Picturing the World of Story: Mary Carty in conversation with Anthony Browne

Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne is on a mission to promote picture books. Appointed as the sixth UK Laureate in 2009, Browne believes that picture books are often overlooked and hold a value beyond that of merely introducing children to reading. He passionately advocates that picture books should not be discarded in the race to teach children how to read. Browne believes that picture books are not just for children but to be enjoyed by people of all ages.

Browne’s work is characterised by its warmth and humour, its bold, inviting colours and vivid landscapes. His stories invite the reader in through stunning visual imagery and characters that resonate deeply with readers young and old. Browne has authored over thirty books to date and his repertoire has given birth to some of the most beloved characters, both animal and human, in English children’s literature. He brings a masterful combination of superb draftsmanship coupled with an intuitive sense of language to each book.

Take the Willy series as an example. Willy is a cheeky little chimpanzee who tries to come to terms with the world around him. He fights off bullies, he makes friends, he is often left out and sometimes, he discovers what he loves. In Willy the Dreamer, a beautifully illustrated work, we see the sleepy protagonist dreaming of what he might become. Borrowing from the cannon of Art History, Browne takes paintings of Magritte, Dali, Van Gogh and Rousseau and subtly alters them to act as a backdrop to the narrative. Willy’s dreamscapes encourage young readers to believe in their dreams, and with Willy as their guide anything can happen.

Books such as Willy the Dreamer, My Mum and Gorilla contain visual puns, unexpected events and strange happenings. As the author explains, ‘first of all I want my books to be entertaining, and for me that does mean that anything can happen. I also want my books to have a point and so I try to use the transformations or strange happenings to try to tell us something that the words don’t.’ His illustrations convey a sense of the possible. In most cases, the images speak for themselves and from the hands of this amazing artist attention is given to every little detail, right down to the tiny patterns on Dad’s bathrobe in My Dad.

Written with minimal language and accompanied by vivid pictures, Browne’s stories give ample scope for the imagination; a quality Brown believes is at the heart of the very best picture books. ‘For me what makes picture books exciting is the gap between the pictures and the words, the gap that’s filled by the imagination of the reader. The words shouldn’t be captions to the illustrations and the pictures shouldn’t just show us what the words have already told us.’

It is intriguing to find out what comes first, the image or the text, when he comes up with an idea for a new book. Brown describes the process likening it to a movie script. ‘An idea usually comes to me in the form of something like a dream or an idea for a film – a mixture of images and words in a vague story form. The first thing I put down on paper is a storyboard, like a film director, except in my case the rough little drawings and words represent each page in the book rather than the scenes of a film.’ To bring his ideas to life and form them into picture books is not an easy task. It took some time to learn and time to refine. Gorilla, his seventh book,‘was the first one I felt I understood how picture books work, story and image, a proper picture book.’ It is possibly his favourite book but he does not really like to admit it.

As original and interesting as his ideas may be, they often take trial and error and lots of iterations and lots of perseverance to become the finished product we find in the bookshop. His most recent book Me and You, a retelling of the classic Goldilocks and the Three Bears from two points of view, did not have an easy birth. Setting it in suburbia, Browne turns a once familiar story on its head, giving the reader a fresh, new perspective. ‘I always thought it was an unfair story. We think of Goldilocks as a selfish, greedy little girl, but maybe there was a reason she was there. Maybe she was cold, hungry, or lost’, he explains.

After many attempts, the winning solution came about by giving the Baby Bear a voice and telling Goldilocks’ story through illustration alone. Using two very distinct styles and palette, one cold, muted and grey, and the other soft, warm and welcoming; the reader is immersed in this new version. In Browne’s version, the bears are always pictured on the left page and Goldilocks to the right thus reinforcing the narrative and the gulf between them. The sharp illustrative style of Goldilocks is in contract to the warm hues of the Bears and their surroundings. Their home is cosy and welcoming while it is easy to recognise the loneliness and isolation of the little girl. At the end, though, we are not so sure who has the better life, leaving the young reader with lots to think about.

Browne has never shied away from tackling difficult themes in his work. He has a keen sense of social justice and many of his characters are very much the underdog. In Me and You this concept is explored in the form of Browne’s Goldilocks. Other books that deal with themes like bullying, separation and isolation include, Willy the Wimp, Willy the Champ, and Gorilla. Our heroine in Gorilla wishes to spend more time with her overworked and often absent father, until one magical night a Gorilla arrives and unexpected things happen. As amazing as her adventures are with the Gorilla they are unmatched by the joy of visiting the Zoo with her father.

One of the most interesting things about Browne’s work is his ability to empathise with his readers. There is often a poignancy to his stories but they are never over-sentimental or nostalgic. He deals with each theme with sensitivity and humour. His stories have a universal resonance and capture the hearts of the readers. Many times there is twist in the tale that catches the reader off guard and makes the experience all the more rewarding. Browne is a clever story teller weaving his magic with a deft hand. Simple, easy to understand messages are contained in each story, never preaching or heavy handed and always written in a style and language that is understood by children, appealing directly to their innate sense of fair play.

At a time when falling literacy standards among boys is causing grave concern in the UK and Ireland, Browne feels that picture books have a positive role to play in addressing this very important issue. ‘Children nowadays and boys even more so, are dragged away from picture books. To be educated, to get educated, is to read books without pictures. We leave pictures behind and have books with words. Boys particularly love the combination of pictures and words. They love comics and as adults read graphic novels. Maybe one answer is to engage children with picture books for longer’. The author went on to explain, ‘From speaking with teachers older boys have rediscovered the excitement of reading by being introduced to my books’, a fact that makes him very happy indeed.

The value of picture books does not rest with the joy of reading alone. It is the very act of creativity itself that is central to the making of picture books. Encouraging children to continue to explore their creative talents and not giving up drawing when they reach a particular age is central to Browne’s message. ‘Most children start to think that they can’t draw after a certain age, and I think they become inhibited by what they think of as their inability to make a drawing that looks like a photograph. When children are young they instinctively know what drawing is really about – communicating – and I think we should encourage that.’ Ask any adult to draw like a photograph and indeed most would find it a daunting task. This is where he believes the ‘Shape Game’ comes into its own. The Shape Game has been an important creative activity for the author since early childhood. It is a simple game where each player takes turns at drawing a shape. Each person then adds to the shape in turn until the shape becomes something, a robot, a dinosaur, a city or a huge skyscraper. The only limitation is your imagination. ‘I would like to encourage everybody, children and adults, to play the Shape Game. It is a great way to help them to develop both their drawing skills and their visual imagination’, he remarks. The Shape Game is not just for children as Browne explains ‘adults can so this too. Once they get over their initial apprehension they revert back to childhood and realize that drawing is just communication.’

In his frequent visits to schools Browne imparts an important lesson, ‘artists, writers and creative are not special; they are the same as you and me, the only difference is that I carried on making stories and I am very fortunate for that.’ With this inspiring message we hope that the next generation will hold on to their immense creativity and enjoy it well into later life.

So what has Anthony Browne learned from his experience as Children’s Laureate so far? ‘I’m slowly learning how to pace myself as Laureate. It’s been very difficult to find time to work on a book (which is what I’m best at and why I was chosen to be the Laureate in the first place). I’ve learned of the appetite for picture books from both children and adults, and realized that many people agree with me that you’re never too old for a good picture book!’

His goal is to keep on going, writing and illustrating books for us to enjoy, while continuing to persuade that picture books are worth sharing with children and they should not be left behind at an earlier and earlier age, and travelling the length and breath of the globe sharing this message with big and small, old and young. A busy publishing schedule also lies ahead. On average Browne publishes one book a year so we can look forward with pleasure to many other projects coming on stream over the next few years. The Children’s Laureate will not be resting on his laurels! MC

Mary Carty is county arts officer at Meath County Council. 
This interview was first published in Inis 33, September 2010.