VAS, Tree of Codes, and House of Leaves requires mental involvement as well; playing has a price. The strange combination of text and image in VAS does little to mask the obvious lesson the book wants to teach. On a level of form and content, VAS is blatantly pedagogical, with the pages including quotations are marked like a dictionary, indexing each by the speaker’s last name. The novel compiles an enormous about of information about genetics and sterilization. By the end, VAS feels like a project that could be titled “My First Eugenics Book” and tagged as educational. On a more abstract level, Foer makes a traditionally kid-friendly move by abridging Street of Crocodiles to a story that is shorter and more essential. House of Leaves painfully mimics academic text, including a full index that references words like “acorn” (found once, on page 664), translations of foreign poetry, and sections overwrought with allusions to mythology, literature, and history. Recognizing the book as an object and being aware of its materiality is a lesson in and of itself, but these authors also force the reader past emergent literacy.

“…he was a beautiful butterfly!”

Insisting that new media books are revolutionary sells the future of the book short by implying that authors like Tomasula and Foer are nearing the pinnacle of materiality. Viewing these books through a framework of emergent literacy points to the cyclical nature of literature instead; in my opinion, this is a far more optimistic path. After all, in an ideal world, all children in the stage of emergent literacy develop into independent, capable readers of all texts. If the evolution of postmodern literature into text that fully integrates the potential of materiality and form continues, it needs to be another beginning rather than an end. Clearly, books like VAS, Tree of Codes, and House of Leaves foster more questions than they answer, a feature that is not common to children’s literature.  The endings of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Where Are You, Blue?, Birds: A First Discovery Book, and Can You Count in the Dark? present no ambiguity: the caterpillar turns into a butterfly, Steve finds Blue, eggs hatch, and the mini-protagonist learns how to count. VAS does its readers no such favors.  Perhaps, in this way, the content of new media novels reflects postmodern consciousness in a way that children’s literature never will; they provide beginnings, but not ends.

Works Cited

 “A Work of Art to Hold in Your Hands. Times, The (United Kingdom), November 2010. 9.

Brown, Gillian. “The Metamorphic Book: Children’s Print Culture in the Eighteenth Century.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.3 (2006). 351-362.

Bullen, Elizabeth and Susan Nichols. “Dual Audiences, Double Pedagogies: Representing Family Literacy as Parental Work in Picture Books.” Children’s Literature in Education, 42 (2011). 213-25.

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[1] She also includes Woman’s World by Graham Rawles, which I will not examine here.

[2] Footnotes and self-interrogative critical voices are dependent upon intellectually sophisticated content, not just sophisticated form. There’s simply not enough text in a book for preschoolers to warrant a footnote.

[3] The Very Hungry Caterpillar was first published in 1969, but the edition I study in this paper is part of the “First Board Book” collection that features thick cardboard pages.

[4] Depending on how you count the flip section, this could also be cited as pages 15-16.

[5] You can buy the pop-up version, a version that’s much bigger, and one that includes finger puppets. Of course, you can also buy a translation of the book in almost any language.