As we continue to celebrate the peculiar and the odd in children’s literature, we give you more picture books by one of the masters of the surreal, Anthony Browne.
Willy the Dreamer
Story and Illustrations By: Anthony Browne
Publisher: Walker Books, 1997
Book borrowed from the public library. Book photos taken by me.
I must have spent nearly an hour just studying the images and marveling at the amazingly-surreal quality of this picture book. Willy, this cute little chimp is shown in the first page of the book, sitting on a couch, dreaming. With very sparse text, this is a book that would appeal to both very young children and the older readers for its intertextuality and the concealed literary allusions as each page bursts with so much visual wit and pun.
The story appears simple and straightforward enough with Willy dreaming that he was a film star (odd characters from the Wizard of Oz and Chaplin-esque allusions are evident – chimp-style) or a singer (cue in Hound Dog Elvis with a banana for his microphone).
One of the lovely things that my eleven year old daughter and I did as we were reading this book was to quickly locate as many bananas as we can in each page – they are strategically angled as a ballet dancer’s bright yellow shoe, or banana-shaped fishes, or even brilliantly positioned as the grin from Alice’s Cheshire cat – all woven into what Willy dreams of being.
This book is truly a celebration of how illustrations can provide multiple layers to the narrative – raising it to a different level of storytelling altogether. It is visual art at its finest, allowing young readers to develop their eye for detail, and the young artist to go crazy over the myriad of possibilities when it comes to drawing, sketching, illustrating.
While it can be argued that young children may not really understand the connections to, say, Dali like the picture shown above on the left side of the book with The Persistence of Memory (see below)
I like the fact that young readers are introduced to images that are neither commonplace nor trite. The illustrations are not literal nor hackneyed permutations of the text. They elevate the narrative – engaging the reader further and deeper into the book. Anthony Browne literally draws you into his world, daring you to look at the world differently. More importantly, this book is a celebration of everything that a young child can become and more – all one needs to do is dream.
For teachers who wish to use this in the classroom, here is a free downloadable pdf link created by Museum Wales with help from Jo Bowers and Mark Charman, a 22-paged learning resource that includes possible discussion questions and art activities.
Story and Illustrations by: Anthony Browne
Publisher: Walker Books, 2000.
Book borrowed from the public library. Book photos were taken by me.
This picture book takes us even deeper into the world of visual art and paintings – Willy style and with a distinct chimp-twist that is utterly delightful in its exuberance and brilliance. The book begins with a portrait of Willy creating art:
Willy likes painting and looking at pictures. He knows that every picture tells a story.
As the reader flips through the pages, one gets to see Willy’s portfolio as inspired by various masterpieces from the world over. There are familiar ones such as the Da Vinci’s Monalisa and Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam – but Anthony Browne has introduced a dash of the surreal, a touch of the peculiar.
Rather than a running storyline, Willy’s masterpieces have catchy labels and very short descriptions that engage the reader to be part of the story, leaving bits and pieces here and there to serve as visual codes and clues.
Not only does Anthony Browne alter the very core of the painting (while retaining enough details for it to bear a passing resemblance to the original), he also throws in elements from other paintings into the mix – creating an unparalleled visual feast. Teachers would be very happy to note that the book comes with a spread of the original paintings at the very end along with short commentaries and anecdotes about the artist or how the artwork was created.
There is even a challenge posed by Anthony Browne to the young reader as he noted that there are occasions when only a tiny part of the original painting shows up in Willy’s portfolio. It actually reminded me a little bit of Australian book artist Graeme Base as he also plays around with visual imagery and weaves clues and witticisms into his illustrations. This book is once again a celebration of the most minute detail without losing sight literally of the bigger picture and how they all come together. For educators who wish to use this in the classroom, here is a very detailed teaching guide (free downloadable pdf link) created by Bridget Carrington that includes possible topics for discussion and creative projects that can be initiated amongst the students. I would even go as far as claim that each spread can be an entire unit in itself – there is so much to absorb, codes to unpack and layers to explore in Browne’s artwork. More than anything, I feel that it also shows a deep respect for children’s capacity and genius with the knowledge that this integration of surreal artwork in picture books is perfectly manageable and can be celebrated – freeing one’s spirit, giving space for our dreams to breathe and come to life once again.
Read-a-Latte Challenge: 78, 79 of 150