Kafka, Picture Books, and Spiderman

Linking Franz Kafka with picture books may seem absurd, but influences of his short story “The Metamorphosis” can be found in many books for young children.

These picture books are certainly fantasies, but the character’s metamorphosis is the single element of fantasy. Each narrative begins with a straight-faced leap from a very high diving board. The impossible literally happens, and must be dealt with in the real world. They are the ultimate “fish out of water” tale even though the (former) fish remains in his home water.

Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” begins:

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.

THE MAN WHO LOST HIS HEAD by Claire Huchet Bishop begins:

Once upon a time there was a Man who lost his head.

LOUIS THE FISH by Arthur Yorinks begins:

One day last spring, Louis, a butcher, turned into a fish. Silvery scales. Big lips. A tail. A salmon. Louis did not lead, before this an unusual life…

David Small’s IMOGENE’S ANTLERS begins:

On Thursday, when Imogene woke up, she found she had grown antlers.

Like Kafka’s salesman, these three characters discover their transformation as they wake in bed one morning.

Other sudden and extreme transformations occur in picture books, but the change is more internal.  These tales are less like Kafka than they are Spiderman where a spider bite transforms a nerd to superhero. Susan Meddaugh’s dog, Martha, is suddenly able to speak after consuming a bowl of alphabet soup. In WEEZER CHANGES THE WORLD, David McPhail’s dog begins as a typical puppy chewing toys and tinkling on the rug. But once “something striking” happens (lightning) Weezer begins predicting weather, playing piano, helping doctors solve diseases, and more.

Scott Santoro’s FARM-FRESH CATS offers a third type of poker-face dive into the extreme. It’s not an individual who is suddenly transformed within or without, but agriculture. A farmer checks his field and discovers that his crop is no longer cabbages but cats. Once again, the drastic metamorphosis is identified as something unexplainable. Then, on with the action and story’s arc.

These stories featuring outrageous events have a distant relationship to the tall tales found in folklore. But the two genres have more differences than similarities. While tall tales pile one impossible situation on top of another, these Kafka style picture books stick with one or perhaps two impossible actions. The traditional narrator of a tall tale is also very tongue-in-cheek. The narrator knows he’s telling a lie and with a wink let’s the audience knows that he knows that they know he’s telling a lie. It’s all part of the game and the fun.

In contrast, the tone and voice of Kafka-style picture books are both poker-faced. There may be humor, but it is based in characters’ coping with the transformation rather than the outlandish events that occur and their descriptions.

Why not play with our own dives off the high board into the impossible? This approach can provide rich exercise opportunities. We’ve got nothing to lose but opportunities.

Sample Picture Books That Echo Kafka’s Leap Outside Reality

A BAD CASE OF STRIPES by David Shannon. Blue Sky Press, 1998.

IMOGENE’S ANTLERS by David Small. Crown, 1985.

LOUIS THE FISH by Arthur Yorinks. Illus. by Richard Egielski. Farrar, 1980.

FARM-FRESH CATS by Scott Santoro. HarperCollins, 2006

THE MAN WHO LOST HIS HEAD by Claire Huchet Bishop. Illus. by Robert McCloskey. Viking, 1942.

MARTHA SPEAKS by Susan Meddaugh.  HoughtonMifflinHarcourt, 1995.

WEEZER CHANGES THE WORLD by David McPhail. Beach Lane, 2009.