Exploring books for children: words and pictures
Exploring books for children: words and pictures

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Exploring books for children: words and pictures

8 An authorstrator comments on his craft

In this section we continue to consider the work of authorstrator Anthony Browne whose book Gorilla won the Carnegie Prize in 1983 and who was UK Children’s Laureate 2009-2011. Browne’s illustrations often include a great deal of detail and nuance. He is known for often including reference to well-known images borrowed and sometimes parodied from other sources, especially famous works of art – a feature known as intertextuality. For example, several of his books contain reworkings of Magritte’s paintings, although Browne sometimes substitutes a banana for an object in the original.

Activity 12

Click below to watch a clip in which Anthony Browne talks about how he works with text and images to produce a narrative. You may find it useful to look back at the images in Section 7, especially from Activity 11, as you listen, as Browne does discuss these in some detail.

Download this video clip.Video player: Interview with Anthony Browne
Skip transcript: Interview with Anthony Browne

Transcript: Interview with Anthony Browne

When I’m starting to think about a book, it can take different forms, really. Sometimes, I have an image in my head. I see an image and that develops into a story. Sometimes, I have two or three little ideas that seem very separate, don’t seem to be going anywhere, but occasionally, by bringing two or three ideas together, it can make a bigger idea. Other times, an idea comes almost like a dream and I don’t really know where it’s come from.
It’s not really a process like writing a story down and thinking of illustrations, and it’s not usually a question of drawing some illustrations and then writing a story around them. It’s more like an idea, I imagine having an idea for a film. The first thing I actually do is to make a storyboard. And I’d have 24 little rectangles and rough little drawings, a few little words. So, in a way, the words and the pictures come together, but it’s more like the scenes of a story rather than the pages of a story at that stage.
It’s the relationship between the pictures and the words that I find so exciting about picture books, how the pictures can sometimes tell us what the words don’t tell us. The words in picture books are usually fairly limited. There aren’t usually very many words. But the pictures in my books, anyway, I like to think, can tell us so much more by showing us how a character is feeling, or what they’re thinking about, or maybe little details in the background, which should suggest what’s going to happen next or maybe what’s happened in the past.
And it’s that back and forwards between the pictures and the words. I like the idea of children reading my books and seeing them for the first time on one level, maybe going back to the book on another occasion and seeing something else, and working out the clues that I’ve put in the pictures.
I don’t aim them specifically at any group of children or any age of children. I suppose if I’m doing them for anybody, I suppose it’s the child that I was; I’m trying to make children’s books that I think I would have liked when I was a child.
The third book I ever made was a book called A Walk in the Park and it was a very simple story about a man, his daughter and dog went for a walk in the park. A woman, her son and dog went for a walk in the park. The dogs immediately played together. The adults and the children sat on opposite ends of the bench and ignored each other. Gradually, the children copied the dogs and started playing together. Then the parents took them home, very, very simple story.
And I started putting funny little things in the background, as I had as a child but there was really no meaning to them. They were there partly because of my lack of confidence in the story, partly because I thought it would be more interesting in the pictures, both for the reader and for me to paint them if I put the funny little things in but they didn’t really have any meaning.
I sort of pretended they were to do with the way that children look at the world for the first time, that everything is new and fresh and exciting to them. But really, it wasn’t really about that. Twenty years later, I went back to that book and retold the story as Voices in the Park.
The main difference between how I work now and how I did then is that I try to use these details in the background to tell us things about the story, about the characters.
I did look at comics a lot when I was a boy and one of the things I used to enjoy was seeing the spot-the-difference pictures. Two pictures which seem to be the same, but when you look closely, they had 10 differences or whatever, and I found myself using that in my books, not in a conscious, deliberate way.
But there are quite a few examples in Gorilla. The two meal scenes, the breakfast scene, Hannah and her father at breakfast and later on, Hannah and the gorilla having a meal in a cafe. And those are two scenes which are showing the same thing, really. It’s a way of telling us something about how Hannah is feeling.
The words don’t say much in Gorilla except that her father didn’t seem to have time for anything. So there he is, reading the newspaper. The paper that’s like a wall between them, a barrier between them. He’s not looking at her. He’s not speaking to her. He’s not listening to her. The colours are all cold. He’s actually sitting in front of a fridge-freezer, the coldest thing one can imagine.
And this is contrasted later on in the cafe scene, where it’s the same scene, but different. I’m taking one scene and just changing it and making it into something completely different, even though ostensibly, it’s the same picture.
I use many pictorial references throughout my books, and they reflect my own interests, I’m sure, a lot of the time. I’m interested in paintings and I do use, in the backgrounds, famous works of art which in some way comment on the stories, in some way tell us something about somebody’s state of mind or what’s happening beneath the story, beneath the words.
And if the child reading the book doesn’t know the original reference, to me, it doesn’t matter. Maybe they’ll see the copy of a Magritte painting or the Mona Lisa or whatever later on and connect it with my version, which might be in the shape of a gorilla or something, and that’s fine.
What I wouldn’t like to do is to share some sort of conspiratorial wink with the adult reader, with the parent or teacher, over the child’s head. I hate the idea of that and I do like the idea of introducing children to art and paintings in a way that they might not see otherwise.
End transcript: Interview with Anthony Browne
Interview with Anthony Browne
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What use does Browne make of pictorial references to famous artworks? Do you think this is likely to appeal to young readers?


Visual intertextuality of the kind employed by Browne is not uncommon in picturebooks, and may explain part of the appeal of some texts to adults as well as children. A modern day parallel may be found in children’s films which include humorous cultural references which may be missed by younger children but amuse adult viewers. The original can be changed and reworked in various ways: as homage, or to comic effect as humorous spoofing or parody. However, Browne claims that his use of artwork references is not intended to be a kind of ‘conspiratorial wink’ between the adult and the author, excluding the child. Children’s literature scholar Sandra Beckett (2001) notes that, although young children have limited cultural knowledge to draw from, and may therefore miss some of the clues implanted in the text, their exposure to and understanding of intertexts should not be underestimated.


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