Profile - 'It's not about pictures versus words; we should encourage both'

12th June 2009 at 01:00
Having narrowly avoided a teaching career, the new children's laureate is determined to dispel the idea that dogged his early years - that art wasn't for `ordinary' people like him. He wants to give children the confidence to use their creativity and, as he tells Helen Ward, he will use his new role to argue the case that picture books are `proper' literature

Anthony Browne, the new children's laureate, is one of the most successful authors and illustrators of children's books in Britain. He has published 40 titles and won a host of international awards, including the Kate Greenaway Medal - twice - and the Kurt Maschler `Emil' Award - three times. He was also the first Briton to win the Hans Christian Andersen Award for illustration.

And yet he still harks back to being a child in Yorkshire and thinking art was not something for ordinary people like him.

"I want to encourage children to write and illustrate and show them that it is not a separate kind of person who does these things," he says.

"That's why I did graphic design, because I thought I couldn't possibly be a painter, an artist, because I'm Tony Browne."

Mr Browne was born in Sheffield and shortly afterwards moved to Wyke, near Bradford, and then Hipperholme, also in West Yorkshire. He graduated from what is now Leeds College of Art and Design with a graphic arts degree in 1967. He then worked as a medical illustrator for three years, a job which involved watching operations and doing illustrations for students' textbooks.

He also flirted with a career in teaching, but it clearly wasn't for him. He began training twice, but lasted less than a day the first time and for only three weeks on his second attempt.

"The first time was after art college. I did one morning at Goldsmiths (College) in London. The second time was three weeks at Leeds, training to be an art teacher. It wasn't for me. On both occasions I had chosen the course for the wrong reasons.

"At Goldsmiths, I really wanted to be a painter and thought the course would allow me to do my own painting for three days a week, and then I'd spend two days learning to be a teacher.

"In the same kind of way with Leeds, I wanted to end my time as a medical illustrator but didn't know how to say that to the man who had trained me, so I convinced myself I should go back to college."

Instead, Mr Browne became a designer for Gordon Fraser's greeting cards and worked there until 1988.

While his first picture book, Through the Magic Mirror, was published in 1976, his breakthrough came in 1983 with Gorilla, a character that had began life as a picture on a greetings card. The book tells the story of a little girl whose father is too busy to take her to the zoo, but her toy gorilla comes to life and they visit together. The book won the Kate Greenaway Medal, the Kurt Maschler Award, The New York Times Best Illustrated Book award and The Boston Globe Book Award.

His other books include Zoo (which also won the Kate Greenaway Medal), a series of books about a chimp called Willy, and illustrations for Hansel and Gretel and Alice's Adventure in Wonderland (which won a Kurt Maschler Award).

Mr Browne's style combines realism with fantastical, surreal touches, hidden jokes and objects within the pictures. His style, sometimes dark, has meant his books are often used to interest children who are older than the traditional picture-book audience.

Mr Browne says his inspiration has come from his own observations and experiences. During his time at art college, aged 17, his father died of a heart attack in front of him and the experience may have fed through into the many absent fathers in his work.

Despite this, 2000 saw the publication of one of his most uplifting books, My Dad, which describes a father who has many (increasingly extraordinary) talents; he is not even scared of the Big Bad Wolf. The book was inspired by the sight of his father's old dressing gown, Mr Browne says.

One of his ambitions is for picture books to be taken seriously in their own right, not just as precursors to novels. "They are in a bit of danger of being marginalised," he says.

"I hear from others that parents say `Let's get a proper book now', meaning a longer book without pictures. I think that is a great shame and I'd like to change that attitude. I want to encourage people to look and use their eyes and learn how to look at pictures."

As children's laureate for the next two years, Mr Browne will receive a bursary of Pounds 15,000. The role honours his achievements and also provides a platform to raise the profile of children's literature and associated issues.

Jacqueline Wilson, children's laureate from 2005 to 2007, used the role to try to persuade parents and teachers to read aloud. Michael Rosen, the outgoing laureate, has been outspoken about giving teachers more freedom to introduce whole books to children, instead of extracts, and has campaigned for poetry-friendly classrooms.

Mr Browne has been involved in the Big Picture campaign for picture books to be taken seriously as art. He was also writer and illustrator in residence at Tate Britain in 2001. The experience inspired The Shape Game, a book about a family - the one that featured in Zoo - on an outing to the gallery. They suspect the visit may be boring, but leave transformed and learn a new game on the way home.

It is a game Mr Browne has been introducing to children not just in the UK, but around the world, and he is now using it to kickstart his laureateship.

"The Shape Game is something I played as a little boy," he says. "We thought we invented it. One person draws a shape, the other person transforms it into something.

"Older children who say they can't draw can still play it because it is not about perfect drawing. Although it's a fun game, it is also serious because it is about creativity.

"I don't know the answer to what happens as children get older, but it seems as if they are encouraged to link being educated to coming out of pictures and into words. I don't want it to be about pictures versus words; we should encourage both.

"Being an artist or writer isn't about being a different kind of person. I always say this to children. When I was five or eight, I didn't draw any better than them. The one difference between me and other adults (who aren't artists) is that I carried on and I didn't worry about getting things right."

Mr Browne was told the news of his appointment by former poet laureate Andrew Motion, chair of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.

Mr Browne says: "I was there when Michael Rosen was announced as children's laureate in 2007 and he seemed so assured. I thought then that if I was offered it, I couldn't take it. He's too good at it. But now I have come to the conclusion that I don't have to be Michael Rosen.

"I hope to continue some of his work. He wanted to encourage enthusiasm for books and reading, and that's what I want to do.

"I'm very enthusiastic about children's books, particularly picture books. My specialism is enthusiasm and creativity."

He should rather enjoy his new role, then.

Anthony Browne - Children's laureate 2009-2011

Author and illustrator of more than 40 books, including Gorilla, Zoo, the Willy books, The Shape Game, My Dad, My Mum, My Brother

Previous jobs: Medical illustrator, greetings card designer

Born: 1946 in Sheffield

Education: Studied graphic design at Leeds College of Art and Design, graduated 1967

Family: Father of two grown-up children; lives in Kent


Through the Magic Mirror, 1976

A Walk in the Park, 1977

Bear Hunt, 1979

Look What I've Got! 1980

Hansel and Gretel, 1981

Bear Goes to Town, 1982

Gorilla, 1983

The Visitors Who Came to Stay, written by Annalena McAfee, 1984

Willy the Wimp, 1985

Knock, Knock, Who's There, written by Sally Grindley, 1985

Willy the Champ, 1985

Piggybook, 1986

Kirsty Knows Best, written by Annalena McAfee, 1988

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll, 1988

Little Bear Book, 1988

I Like Books, 1988

Things I Like, 1989

A Bear-y Tale, 1989

The Tunnel, 1990

Trail of Stones, written by Gwen Strauss, 1990

Changes, 1990

Willy and Hugh, 1991

The Night Shimmy, written by Gwen Strauss, 1991

Zoo, 1993

The Big Baby, 1993

The Topiary Garden, written by Janni Howker, 1993

The Daydreamer, written by Ian McEwan, 1994

King Kong, from the story conceived by Edgar Wallace and Merian Cooper, 1994

Willy the Wizard, 1995

Willy the Dreamer, 1997

Voices in the Park, 1998

My Dad, 2000

Willy's Pictures, 2000

The Animal Fair, 2002

The Shape Game, 2003

Into the Forest, 2004

My Mum, 2005

Silly Billy, 2006

My Brother, 2007

Little Beauty, 2008


Nominations for the children's laureate are made by more than 20 organisations involved with children's books. Children can also vote through the website of Booktrust, which administers the award. Andrew Motion, chair of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and poet laureate until May, presided over the selection panel for the appointment of the sixth children's laureate, which runs until 2011. This year's award is funded by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and sponsored Bookseller Waterstone's.

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