Achieving a Shared Understanding of Life. Artists’ reflections on their constructions of the past and the self in traumatic and nostalgic autobiographical picturebooks

Marloes Schrijvers


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.


Autobiography; life writing; picturebook; memory; self; trauma; nostalgia

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European Journal of Life Writing - ISSN 1876-8156 - is an open access initiative supported by University of Groningen Library