A portrait of the artist as a young man: A reading of the picturebook app Billy’s Booger: A Memoir (sorta)

Ture Schwebs, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences

Billy’s Booger: A Memoir (sorta) was published in 2015 as a picturebook and an iPad story app by the noted American children’s book author-illustrator William Joyce (1957-). Joyce has written and illustrated a large numbers of books for adults and children and has created several animated short films and iPad story apps. 

Like James Joyce’s autobiographical 1916 novel, Billy’s Booger may be read as a Künstlerroman, a narrative about an artist’s growth to maturity. The picturebook/app presents itself as “a memoir (sorta)”, and appears as the fictionalized story of the making of William Joyce’s very first book, created while in fourth grade. Billy loves to draw – on books and on his homework and on his math tests, which his teachers and the principal do not appreciate. To help Billy better direct his illustrative energies, the school launches a book-making contest. Billy writes and illustrates a tale about a powerful and magic “super booger” blown out of his nose when he sneezed. To his disappointment Billy fails to win the contest. However, he discovers that his book is the one that the classmates enjoy most of all, which gives him a renewed artistic self confidence and inspires him to further develop his creative work.

Billy’s Booger may be characterzed as metafiction; included in both the picturebook and the app is an apparent reproduction of Billy’s original fourth grade handwritten booklet. In recent years, a number of book-within-a-book-products have been published, like Lane Smith’s It’s a book (2010), Herve Tullet’s Un Livre (English version: Press Here) (2010), and José Jorge Letria’s Se Eu Fosse um Livro [If I Were a Book] (2011). The metabook genre frequently thematizes the book as a physical and material object and the book creation process. So does Billy’s Booger, which also has a number of visual references to 1950s and 1960s popular culture, back “when TV was in black and white, and there were only three channels,” and the Sunday newspaper comics were “funny papers”.

The Billy’s Booger app is a mixed-media artwork based on the picturebook. Audio narration (by Joyce himself), music, sound effects and some animation are added, but the app offers only limited interactivity, allowing readers to focus on the story itself as it unfolds.

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