The surreal thing

Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne tells Andy Murray why an exhibition of his work is always a humbling experience

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If you’re unfamiliar with the world of the modern children’s picture book, you might not think that you’re missing much: undemanding tales of cute talking animals conveying heavy-handed life lessons – that sort of thing. And yes, plenty of books just like that do exist, but such generalisations reckon without the work of truly great writer-illustrators like Anthony Browne.

Born in Sheffield in 1946, Browne has written a string of striking and memorable children’s books, all rendered in beautiful, vivid, surreal imagery. His breakthough book was 1983’s Gorilla – his use of gorillas as characters is a regular motif. Voices In The Park recounts a leafy day out from four conflicting perspectives, like Rashomon for nippers as illustrated by Magritte. The likes of Into The Forest and The Tunnel are equally as bold, and in 1994 he created an exquisite picture-book retelling of King Kong.

Now Browne will be celebrated in a career-spanning retrospective exhibition in Newcastle. The prospect of this clearly delights him.

“I’ve actually had lots of big exhibitions in different countries, like South America and France and Korea. I was starting to feel a bit like one of those people who are appreciated everywhere else except their own country, so it was really nice to hear that they were going to do one! I’m particularly pleased that the exhibition’s in the north and not, as nearly everything else is, in London.”

The picture-book as we know it didn’t really exist during Browne’s own childhood, so he grew up reading established favourites like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Hansel And Gretel. Another touchstone for him was Ken Reid’s 1950 comic-strip annual Fudge In Toffee Town.

“In Toffee Town, everything was made of sweets and chocolate and cake and the rivers were lemonade. I just thought that sounded absolutely wonderful.”

If there’s a common thread here, it’s that Browne had a penchant for stories of a surreal nature – something that’s always been evident in his own work.

“The one childhood drawing of mine that my mother kept was of my legs walking along – and there’s a pirate in the shoe, and a couple of pirates climbing up my legs. I must have been doing a picture and decided it was boring, so I just put a pirate in, and suddenly that transformed everything. That’s surrealism, of course. I had no idea what surrealism was, but it is a surrealist drawing.”

Aside from the retrospective exhibition, he’s recently written an illustrated memoir entitled Playing The Shape Game. Currently he holds the honorary post of Children’s Laureate, and in this capacity has written pieces advocating early literacy for everything from The Guardian to The Sun. Is there a part of him that looks forward to the day when he can slope off, lock the door, and concentrate on his work?

“Yes, yes there is. I have to stress that it’s been fantastic, and if I was asked to do the Laureateship again knowing what I know now I’d still happily do it, just for all the benefits there have been, in terms of promoting picture books and looking at kids’ creativity. But you choose to be a writer because you like to sit in a room quietly and draw and write, and I am looking forward to getting back to that.”

At the start of his career Browne had to defend the degree of sophistication he wanted to bring to his books, but he was unwavering in the belief that his young readership were up to the task.

“Children are capable of so much more than most grown-ups think: of understanding more, of noticing more, of being aware of more. I think all children are surrealists.”

Through the Magic Mirror: The World of Anthony Browne, Seven Stories Gallery, Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle, 9 April 2011 – 14 March 2012

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