Anthony Browne: Biography, Facts & Books

Instructor: Colleen Bramucci

Colleen has taught secondary school and has a master's degree in teaching.

In this lesson, you will learn about British writer and picture book illustrator, Anthony Browne. We will explore some of his well-known titles and common characteristics of his work.

Just for Kids?

When we think about picture books, we tend to think of very young children sitting by their parents' sides or perhaps squirming a bit on a storytime rug at the local library. The adult reader could probably breeze through most picture books in just a few short minutes -- a relief to many parents whose children beg for just 'one more book' during the bedtime routine. But in doing so, we are doing a great disservice to the children and to high-quality picture books themselves. In fact, picture book illustrator and author Anthony Browne would have us believe that picture books are actually for all of us, regardless of our age. Everyone can enjoy, and learn to appreciate, the elegant art and deeper meaning of many picture books. Anthony Browne's body of work -- with its visual jokes, vivid watercolors, and photograph-like realism combined with elements of surrealism -- is a great place to start.

Anthony Browne
Anthony Browne

Early Life

Born in Yorkshire, England, in 1946, Anthony Browne loved art from the time he was a young boy. He hoped to translate that passion into a career, obtaining a degree in graphic arts from Leeds Art College 1967, then working as a medical illustrator for three years. Browne says that his work illustrating the insides of human bodies during surgeries and other procedures was greater artistic training than he received in school; through his detailing of medical procedures by drawing representations of organs, muscles, and the like, Browne learned to be precise while telling a story. Later, he moved onto illustrating greeting cards for 15 years before trying his hand at illustrating children's books.

Browne's first book, Through the Magic Mirror (1976), did well enough for Browne to continue in the field, with A Walk in the Park debuting in 1977. But, Browne's breakthrough success came in 1983 with the publication of Gorilla.

Gorilla

Gorilla impresses the reader/viewer with life-like watercolors while telling a sweet and fantastical story. In the book, a young girl named Hannah longs to see her favorite animal, a gorilla, in real life. Her room and home are peppered with gorillas -- on her bedside lamp and as a stand-in for the Mona Lisa in a framed piece of art -- yet she has never actually seen a real one. Her father, a workaholic who spends no meaningful time with his daughter, is always too busy or too tired to do anything with her.

Browne portrays the pair's distant relationship not only through the words, but also through the illustrations. In one illustration, Hannah and her father are sitting at the breakfast table together, but her father is busy reading the newspaper. Browne's depiction gives us a real sense of the frustration that Hannah must feel.

Hannah finds a stuffed gorilla at the foot of her bed, and this gorilla magically grows and becomes real at nighttime. They have an adventure; they go to the zoo to see Hannah's beloved gorillas, watch a movie, and eat at a restaurant. The gorilla wears her father's coat and hat, a stand-in for her tuned-out father. All of their time together is portrayed in dream-like images, with touches of humor (such as the gorilla's red polka-dotted bowtie) that emphasize the happiness Hannah is finally experiencing. The following morning, Hannah is surprised when her real father has remembered her birthday and asks if she would like to go to the zoo with him.

Why So Many Gorillas?

Anthony Browne often uses gorillas in his picture books. Sometimes they are a stand-in for human beings, such as with Voices in the Park (1997). In this book, four characters -- an upper-class mother and her son and a working-class father and his daughter -- are each depicted as gorillas. Each character has the chance to tell his or her own version of the brief interaction they have with one another in the park one afternoon, revealing their own emotions and prejudices.

Browne has said he likes to include gorillas because he finds them fascinating: on one hand, they are enormous, intimidating beasts, while on the other, they are gentle and soulful. Another possible reason for the frequency of gorillas is that Browne sees a similarity between gorillas and his own father, who died suddenly when Browne was only 17 years old. He has described his father as an outwardly confident and strong man who was also gentle and sensitive and even sometimes shy. The use of gorillas also allows Browne a way to include many visual jokes in his books. In Gorilla, gorillas decorate Hannah's birthday cake in one of the final scenes, and gorillas also appear as topiaries in the garden while Hannah dances with her gorilla friend.

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