There’s a long tradition of illustrated books for children, and by illustrated books, I mean books where the pictures are merely an embellishment. Something to draw the reader in and look pretty, but they don’t really add anything new to the conversation.
The tendency now is for picturebooks to share the story between the text and the illustrations. The pictures can add more detail to the text, can ironically contradict the text (Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins) or can provide a totally different but parallel story (Come Away From The Water, Shirley by John Burningham). It is a medium that is ideally suited to subverting the mainstream literary world and authors choose the picturebook as a vehicle to break boundaries and explore metafictive devices. Many books are written so that young children will enjoy the eyecatching illustrations and enjoy spotting where text and picture either complement each or diverge, but there are many instances where the book can also be enjoyed by older readers, who are sophisticated enough to tease out the layers of meaning.
One book that breaks some of the boundaries is Norman and Brenda, written by Colin Thompson and supposedly illustrated by Amy Lissiat. The book is actually solely Colin Thompson’s work as he invented the persona Amy Lissiat – an anagram of “It’s my alias”.
Thompson chooses to narrate the story of Norman and Brenda, both 37, an unimaginably old age for young children and therefore already an unusual pair of heroes. They are neither good-looking, successful or happy. The back of the book states baldly: “Some people face the world with confidence. They are popular, charismatic, incredibly successful and often beautiful. […] Norman and Brenda are nothing like these people.”
***Warning – Spoiler Alert***
At first they are not acquainted but their lives between the ages of 37 and 42 are shown in parallel. Similar events happen to them, but nothing seems to go their way. They buy pets, which do not love them and even the weather conspires to make them uncomfortable and unhappy. Their stories are told over double spread pages, which are split horizontally; Norman’s story runs across the top half of the page, and Brenda’s develops across the bottom.
A crisis point is reached when Brenda eventually decides to see what the world looks like from above, and so when she finds a ladder she climbs up. She literally and figuratively decides to look at life from another perspective.
The critic Moebius developed codes that could be applied to picturebooks to attach meaning to the very deliberate methods that illustrators use to portray their intentions. Norman, across the top of the page, has walked from left to right and now stands on the right hand side, a place that Moebius says is indicative of adventure and exploration. The graffiti on the wall behind him states: “Stop trying”. The wall is dark and heavily shaded, an example of Moebius’s codes of line and capillarity to indicate dark feelings. The brightly coloured graffiti above his head is unintelligible and out of his sight of vision as he looks down at the floor, perhaps a metaphor for the exciting life he would like to live, but which is out of his reach.
Brenda, at the bottom of the page, climbs the ladder to a new perspective. Moebius talks of the importance of thresholds and openings, and Brenda’s ladder, with its slightly wonky rungs, is an example of such a gateway. We see only her legs, the rest of her body is moving up into Norman’s space although as yet we cannot see it as his dark and depressing picture blocks out her body and face. Brenda’s wall looks lighter than Norman’s and the graffiti that she sees says “Stop trying to hide”: a much more positive message.
The split page format continues throughout the book. At one point they are on the same bus, but do not meet, and the split in the page forms the divide between the two decks of the bus. It is only at the end, when they come together, that the split disappears. The first page where they are together still hints at their divided past by showing them in a room with a horizontal dado rail. The last double spread shows no divide at all, they are united.
Another way that Thompson breaks traditional book formats is in his post-modern self-referential additions. In a newsagent’s window we see a card for “Amy Lissiat, artist’s model” and a few pages earlier “J’adore Amy” forms part of Norman’s graffiti. The publication details are shown at the end rather than the beginning, perhaps so that the story can be started right away by the reader. The author adds a final comment :”The Normans and Brendas never start wars”, a phrase that vindicates and celebrates ordinary lives.
The text and illustrations complement each other; they are not at odds, and indeed the text could be read alone, but the combination of the juxtaposed timelines adds extra dimensions to the work, which can be appreciated by adults and children alike.
I don’t think this is a book that would have universal appeal to children, although shared with a child who is mature enough to appreciate it, it would make a lovely talking point and lead to further discussions. It reveals that adults have their problems too, they can be lonely and depressed and not really know what to do about it. But the positive finale, although by no means a fairy tale ending, gives hope that if a problem is looked from a different angle, a solution may be possible.