Silly Billy written and illustrated by Anthony Browne

Anthony Browne, current Children's Laureate of the United Kingdom, is an amazing artist and a creator of over 30 magical children's picture books. Like American author and illustrator Bill Peet, Browne has a few favorite subjects that appear in his books over and over again. Gorillas, chimpanzees, geometrically patterned clothing (usually a sweater vest) and visual references to famous artists such as Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and Rembrandt make up Browne's picture book world. Also ever present is the sometimes rocky, sometimes placid terrain of children's emotional landscape. Like Maurice Sendak, Anthony Browne is a master at capturing the intense emotions of childhood, from fear, anger, disappointment and feelings of abandonment to boundless joy and love. I think that so many picture book authors are afraid to touch upon what are often considered negative feelings in children yet these emotions are, as any parent of a toddler can tell you, often a daily experience, just as the positive emotions are.

And, like Sendak, Browne is also a master at portraying the imaginative interior lives of children. In his first book, Through the Magic Mirror, Browne introduces us to Toby who is "fed up with everything." When he wanders upstairs and looks it he mirror and sees his backside, he is puzzled. When he reaches out to touch the mirror, he reaches right through it and walks into a new and surreal world. When he returns home, he has a smile on his face and is ready to return to his old life and join is parents for tea. I can't tell you how many times my three kids, while under the age of six or so, have been frustrated (or worse, usually) and stomped off to their rooms to become absorbed, and calmed, by whatever imaginative play they end up pursuing. Gorilla, Browne's seventh book, published in 1983, probes beyond boredom to feelings of loneliness and not being understood. Hannah, the main character, is consumed with gorillas, and gorillas are scattered throughout the illustrations, almost like and I-Spy book. Browne will often repeat the theme of a book in his illustrations, my favorite being Piggybook, in which an overworked working mother who gets no help from her husband and sons leaves them. They can't take care of themselves in her absence and turn into pigs. Pigs are everywhere in the illustrations, from the wallpaper and newspaper to the flower in the husband's lapel and the badges on the boys' school blazers. In Gorilla, Hannah is often disappointed when her requests to go to the zoo and see the gorillas go unanswered. A toy gorilla she is given as a birthday gift becomes real, life sized and interested in being the father Hannah seems to be lacking.

With Silly Billy, Browne addresses the (sometimes exaggerated) fears that children have, beginning his book with the line, "Billy used to be a bit of a worrier." Billy worried about everything from hats, shoes and clouds to rain and giant birds. Both his parents tried to soothe and reassure him, but Billy still worried. One night, while sleeping over at his grandma's, Billy confides in her. Grandma says, "Well, my goodness, dear. You're not silly. When I was your age, I used to worry like that. I've got just the thing for you." She returns with Guatemalan Worry Dolls and tells Billy to share his worries with them then put them under his pillow and they will do the worrying for you.

Billy does this and has quite a few restful nights until he begins to worry about the burden he is placing in the worry dolls. It doesn't seem fair, he thinks. Browne resolves the problem in this way, "The next day Billy had an idea. He spent all day working at the kitchen table. It was difficult. At first he made lots of mistakes. He had to start again many times. But finally Bill produced something very special..."

Billy even makes worry dolls for his friends. And after that, Billy didn't worry much at all.

I think that Silly Billy is brilliant on so many levels. The simplicity of the story and the way Browne carefully but briefly and respectfully details Billy's anxieties is superb. The depth that he gives to Billy and his emotions by having him worry about the worry dolls acknowledges the profound nature of children's emotional lives while at the same time presenting nurturing, caring adults who try to help him through his problem. Finally, the ultimate solutions is also the one that comes from Billy himself, empowering him and all child readers. We love our children and we want to protect them, but often the best we can do is not enough. That is because the ultimate learning experience comes from doing, and Billy does.

Browne also has a fabulous book that he wrote after spending a year as the writer-and-illustrator-in-residence at the Tate Britain in London where he worked with a thousand children from inner-city schools, teaching literacy and using the resources of the museum. Of this year Browne says, "My job was to create a new book based on responses to works of art in the Tate collections, and to conduct workshops with the children and their teachers. I remember it as time that changed my life forever." The Shape Game follows a family, mother, father and two sons, as they visit the museum (the Tate Britain) as a birthday treat for mom. The family walks through the museum, looking at the artwork and trying to have a good time, trying to understand what they are seeing. Several pages include the reproductions of the actual works of art from the museum, the above picture shows the family looking at Sir John Everett Millais' The Boyhood of Raleigh, some with notations by Browne. The page opposite the above picture is Browne's rendition of the Millais' painting, but with the father and sons on a modern beach. Representing classical paintings in new ways is a specialty of Browne's. The game of the title appears at the end of the book when, after a visit to the gift shop the family leaves with a sketch book and blue and yellow pens. On the train ride home mom teaches the boys the shape game in which, "The first person draws a shape, any shape, it's not supposed to be anything, just a shape. Then the next person has to change it into something." The endpapers of the book are filled with examples of this game.
My Mom by Anthony Browne: Book CoverMy Dad by Anthony Browne: Book Cover
Browne also has two excellent books that exhibit his love of carrying a pattern throughout his illustrations, My Dad and My Mom, as well as his ever present love of family.

And, finally, Browne has a series of books starring Willy, the chimpanzee who is living in a "world of gorillas who are all stronger, more powerful and important than him. I think a lot of children identify with him because their lives are dominated by older siblings, parents,teachers, policemen and politicians. It seems quite a few adults feel this way too." The first four books follow Willy as he tries find his place in a world of gorillas. The last two books, Willy the Dreamer and Willy's Pictures, are gorgeous works of art, a continuation of Browne's skill at representing and mimicking great paintings. Gorillas, chimpanzees and bananas are strewn throughout the pages. And, best of all, at the end of Willy's Pictures there is a "tour of the pictures that inspired Willy" and Browne.

The cover of Willy's Pictures and Anthony Browne...

From Willy the Dreamer...



Jeremy said...

Too cool! We went through a big Anthony Browne stage when the girls were younger, and I had forgotten about these -- they'll be perfect for Ezra right now! Thanks for the reminder.

Tanya said...

Excellent! SILLY BILLY does the best job at addressing anxiety that I have seen in a picture book to date - I love Billy's solution to his worries...