Achieving a Shared Understanding of Life. Artists’ reflections on their constructions of the past and the self in traumatic and nostalgic autobiographical picturebooks
When sharing the own life story through a picturebook, artists are expected to be influenced by several factors: their motive for creating an autobiographical picturebook, the construction of their past self and present self through the interplay of text and image, and social, historical and cultural factors and the flow of time between the past and the present. Creators of autobiographical picturebooks may, to a greater or lesser extent, reflect on how these factors have influenced the construction of their life narrative. This article analyzes Peter Sís’s The wall (2007) and Ed Young’s The house Baba built (2011). In both autobiographical picturebooks, the ‘hand of the artist’ cannot be overlooked. The artistic choices show how Sís’s book is based on traumatic memories of his childhood experiences, whereas Young’s book is a nostalgic reflection on his safe and happy childhood. Both artists have been influenced by the social context of their past, but they differ in reflecting on these influences. Sís does not inform the reader about how the book is created or about what led him to making certain choices. Young, on the other hand, reflects explicitly on his process of remembering and creating the book. This article shows how such explicit reflection affects the relation between the life narrator and the reader. Because ‘autobiographical truth’ can be understood as an intersubjective exchange between narrator and reader, ideally leading to a shared understanding of the meaning of a life, the narrator’s explicit reflection on the factors influencing the construction of the life story may ease this ‘shared understanding’. As the books discussed here are examples of ‘crossover picturebooks’, future research may discover whether a shared understanding of life is achieved alike for adult and younger readers.
This article was submitted on November 1st, 2013, and published on November 3rd, 2014.
Sís, P. The Wall: Growing Up Behind The Iron Curtain. New York, NY: Frances Foster Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
Young, E. The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2011.
Bal, M. Traveling concepts in the humanities. A rough guide. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2002.
Beard, L.J. “Teaching Native Autobiographies as Acts of Narrative Resistance.” Pedagogy 11.1 (2010): 109–34.
Beckett, S. Crossover Picturebooks. A Genre for All Ages. London, UK/New York, NY: Routledge, 2012.
Bonnett, A. Left in The Past. Radicalism and The Politics of Nostalgia. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academics, 2010.
Boym, S. The Future of Nostalgia. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2001.
Capshaw Smith, C. “Forum: Trauma and Children’s Literature.” Children’s literature 33 (2005): 115–9.
Cleveland Public Library. The house Baba built winner of the 2012 Norman A. Sugarman children’s biography award. (2012, June 3). Retrieved in Januay 2013 from http://www.
Davis, R.G. “Ethnic Autobiography as Children’s Literature: Laurence Yep’s The Lost Garden and Yoshiko Uchida’s The Invisible Thread.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 28.2 (2003): 90–7.
Davis, R.G. “Asian American Autobiography for Children: Critical Paradigms and Creative Practice.” The Lion and the Unicorn 30.2 (2006): 185–201.
De Bloois, J. and E. Peeren. Kernthema’s in de literatuur- en cultuurwetenschap. The Hague, Netherlands: Boom Lemma, 2010.
Doonan, J. Looking at Pictures in Picturebooks. Woodchester, UK: Thimble Press, 1993.
Eakin, P.J. How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves. Ithaca, Greece/London, UK: Cornell University Press, 1999.
Eakin, P.J., ed. The Ethics of Life Writing. Ithaca, Greece/London, UK: Cornell University Press, 2004.
Frank, A.W. “Moral Non-Fiction: Life Writing and Children’s Disability.” Ed. P.J. Eakin, The Ethics of Life Writing. Ithaca, Greece/London, UK: Cornell University Press, 2004. 174–94.
Ghesquière, R. Jeugdliteratuur in perspectief. Leuven, Belgium: Acco, 2009.
Gullestad, M. “Tales of Consent and Descent: Life Writing as a Fight Against an Imposed Self-Image.” Ed. P.J. Eakin, The Ethics of Life Writing. Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 2004. 216–43.
Gusdorf, G. “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography.” Ed. T.L. Broughton, Autobiography. Critical concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. volume I New York, NY/London, UK: Routledge, 1956, 77–94.
Hunt, P. “Introduction.” Ed. P. Hunt, Children’s Literature: The Development of Criticism. New York, NY/London, UK: Routledge, 1990, 1–13.
Hutcheon, L. 1998. Irony, nostalgia, and the postmodern. Retrieved in December 2012 from
Joosen, V. and K. Vloeberghs. Uitgelezen jeugdliteratuur. Ontmoetingen tussen traditie en vernieuwing. Leuven, Belgium/Leidschendam, Netherlands: LannooCampus/Biblion, 2008.
Kokkola, L. Representing The Holocaust in Children’s Literature. New York, NY/London, UK: Routledge, 2003.
Kümmerling-Meibauer, B. Remembering the past in words and pictures. How autobiographical stories become picturebooks. In T. Colomer, B. Kümmerling-Meibauer,
& C. Silva-Díaz (eds.), New directions in picturebook research (pp. 205-216). New York, NY / London, UK: Routledge, 2010.
Lathey, G. The Impossible Legacy. Identity and Purpose in Autobiographical Children’s Literature set in the Third Reich and the Second World War. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 1999.
Lathey, G. “War Boys: The Autobiographical Representation of History in Text and Image in Michael Foreman’s War boy and Tomi Ungerer’s Die Gedanken sind frei.” Ed. A. Lawson Lucas, The Presence of The Past in Children’s Literature. Westport, CT/London, UK: Praeger, 2003, 143–9.
Leibovici, S. “Trauma en creativiteit.” Tijdschrift voor Psychoanalyse 13.2 (2007), 108–20.
Neisser, U. “Five Kinds of Self-Knowledge.” Philosophical Psychology 1 (1988): 35–59.
Nikolajeva, M. “Imprints of The Mind: The Depiction of Consciousness in Children’s Fiction.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 26.4 (2002): 173–87.
Nikolajeva, M. Aesthetic approaches to children’s literature. Oxford, UK: Scarecrow Press, 2005.
Nikolajeva, M. and C. Scott. How Picturebooks Work. New York, NY/London, UK: Routledge, 2001.
Nodelman, P. Words About Pictures. The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
Olney, J. Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.
Reynolds, K. Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Rothe, A. Popular Trauma Culture: Selling the Pain of Others in The Mass Media. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.
Scott, C. “Dual Audience in Picturebooks.” Ed. S. Beckett, Transcending Boundaries. Writing for A Dual Audience of Children and Adults. London, UK/New York, NY: Garland, 1999. 99–110.
Scott, C. A challenge to innocence: ‘Inappropriate picturebooks for young readers’. Bookbird, 43.1(2005): 5–13.
Sipe, L.R. “How Picture Books Work. A Semiotically Framed Theory of Text-Picture Relationships.” Children’s Literature in Education 29.2 1998: 97–108.
Smith, S. and J. Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (rev. ed.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Sommer, D. “‘Not just a personal story’: Women’s Testimonios and The Plural Self.” Ed. T.L. Broughton, Autobiography. Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, volume II. New York, NY/London, UK: Routledge, 1988. 229–51.
Stephens, J. Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction. London, UK: Longman, 1992.
Urban, K. “Ghosts From an Imperfect Place: Philip Ridley’s Nostalgia.” Modern Drama 50.3 (2007): 325–45.
Usher, R. “The Story of The Self: Education, Experience and Autobiography.” Ed. M. Erben, Biography and Education: A Reader. London, UK: Falmer Press, 1998. 18–31.
Van Lierop, H. “De betekenis van het verleden in autobiografische oorlogsverhalen voor kinderen.” Literatuur zonder leeftijd 11.43 (1997): 407–25.
Vidor, C. “Peter Sís: Artist of Freedom.” Bookbird 50.4 (2012), 1–10.
- There are currently no refbacks.
Copyright (c) 2015 European Journal of Life Writing
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
European Journal of Life Writing - ISSN 1876-8156 - is an open access initiative supported by the VU University Library.