Q&A with children's laureate Anthony Browne
Children's laureate, author and illustrator Anthony Browne joined us for a Q&A session on Mumsnet at the end of July 2010, revealing, among other things, why many of his books for children have darker themes – and why so many of them feature gorillas...
Anthony has almost 40 titles to his name, including My Dad and My Mum, Willy the Wimp and Gorilla. He has just released a new book, Play The Shape Game, in aid of the children's charity Rainbow Trust.
Q. AnnMumsnet: My daughter, aged seven, would like to know which is your favourite book of all the books you have written so far? She has studied your books at school and her favourite is Willy the Wimp.
A. Anthony: It's always difficult to pick one favourite but, certainly, Willy the Wimp is one of them. I also would include Willy the Dreamer, Gorilla, Changes, The Tunnel, Voices in the Park, Hansel and Gretel and Into the Forest. (That's quite a lot I'm afraid.)
Q. Alana39: My two sons have a question that has come about as a result of the ending of Zoo: what do you think animals dream about?
A. Anthony: Of course, I don't really know, but it seems that scientists are constantly discovering that all species are far more developed (and more like us) than we realised. They communicate to a far more sophisticated degree than was thought and I expect it will be discovered that their dreams are also more sophisticated. So, although they won't dream in exactly the same way that we do, I suspect it's more similar than we imagine. On a simple level, we've all seen dogs dreaming and I'd guess they often dream that they're running after something – but who knows what else?
Q. Attilathehan: Our son regularly reads My Dad, My Mum and My Brother to his sister in the mornings and would like me to ask if you have written My Sister yet?
A. Anthony: Well I haven't written My Sister yet, probably because I've never had a sister. My Dad, My Mum and My Brother were relatively easy because they were all based on my family. Perhaps one day I'll use my imagination and write My Sister.
Q. boogiewoogie: Which illustration in your books are you most proud of – and which one hides the biggest secret?
A. Anthony: I think perhaps an illustration I made for my version of Hansel and Gretel is an important one for me. It's a picture of the stepmother/mother waking Hansel and Gretel up very early in the morning. We see this scene in the reflection of a mirror on the wardrobe. Normally we would see ourselves reflected there but, if you look at the picture closely, you'll see that I'm perhaps suggesting the mother figure resembles another character in the story...
Q. mrsruffallo: My seven-year-old daughter would like to know why your stories are so sad? I love the way you write in such a simple yet sensitive and intelligent way, even though we all sobbed at Gorilla. What message do you hope your books bring to children?
A. Anthony: Thank you for telling me that you love the way I write. I'm sorry that your seven-year-old thinks my stories are sad. I like to think that there is a suggestion of hope at the end of Gorilla – perhaps an indication that the father has begun to change in his attitude towards Hannah. I don't want to write stories that end sadly but try to offer some hope at the end of each book.
Q. Solidgoldbrass: My five-year-old son was given Into The Forest to read by his teacher and loved it. He also liked The Tunnel. Do you think that the kind of dream archetypes you evoke in these stories (loss, love as a redemptive power, dark forests, strange places) are important for kids? I think they are a good contrast to a lot of the utterly bland and condescending stuff you get these days.
A. Anthony: I'm very glad that he liked The Tunnel and Into the Forest – two of my favourites.
I totally agree that there is a lot of bland, condescending stuff around (there probably always was), but you obviously realise that children are capable of appreciating and enjoying much more challenging, interesting stories.
Q. WowOoo: There's a darkness to some of your books. My son calls some of them a bit spooky and not too fluffy (and this is why he loves them)! Why is this? Do you think this is important for children?
A. Anthony: I think it's important to have darkness and lightness in books (and all shades in between).
Q. Coupleofkooks: My son, who is seven, would like to know which books you prefer enjoy yourself: children's or adults'? He also says he would like to hear what you think about the King Kong story. He gets very worked up about it because he thinks it is so unfair how King Kong was treated!
A. Anthony: I still enjoy Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and a new one, Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan. I agree that it's very unfair how King Kong was treated, but I think it's a fascinating story about how we can sometimes behave very badly towards anyone or anything that seems different to us.
Q. Bamboo: How much is Harry and George's family based on your own?
A. Anthony: Well it's not really based on my family, but there are similarities (as I think there are with many other families). My brother and I did argue a lot but we loved each other and still do. My dad was funny but he didn't really tell jokes. He was also loving and kind towards all his family – he didn't struggle with the role of father like Harry and George's dad. He also loved art and spent hours drawing with us. My mum had some similarities to the mother, I suppose – she was kind, sensitive and quiet. Actually, I don't think we ever visited an art museum together when we were young.
Q. AlasakaNebraska: Does anyone ever ask you if you have the dressing gown that dad has in My Dad?
A. Anthony: I found my late father's dressing gown in an old suitcase that belonged to my mother and it immediately transported me back to the age of about five when I really thought my dad could do anything. It's exactly like the dressing gown in the book.
Q. vikkile: I would love to know what a great children's author like yourself likes to read in the adult world. What inspires your stories?
A. Anthony: I love to read classic novels: Vanity Fair, Madame Bovary, Dracula, and modern novels by John Updike and the short stories of Raymond Carver.
Q. scottywooh: What background led you to become an illustrator, and what advice would you give to an aspiring one?
A. Anthony: I've always liked drawing and making up stories ever since I was a little boy, so, for me, writing and illustrating picture books is the best job in the world. I was quite a long time in finding this out. After studying graphic design (quite badly), I tried my hand at medical illustration, advertising and greetings cards before discovering the wonderful world of picture books. My advice to an aspiring illustrator is fairly obvious: draw and look and draw.
Q. seashore: Having spent your career studying and painting gorillas? What is your opinion of them being kept in zoos? And what would you say to a child who loves your illustrated gorillas but finds their zoo counterparts disturbing?
A. Anthony: I've got very mixed feelings about gorillas (or indeed any animals) being kept in zoos. There is a strong argument to be made that they are protecting endangered species, and some enlightened zoos, such as Howletts and Port Lympne in Kent, are able to return gorillas successfully back into the wild. But I still find it uncomfortable to see them locked in cages, no matter how big they are.
Q. Easywriter: Certain themes crop up constantly in your work but why are gorillas such a constant in both your stories and illustrations? Also, why do trilby hats feature so often?
A. Anthony: Well, gorillas are fascinating creatures to draw, and they are so much like us (but not quite). They also remind me of my Dad who was a big, physical man who encouraged my brother and me to play physical sports such as rugby, boxing, football and cricket. But he would also spend time with us drawing and writing poems. And that's a bit like gorillas – they're big and powerful and physical too, but also gentle and sensitive. As for trilby hats, I'm not sure I've featured them so often, but, of course, the woman's trilby hat certainly features a lot in Voices in the Park. I used it in many of the illustrations to show how Charles felt a bit dominated by his mum.
Q. teafortwo: A while ago, I heard a rather lovely interview with Jeanette Winterson. Her ideas about storytelling really made me think of your books. She spoke of all stories having no beginning and no end and how they are ever evolving on account of being "in dialogue" with one another. I would like to know if you have any thoughts on this notion?
A. Anthony: That is a lovely idea. My favourite stories carry on in my mind long after I've read them and often connect with other stories I've read. If (as some people claim) there are only seven basic stories in the whole of world literature, it's perhaps not surprising that they are in dialogue with one another. I believe every story comes originally from somewhere else: a memory, a film, an article in a newspaper, a dream...
Q. ponceydog: Does it take you longer to think of a plot and write a new story, or longer to draw the illustrations?
A. Anthony: Well it varies a lot with each book. A story like Into the Forest was about 15 years in gestation, while Willy the Wimp arrived very quickly.
Q. Belligerentghoul: I have been on a couple of courses for secondary school teachers recently, where they have suggested using your books for secondary-aged pupils to analyse. What do you think of this?
A. Anthony: I'm delighted that my books are used in secondary schools. One of the messages I want to give as Children's Laureate is that picture books aren't just for very young children; they're for everyone.
Q. yellowkiwi: My five-year-old son would like to know how he could get you to come to his school?
A. Anthony: The best way at the moment is to get your son's teacher to write a very enthusiastic letter to the Booktrust at Book House, 45 East Hill, London SW18 2QZ. They handle all my school visits.
Q. Whosestandards: What do you think of current trends in picture books publishing and the picture-book market? What's positive in your eyes, and what's negative, and what would you like to see more of?
A. Anthony: I think that there are many brilliant new picture book illustrators in Britain at the moment, many of whom write their own stories too: Emily Gravett, Alexis Deacon, Mini Grey, Oliver Jeffers, Lauren Child, Polly Dunbar and Joel Stewart etc. The negative side is that picture books at the moment are too often thought of as only for very young children. Some parents are dragging their children away from picture books and straight into novels at an earlier and earlier age, with the mistaken belief that this will inevitably improve their children's education.