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Pictures at Play: Metafiction in Art

What happens when a dog walks off the pages of a book? Or when a child’s crayons go on strike? Or when characters from one book appear in another? Visitors will find out when The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art presents Pictures at Play: Metafiction in Art, opening May 4 and on view through November 3, 2024.

Metafiction is fiction about fiction—books that contain pictures about pictures and stories about stories. Museum visitors will discover books that break the fourth wall, where narrators and characters directly address the reader. They’ll witness familiar characters acting out of character and find stories that contain other stories in them. In blurring the lines between author, narrator, and reader, metafictive books subvert readers’ expectations about the real world and the world of fiction.

Pictures at Play is guest curated by Cathryn M. Mercier, Ph.D., Director of Simmons University Center for the Study of Children’s Literature and graduate degree programs in literature for young people. Mercier notes how the creative, humorous aspects of metafiction appeal to young audiences, while its innovative, post-modernist attitudes entertain and provoke more mature readers. She says, “What interests me personally is how playful metafiction can be and how much it makes me laugh.” Mercier, a former Carle trustee, co-curated the 2020 exhibition Let’s Talk! Animals in the Collection.

The Carle’s chief curator Ellen Keiter remarks, “I am grateful to Cathie for bringing this engaging exhibition idea to the Museum. Cathie selected the perfect artwork to break down the sometimes-mind-boggling concepts of metafiction. Her interests in accessibility and humor shine through in the exhibition.” Mercier selected work by 33 artists from key books of the past 30 years. The images illustrate how artists experiment with styles, typography, and page design to disrupt the rules of how books usually work. She organized the exhibition into three thematic sections:

I. Speaking Out. While characters typically speak to each other in picture books, sometimes they break the fourth wall to speak directly to the reader. The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales written by Jon Sciezska and illustrated by Lane Smith might be the most (in)famous metafictive picture book for its self-conscious Jack, who consistently muddles his role as narrator. In The Day the Crayons Quit, artist Oliver Jeffers creates a series of letters in which each crayon airs its grievances. Green writes that he’s happy with the things that are always green, like trees and frogs, but he’s worried about his friends, Orange and Yellow.

II. Pictures within Pictures. Metafiction creators love the idea of infinity—infinite ways of reading and infinite meanings of a book. David Wiesner, a master of metafiction, provides an example of infinite “nesting” in Flotsam; readers practically need a magnifying glass to decipher the ever-smaller details of his pictures within pictures. Metafiction also calls attention to the creative process as characters engage in the act of making stories themselves. In The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read, artist Oge Mora uses collage, handwritten text, and newsprint to depict the stream of letters that occupy Mary Walker’s waking and dreaming life.

III. Books about Books. Metafiction plays with the physical parts of a book. Characters can misbehave or battle each other across the pages, as in Dan Santat’s Drawn Together. They can disappear into the gutter, as we see in Richard Byrnes’ This Book Just Ate My Dog. Readers can even see themselves holding the same book they just opened, as in Jason Chin’s Redwoods. Sometimes characters jump books. In Peggy Rathmann’s 10 Minutes till Bedtime, she mischievously hides the gorilla from her other famous good-night story, while Mo Willems playfully transports Trixie’s beloved Knuffle Bunny into Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!  

Metafiction is not a new concept. Also on display are such classic titles as Peter Newell’s The Hole Book (1908), Dorothy Kunhardt’s Pat the Bunny (1940), and Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955). All featured exhibition books are available in the gallery for visitors to read, plus there is a collection of additional metafictive titles to explore. Guests can also participate in a gallery activity in which they “remix” story titles on a magnetic bookshelf.
Mercier says metafiction allows people to reflect on their own reading. “Most of all,” she says, “I want visitors to have fun. I hope they play with books and tap into their own creativity.”

Featured Artists

Aaron Becker, Richard Byrnes, Lauren Child, Jason Chin, Raúl Colón, Lulu Delacre, Tony DiTerlizzi, Deborah Freedman, E. B. Goodale, Ekua Holmes, Oliver Jeffers, Barbara Lehman, Brian Lies, David Macaulay, Barbara McClintock, Oge Mora, Yuyi Morales, Julie Morstad, Christopher Myers, Kathryn Otoshi, Brian Pinkney, Jerome Pumphrey and Jarrett Pumphrey, Peggy Rathmann, Adam Rex, Dan Santat, Lane Smith, Melissa Sweet, Corey Tabor, Don Tate, Chris Van Allsburg, David Wiesner, Mo Willems, and Pamela Zagarenski.

About The Museum

Co-founded by Eric and Barbara Carle in 2002, The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is the international champion of picture book art. Situated on 7.5 acres in Amherst, Massachusetts, The Carle houses a rich and deep collection of art, and illuminates its collection through exhibitions, education, programming, and art-making—making it a critical resource for picture book artists and authors, and art-loving communities locally, nationally, and abroad. The Carle’s mission is to elevate picture book art and inspire a love of art, art creation, and reading. Since opening its doors more than 20 years ago, The Carle has welcomed more than one million visitors—plus more than four million additional museum-goers who have enjoyed its touring exhibitions around the world.   

The Carle’s permanent collection includes over 9,000 works of art by over 300 artists. The art in the permanent collection dates from the late 19th century to the present and consists primarily of works on paper, including significant holdings by artists Ashley Bryan, Remy Charlip, Antonio Frasconi, Leo Lionni, Arnold Lobel, Petra Mathers, Alice Bolam Preston, William Steig, Susanne Suba, Simms Taback, and Leonard Weisgard. Educational offerings include professional training for educators around the country and master’s degree programs in children’s literature in partnership with Simmons University.   

 More than 2,500+ students, educators, and librarians participate in The Carle’s youth outreach and professional development programs per year, and The Carle Community Fund, which launched in 2019, covers Museum admission for low-income families, field trip fees for schoolchildren at Title One Schools, and professional development fees for early childhood educators and Title One school teachers and librarians. For online visitors, the Museum offers a wealth of digital resources, including art activities, book lists, collections art, exhibition videos, and workshops.   

Every year, The Carle’s exhibitions travel to museums in the US and abroad, including cities in New York, Texas, Michigan, and Iowa, as well as internationally in Japan, China, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, and Taiwan, ensuring museums everywhere can introduce new audiences to the joy of picture book art. The Museum offers digital resources, including art activities, book recommendations, collections, exhibition videos, and workshops for online visitors. Learn more at and on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram @CarleMuseum.

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Explore Further

Private Member preview of new exhibition!


Exploring the present moment through stories!


Artists will discuss their work on view in the special exhibition Pictures at Play: Metafiction in Art


Partly cloudy with a chance of imagination!