Experimental Fiction is Perfect for Children’s Literature

Author M.T. Anderson spoke at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference about why experimental literature is perfect or children, even more so than for adult literature. The following notes are from his breakout session on the topic. Also visit my previous post “What is Experimental Literature” where Anderson breaks down the different techniques and terms of experimental lit.

The Three Main Points of This Session…

  • Experimental fiction is not really experimental. These techniques have been used for many years.
  • Experimental fiction is great for children because kids pick up on these techniques naturally and take to them better than an adult might. They are more accessible than in adult literature.
  • Experimental techniques teach us how to read the book. They are a process of learning in and of themselves. They will show us world and character. These techniques show more and are less subliminal.

A Reading of Kurt Schwitter’s Experimental Poem #25…

  • Anderson performed Kurt Schwitter’s poem #25. This was a poem entirely of numbers (i.e. 25, 25,26,27,25… etc.) However the key to the poem is not in the narrative but in hearing it out loud. It was about experiencing rhythms and repetitions, sets of numbers that create a language within themselves in how they are repeated and organized.
  • This poem was an example of form without content. The poem has complex structures despite its lack of content.
  • The poem teaches us how to enter the poem. It creates patterns through the relationship of numbers. Such as a number repetition (4,4,4) or the ascension of numbers (25,26,27). Despite the fact that there is no specific math in the poem.
  • There are surprises and disruptions in the poem. For example the introduction of a fraction. This creates new sequences, new rules, and new movements n the flow of the poem.
  • The poem relates to the operation of language.
  • The speech act (reading it aloud) creates structures of meaning. We define the words as we use them.
  • The repetition of the number 25 could relate to: memory, recollection of fate. The number does repeat itself later.
  • When we are sensitized to the underlying structures and patterns we create meanings when putting them together.

Why Experimental Fiction is Great for Kids…

  • Children learn narrative without even thinking about it.
  • As a child our learning is more malleable. Where as an adult we have already learned a set structure, we are less inclined to be open to alternative structure.
  • Children have a light and unpretentious approach to story.

The Experimental Work of Dr. Seuss…

  • Anderson also read/performed sections of Dr. Seuss’ book One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. This is a book without a clear or cohesive narrative, but uses pattern and repetition to move you through the book, as well as teaches you the structure as you go.
  • The book begins with organization in counting, followed by organization in color. Then the book switches to emotion.
  • There are specific rhythms and differentiations in the book. The use of re-occurrence helps us to learn the structure as we go.
  • Units of sound are objects within themselves.
  • We find as the story progresses that fish are abandoned and replaced with children who now move us through the story. (Similar structure to Naked Lunch by Burrows.)
  • Seuss retains structures despite narrative non-sequiters.
  • Re-occurrence helps to unify the work.
  • Each spread of the story (two page spread) is a mini-form within itself.
  • Characters do reoccur throughout the story.
  • The book has no plot but the refrain, rhyming, and evolving numeric’s give the book structure.
  • The book is a wild chaos of fantasy.

Experimental Literature Shows You a New World…

  • All art is about seeing the world anew.
  • No one thinks about air until it is poisoned, and one realizes a need for it in the first place.

An Evaluation of The Arrival by Shaun Tan…

  • The Arrival is a completely illustrated story with no text.
  • We (the reader) are subjected to the same disorientation as the protagonist in the story.
  • We are surrounded with familiar elements but then show a contrast of things that are strange.
  • The name of the author on the title page is familiar (readable) but created in a semi foreign text so that it seems like another language at first glance. This is the first way it begins to prepare and teach the viewer the story.
  • The first page sets up a visual context for the story and a sense of repetition through panels.
  • There is a transition from one sequence (page) to the next. The final panel of the page leads us into the next page and the next page informs the previous one.
  • Small pieces (or snapshot like images) on the first page are then shown in larger context (one w hole image) on the next page. The artist draws all the visual terms together in order for us to see the whole equation.
  • The book is filled with images that are familiar and alien at the same time.
  • The book is wordless and thus must rely on gesture and visuals (character) to communicate the story.
  • We learn the visual vocabulary with what is between the panels. We learn to work backwards, and the book teaches us how to read it.
  • There is a final call back on the last page. It has the same format as the first page, thus creating a “book end” quality. The new world is incorporated into the old world.

M.T. Anderson has written stories for adults, picture books for children, adventure novels for young readers, and several books for older readers (both teens and adults). His satirical book Feed was a finalist for the National Book Award and was the winner of the L.A. Times Book Prize. His first volume of his Octavio Nothing saga won the National Book Award and the Boston Globe/ Horn Book Prize. Both the first and second volumes of the two-part series were Printz Honor Books.

4 thoughts on “Experimental Fiction is Perfect for Children’s Literature

  1. I’m an enormous fan of “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan, but I can’t quite call it an experimental narrative, any more than David Wesiner’s “Tuesday” or my short film “Marboxian” might be. It’s a very conventional narrative, beautifully and cleverly told. That it uses pictures and not words doesn’t strike me as more experimental than a book that uses words instead of pictures. Which category in the previous post (What is Experimental Fiction?) would “The Arrival” fall under?

    A better example of experimental fiction might be David Macaulay’s books collected in “Built to Last” (“Castle,” “Cathedral” and “Mosque”). Each of these is a non-fiction book told as a “for instance…” narrative, complete with characters, settings and plot twists.

  2. As a middle school teacher I have used Gertrude Stein and other experimental poets and writers. I would use more Beats, for example, but the language sets off alarms in the school.

    Frustrated by the lack of middle school appropriate poetry (too easy, too hard or too adult) I started a blog “Middle School Poetry 180” (a bite off of Billy Collins’ Poetry 180). While I began with the obvious poets (Wordsworth, Frost, Whitman), I found myself drawn to dada and other movements. It has worked well. I even posted a video of Brother Theodore reading “Broccoli”.

    An excellent YA novel addressing experimentation is Daniel Pinkwater’s “Young Adult Novel”, which follows four boys trying to implement dada ideals into their dull high school. Very funny, and it makes a great read aloud. Unfortunately, it is out of print (but is available in a Pinkwater anthology). I read from a photocopy of a library book, but would buy a class set if it was back in print.

    As a writer of YA fiction that is outside the box, I am finding it hard to find an agent for my novel “The Attic Notebooks”, as anything not completely conformist is rejected. I am thinking that most agents and editors are more left brain thinkers who care about description and character (not that my writing lacks it, but the characters do not fit in a stereotypical box), not story and ideas. Finally, I uploaded my text to Feedbooks.com and it has found some success. Yet, anything odd or a character who is not “likable” but is, instead, odd, does not find a home.

    Thanks for the detailed post (you are a good note-taker). I am trying to find “Poem 25” to post on my blog.

  3. Pingback: 121. Chanson Dada: Tristan Tzara « Middle School Poetry 180

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