Breaking the Fourth Wall in Picture Books

Imagine by Juan Felipe Herrera

When I read a picture book in which the author breaks the fourth wall, I get excited. “Look, look!” I’ve never done it in a manuscript but it is tempting to try.

The fourth wall is the barrier between the movie or book and the audience. When a movie character, such as Deadpool or Ferris Bueller, speaks to the audience, the fourth wall has been broken. More of a classics fan?  Mel Brooks and Monty Python both famously break the fourth wall.  And, yes, I consider Monty Python classic. When the narrator addresses the reader in a picture book, the fourth wall has, once again, come down.

It is especially hard to do in nonfiction. I say this because this is where my own clumsy attempts occured. “What would you do if . . . ?” “Do you think you could . . . ?” “Would you be scared if . . . ?” Many attempts like these fail because the answers to the questions are more than a little obvious. “Would you want to come nose to nose with a great white shark?” No, this isn’t one of mine although I’ve written about sharks. But do you see the problem? More often than not, the answer will be NO.

The Stuff of Stars by Marion Dane Bauer

And yet in Imagine Juan Felipe Herrera speaks directly to the reader, and it works. In spread after spread, Herrera describes a scene from his life and then directs the reader. “Imagine.” If he could do this, what might the reader do? Herrera speaks directly to everyone who reads this book.

In The Stuff of Stars, Marion Dane Bauer opens with the big bang. She writes about the development of Earth and life. Toward the end of the book, she writes about “us” and “our.” She addressses the reader as “you.” This is especially clever because it reads as if as adult or older sibling is reading to the listener, the “you.”

I’m not sure if breaking the fourth wall was a part of each of these books from the start, but each books pulls the reader in by speaking directly to them. Do you have a story idea that would benefit from this approach?

–SueBE