When You Reach Me has A Wrinkle in TimeFifty Shades of Grey has Tess of d’Urbervilles. You’ve Got Mail has Pride and Prejudice. 

No matter what genre you examine, you will find books that are continually winging their characters back to the pages of other books. What is the meaning of these books within a book? Are authors trying to send us a secret message, or are all the metabooks just an artifact of the fact that books are written by book lovers?

I thought I would explore a few possible explanations for the metabook phenomenon:

1) Metabooks bring characters into the real world.

Authors are constantly on the lookout for ways to bridge the gap between their characters and their readers. Perhaps metabooks are one of these bridges; they extend a character’s personality out of its fictional world and into the real world.

Image result for kathleen kelly's book store
I’m pretty sure I spy Peter Rabbit in the corner over there!

As Kathleen Kelly, a mogul of metabooks, points out in You’ve Got Mail, “When you read a book as a child, it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.” So then, when the audience is treated to a camera panning around Kathleen Kelly’s children’s book store, stocked with shelves of the books they loved as a child, can they help but feel connected to Kathleen?

Imagine finding a book character whose library shelves contained all of your own favorite books. Could you help but love that character?

2) Metabooks deepen characterization. 

Besides providing readers and characters with a common interest, metabooks also help readers understand who a character is. A well-read reader will be able to match titles with personal tastes and mine information about the characters interests and style.

During the first chapter of Ginger Pye, Eleanor Estes sets up her young protagonists beautifully by describing some of their “best beloved” books: Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, and Swiss Family Robinson. We know immediately that these are resourceful, adventure-loving child.

3) Metabooks heighten authority.

Sometimes, a metabook might just be another form of namedropping. By eluding to one of literature’s elite titles, a book may be able to heighten its own tone.

Image result for tess of d'urbervilles
Could you blame an author for wanting to ride the skirt tails of Thomas Hardy?

Fifty Shades of Grey goes to great length to incorporate Tess of d’Urbervilles in its plot. Although the themes of innocence, guilt, and sexual deviance do create a loose parallel between the two books, I couldn’t help but wonder if all the Tess references were a small cry for attention from an author who wants to have her literary credentials recognized, even though she is writing in a genre that is typically considered lowbrow.

4) Metabooks foreshadow the plot.

Perhaps the most cunning use of a metabook is to drop a hint to readers about how the story will unfold.

In the young adult mystery novel, When You Reach Me, readers are kept in suspense about how an unlikely serious of events managed to unfold around the protagonist. If readers are tuned into the fact that the protagonist carries her battered and oft-read copy of A Wrinkle in Time everywhere with her, they might be able to unravel the mystery even sooner than the protagonist does. Of course, time travel is the only explanation. A Wrinkle in Time is a cozy little clue dropped into the mix of the story.

5) All and/or none of the above.

One of the most miraculous things about writing is how the process works on a subconscious level. Writers often add elements to their stories without realizing why they are adding those elements.

It’s possible for a writer to weave a metabook into their story without having any purpose in mind, only to discover, in retrospect, that the metabook has a whole suite of purposes. 

I know because I’ve done it.

In my novel, Eleanor, the title character is never very far away from her copy of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. I didn’t have any grand purpose in mind when I included The Origin of Species, but now I can see how important the book is to my story. It gives readers an immediate sense of who Eleanor is: a child with a meticulous, scientific mind. It gives me an authoritative platform for Eleanor’s scientific studies.

Image result for charles darwin estate
Eleanor models a portion of her gardens on Charles Darwin’s gardens, in an attempt to attract fairies to her home.

At the deepest level, it even mirrors Eleanor’s plotline. Eleanor is a coming-of-age story which follows a child’s movement from mystical beliefs to real-world knowledge and tackles the struggle of faith which is implicit to that movement. The Origin of Species drove the same movement on a worldwide level.

What do you all think of metabooks? What’s their purpose? Have you ever decided to read a book just because it was mentioned in another book?

Looking forward to your thoughts!

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5 thoughts on “Metabooks!

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