Anthony Browne talks to Nikki Gamble about patterns and themes in his books on the occasion of the publication of his 50th book for children, Hide and Seek.

Interview transcript

Nikki Gamble (00:00):

First of all, Anthony, I want to congratulate you on the 50 books you’ve published. That’s quite an achievement.

Anthony Browne (00:10):

Thank you very much. 50 books just seems ridiculous, <laugh>, but I’m delighted to have made the 50.

Nikki Gamble (00:16):

It’s been a little while since we talked, the morning after the Laureate ceremony, I think. I remember playing the shape game with you. Being the Children’s Laureate was quite a commitment and a very intense period. And I wondered, in the time that’s passed since then, how easy or difficult it was to get back into a rhythm of work because there must have been a bit of a moratorium for those two years doing a different kind of work.

Anthony Browne (00:46):

I can’t remember what book I came back with after the Laureate, but I must have started one when I was doing it and carried on with that. So I don’t think there was a great hiatus before and after. I’m really pleased I did it, but it was a great relief just to get back to my normal routine. I’ve realized as I’ve got old, I am a man of routine, I hate that idea, actually. But I get up in the morning at the same time I go to work at the same time I come home for my lunch back in the afternoon. It’s more like office hours, really. And that helps me actually in a strange kind of way.

Nikki Gamble (01:20):

Has it always been like that? Or has that pattern kind of emerged over time?

Anthony Browne (01:28):

I’ve always had a kind of northern puritanism in that I feel I ought to be working, but work is what I enjoy doing. Work IS play for me. So there’s never a sense of, ‘Oh gosh, I’ve got to go to the studio again’. Occasionally I might wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh gosh, I’ve got to try and sort that picture out that I’m really struggling with’. It’s not fun. I don’t really like the word fun, but it’s enthralling. I feel so immersed in it. I sometimes say that working one day on a book is like a round in a boxing match. You know, a three-minute round or whatever, and at the end of the round, you’ve neither won nor lost. But you’re still conscious. It sometimes feels a bit like that. And then I’ll go back the next morning and realize that something either wasn’t as good as I thought it was or is better. I talk about it as though it’s easy sometimes, but it is not easy. It’s just what I have to do. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t make children’s picture books. If people stopped buying them, I’d probably still carry on doing them anyway.

Nikki Gamble (02:37):

50 books is a great opportunity to look back and see patterns and themes, and ideas that recur throughout your books.

Nikki Gamble (02:54):

I wondered if, first of all, we could talk a little bit about fairy tales. Ever since Hansel and Gretel, fairy tales have been a recurring idea. When did that emerge? Is it something from childhood, or is it when you were creating children’s picture books that you became interested in fairy stories?

Anthony Browne (03:16):

I think It was from my childhood. I don’t remember having picture books. Not what we think of as picture books now. I used to get annuals at Christmas, but the constant throughout my childhood was fairy tales. My parents did read me fairy tales, and I’m sure we talked about fairy tales. I used to get frightened by fairy tales but loved them. And that’s carried on. It’s just so much part of my work and my thoughts and feelings.

The fairy tales are still well known even now. Even though they weren’t particularly written for children, a lot of them. And they’ve lasted for a reason. And the reason is how powerful and strong the imagery is.

Anthony Browne (03:59):

So they have always been an inspiration to me. I used to think that one day I’d do a big book of fairy tales and illustrate them in my way. But I’ve always veered off. I started off with that in mind, and then Hansel and Gretel emerged a few years later. I tried to do a big book of Fairy Tales, and The Tunnel came out of it, and then later on, Into The Forest. So, it’s a strange thing that’s happened. Maybe I will never do a big book of fairy tales. Maybe I want to just concentrate on one at a time.

Nikki Gamble (04:33):

That’s interesting because I would love to see a big book of Anthony Browne’s Fairy Tales.

There’s a great deal of realism in your fairy tales, psychological realism. That’s evident through the symbolism that you use. You must be consciously putting that into the stories.

Anthony Browne (04:53):

It is now; when I was doing Hansel and Gretel, which was the first fairy tale I wrote, I didn’t really know how to do it. It was the first book that I hadn’t written for a start. It came about through talking to my editor (who in those days was Julia MacRae). I think she said, ‘Well, why don’t you just paint a picture that’s vaguely related to it?’ And I painted a picture of the family going out into the forest, and without consciously doing it, I dressed them in up-to-date clothing, or at least clothing from my own childhood. And somehow, it worked. It seemed to free me up from being influenced too much by all the other hundreds of versions that there have been of Hansel and Gretel – most of them rather pretty and beautiful and decorative.

Anthony Browne (05:42):

I’ve got nothing against that approach, but I wanted mine to be more real for children reading it now and real to my own childhood. I suppose that’s often what happens when I’m working on a book or trying to think of an idea for a book; it comes back to my own childhood. And yes, there were images in Hansel and Gretel that I can see related to the field at the back of the pub where we used to live, which was my brother’s and my playground. And it was full of places to hide, explore, or get wet in the river. And it was full of darkness and lightness. And it feels almost that that field was the world of fairytales that existed for me. I’ve since been back and discovered things that I had completely forgotten

Nikki Gamble (06:32):

I think, as well as psychological realism, there’s a social consciousness, certainly in Hansel, Gretel and Me and You. How much of that is part of your upbringing? And how much of it is a commentary on the world as it is today?

Anthony Browne (06:55):

I realize now that any book I have done is autobiographical. I certainly don’t set off to make a book about myself or my own feelings but that comes through. We’re influenced by other stories we’ve read, films we’ve seen, paintings, or other illustrations we’ve seen. I think that’s one of the influences on me –  what happened to me as a child. I was a lucky child. I grew up with very loving parents, perhaps a slightly overprotective mother, but very loving. And although we didn’t have much money, my brother and I were draw and make up stories. Although we were academically okay at school, we weren’t forced into going down the maths or science route. Whatever inspired us, we were encouraged to do. And so, I’ve always had a sympathy for the underdog, I suppose. And I think that comes out a lot in my work

Nikki Gamble (08:00):

Another thread that runs through some of your books is that they are overtly political with a small ‘p’ . Piggy Book and Zoo have a political motivation. And Voices In the Park as well. Do you think that this is good for young people? For children?

Anthony Browne (08:22):

That’s a difficult one to answer. Ultimately. I don’t know. I make the books that come through my years living as a human being through my interests, feelings, and politics. But it’s not in a conscious way. I don’t think, ‘Right, now I’m going do a book about Goldilocks, who is poor and Three Bears, who are rich’. That isn’t how I started with the original idea. In that particular case of Me and You, I’m wondering why we always think of Goldilocks as a great little girl because she’s broken into somebody’s house and stolen things. Maybe there’s another way of looking at it. Maybe there was a reason for that. Maybe there was a certain circumstance that led her to go into the house and led her to, to eat the food. And so these things come through. Like many of the details in the pictures, I don’t plan them necessarily beforehand. The funny little, strange little things that go on in the background come as I’m painting the pictures. And it’s the same with the themes of the books. I don’t start off thinking I’m going to do, a book about a loner little girl who hasn’t got a very good relationship with a father.

Nikki Gamble (09:40):

So, is that true also of Zoo? Because it’s quite hard for me to imagine that that was ever a book about anything other than being a commentary on the place of zoos in modern society.

Anthony Browne (09:53):

Absolutely, you’ve spotted my secret. You’re right. I made Zoo when my children were about seven and five. And we used to go to the zoo near where I lived. There are two, if I can use this word about zoos, very good zoos close by which have very good policies as far as zoos go. But they’re still zoos. And we used to go as a family and hear people mocking the animals, laughing at them, feeling superior to them. I also think that book relates to my art college project. I was a rather unsuccessful graphic design student who, for my final year’s show, made a project called Man Is An Animal.

Anthony Browne (10:42):

I was reading a lot of books about animal behaviour in those days. The Naked Ape was just one of them, the Desmond Morris book. So I’ve often made that connection. I don’t think humans are special creatures superior to the rest of the natural world. I mean, we are primates, after all. And I think it’s useful for us to remember that from time to time. So, I suppose it also relates to the underdog in that the minute we start feeling superior to other people, other countries, other races, other religions, or other species of animals, then I think we are really in trouble.

Nikki Gamble (11:28):

Talking about political themes and children’s books. Voices in the Park is a book that feels quite anti- middle-class book to me.

Anthony Browne (11:39):

No, it isn’t anti-middle class. I can see how it could be interpreted that way. And I think it’s probably one of the reasons why I changed the characters from humans to gorillas. I know the original A Walk in the Park was thought of as a book about class, and it probably was. The female gorilla is kind of posh and is a bit thoughtless about her child. But I think she’s struggling. I used to be criticized for how I treated men and/or fathers in my books. And I tend to try and defend them. The father in Zoo was trying to cope with being a father, and I think he found it difficult. And I think, in her case, she’s struggling to be a mother for whatever reason. That’s the danger of children’s books. Sometimes you make one character who isn’t very nice, and that character represents men or women or ginger-headed boys or whatever. We don’t do that with adult novels.

Nikki Gamble (12:42):

I think it’s interesting. I’m glad I asked you the question because I empathize with Charles’s mother. I hasten to add that I don’t identify with her, but I empathize with her.

Anthony Browne (12:54):

The father isn’t that great,

Nikki Gamble (12:56):

But we can feel sorry for him.

Anthony Browne

Yes, that’s true.

Nikki Gamble

In a way that we don’t feel sorry for the mother. Well, I do, but I think, by and large, people don’t. Returning to your point about characters standing in for the whole group, in a way, that’s what you said happens with Willie – he becomes universal. And maybe because you have chosen to make the characters primates, it makes it universal.

Anthony Browne (13:21):

Yes. I think that’s it. I suspect that’s one of the reasons I changed them. Although the change came just purely from trying to make the characters look more real instead of just types of people and changing the woman into a gorilla, I hoped it would get rid of that kind of cliche posh woman and working-class man. It obviously didn’t get rid of it completely, but I’d like to think maybe it slightly lessened it.

Nikki Gamble (13:47):

Well, you’ve taken us into the world of primates there. And, of course, it’s one of the things that, without a doubt, people associate with your books, chimpanzees, and gorillas. I wondered whether you know when a story will have human characters and when it will have primates.

Anthony Browne (14:06):

Well, I suppose the Willy books are the ones where I know what the characters will be.  I think I’ve done seven of them now. And they’re always about Willy, who was, as far as we know, a chimpanzee. But one of my favourite letters was from a boy who said, ‘Dear Anthony Browne, is Willy a real person or did you make him up?’’ And I thought that was just fantastic. I loved the idea that that child would think of Willy as a person. Certainly, whenever I used to go into schools and talk to children about Willy, I’d say,’ How old do you think he is?’ And whatever age group I was talking to, they’d usually say he’s around about their age. So he has been very useful in that. He is kind of universal. He’s popular in many different countries. And he’s called lots of different things in different countries.

Anthony Browne (14:52):

One of the books was going to be Willy, the Worrier. Understandably, Willy is a bit of a worrier. And I wanted to do a story about him when he was young. I wanted him to wear short trousers. I wore short trousers until I was quite old, and I was, and still am, to a certain extent, a worrier.  I was talked out of the idea when it was suggested that maybe this wasn’t another Willy book. Maybe it should be about a rabbit or another creature. And I couldn’t understand why. Obviously, Willy would be a worrier, and I’d drawn him as a worrier in the dummy. I went home, and I started playing around with him.

Anthony Browne (15:36):

And gradually, the opposite of Voices in the Park happened. I turned Willy into a little boy. But I parted his hair in the middle. He had rather large ears. He walked with his shoulders hunched. He had a Fair Isle sweater, rather similar to Willy’s. And, of course, I called him Billy, and this book became Silly Billy. So I think many people probably realize that that’s either a story about Willy or one very much influenced by him. So that was strangely the other way around.

Anthony Browne (16:33):g

The older my children have become, the less easy it is to find a model on which I can base the drawings. When my children were young, they appeared in many of my books. So, if a story comes along and it’s about children, I think, ‘Should I try and do non-descript children, almost graphic design children, or children that we know aren’t meant to look real? Or do I struggle with the drawing to try and get the elbow right and the angle of the shoulder right? Or shall I ask somebody if I can photograph their children?’ It’s not easy. Maybe as my grandchildren get older, I can use them.

Nikki Gamble (17:16):

That’s interesting. You’ve talked about Willy being a worrier, and a lot of your lone boys are anxious.

Anthony Browne (17:40):

I wasn’t a lonely boy. I had my brother. We were incredible because we were best friends. I remember my closest friends at school generally might be regarded as the ‘odd boys’ – the boys who didn’t fit in, boys who weren’t very good at sport, for instance. And I was. So it wasn’t as though I had much in common with them, but I found myself gravitating towards and socializing with them rather than with  ‘in crowd’ as I thought. I suspect that probably is why I’m still doing lonely children.

Nikki Gamble (18:18)

There are trademark things about your books that make them recognizably Anthony Browne books. But over time, you can see that you’ve experimented. Into the Forest was the first time you used an en grisaille technique to depict the forest using greys and whites. In Willy’s Pictures and Willy’s Stories, the idea is that a book doesn’t have a sequential narrative but still manages to tell a story. These are new ways of playing with the picture book format. I just wondered, after producing 50 books, how you keep making it fresh, exciting and interesting for yourself?

Anthony Browne (19:06):

It is something I’m aware of. I would hate to be thought of as somebody who just keeps churning the same old stuff out until nobody wants to see it anymore. But also, I want to go into the studio every morning with something fresh and new. So that anything can happen. And it’s one of the reasons when I make a preparatory drawing for a final page. It’s usually quite simple because I like to leave spaces to develop things in the background or even develop a picture’s theme. I might not have even planned what the feeling will be, who I’m going to concentrate on, or which expression the character will have. I like to leave it until I’m painting the finished picture so that, in one way, helps to keep it fresh.

Anthony Browne (19:55):

I suppose when we make picture books, it’s partly for children and it’s partly for ourselves. And I think if I was to make a book which was too similar to what I’d done before, I would not have the enthusiasm. It would be a mechanical process of me going through the motions of making another children’s picture book. But if there are possibilities for new techniques, new media I can use, then it keeps me interested. And there’s some danger to it in that I don’t know quite how it’s going to turn out. For instance, back in the studio, I’ve been trying to make a drawing of a girl drawing on the condensation formed on a window.

Anthony Browne (20:39):

It’s the hardest picture I’ve ever come across in my life. How do you draw condensation with a drawing of a finger going through? I mean, of course, yes, you could take a photograph, but even then, to paint that from a photograph has been so difficult. So I like setting myself difficult things to do. Not deliberately; it happened to be part of the story. And when I wrote that part of the story, I wasn’t thinking. ‘how am I going to draw that?’

Nikki Gamble (21:16):

You talked about trying new media. What sort of new media have you found yourself experimenting with?

Anthony Browne (21:25):

When I made Willy’s Stories, a series of pictures based on the favourite classic books that Willy remembers from his own childhood (which is probably a version of the books I remember of my own childhood), I wanted the pictures to look solidly real, like the oil paintings from an illustrator I remember from my childhood, N C Wyeth of Treasure Island, and Robinson Crusoe fame. He painted great big oil paintings. And I thought that watercolour wouldn’t be able to do this. There is a liveliness, and a wateriness to watercolour, but a thinness. And I wanted these to be heavy, solid-looking images. So I tried to experiment with thick gouache. That was a very different look for me. And it was difficult because to physically apply gouache onto the paper is far more difficult. Watercolour flows over the paper. With gouache, you’ve got to push it and pull it to get the different colours to merge into each other in a smooth look. That was a challenge and not wholly successful. But I still like the book, and I enjoyed the process

Anthony Browne (22:23):

When I came to do Into The Forest, I was thrown by the idea of all the details – all the detailed colours in a forest.  I thought, ‘How long will it take me to paint a double-page spread set in the forest with leaves, trees and branches everywhere? To not only deal with the structure of the drawing or the textures but also with colour.

Anthony Browne (23:06):

So that was part of the reason Into The Forest was in black and white. Of course, I used the black and white pictures to represent part of the boy’s imagination and the fact that fairy tales influenced him, but it was a practical thing as well.

And Hide and Seek I felt had to be in colour, but I developed a new approach to doing children’s books. I’ve got to a certain age where I don’t need to rush. I don’t need to do a book a year. And so I started going to the studio and trying to treat each picture as if I was a painter going into the studio, with the mindset, I’m going to paint this picture, and it will take as long as it takes. And that freed me up to get involved with the techniques. And of course, because it would be a book about having lots of things hidden, there would be lots of details and colour to help hide the detail sometimes. That new approach was quite liberating.

Nikki Gamble (24:12):

We have got to talk about Hide and Seek. For the 50th book, did you have in mind that you wanted to do something to mark it, or was this just the next book that you were working on? Tell us a little about it and how the idea came to you.

Anthony Browne (24:32):

I had no idea that it was my 50th book <laugh>. I was vaguely aware that I’d done 40-odd books.

Now the idea for Hide and Seek came from talking to my editor. She said one of the things that she particularly liked about my books and that I obviously liked doing was this idea of hiding and revealing things behind other things that you might not notice at first. And we’d also been talking about fairy tales. But somewhere between those two bits of conversation, I remembered the thrill of playing hide and seek with my brother. It was always kind of joyful but frightening at the same time.  I  remembered as soon as I started hiding, I desperately needed to pee.

Anthony Browne (25:27):

It’s got a beginning, a middle, and an end like the best stories have. And I started to think about how I could use that with my visual way of telling stories. The forest is based on a forest that I go to now. And it’s the most special, exciting place. Every time I go there, whatever time of year, it is stunning. It’s got the most theatrical feel.

I once went to a film studio in America where they were filming a Roald Dahl story. The whole set was a forest that looked pretty real – heightened reality. And that’s what this forest reminds me of. It is such a heightened reality that it’s almost not real. And, of course, you can’t help but play the shape game because there are so many shapes and things in the distance. As I get older, my eyesight gets less good.  I’m even better at playing the shape game because things turn into other things. I just thought this was the perfect place to have this story. So many of the pages in the book are based on drawings made in the forest.

Nikki Gamble (26:40):

I’m pleased to hear you talk about the forest in that way because as I was reading Hide and Seek, looking at the images, it felt like a hymn to a forest. And you’ve given your readers a good idea of the concept of what a forest is,

Nikki Gamble

I’m surprised; I thought you probably knew this was your 50th book. So it is interesting that when I approached reading it, I had that in mind. It made me think about everything from your previous books that were coming together. But actually, it might not have been conscious.

Anthony Browne (27:15):

No, it wasn’t. But you’re right. They do all come together,  all the themes apart from gorillas or primates.  Well, of course, the primates are two children. But I don’t believe there’s any gorilla hidden in that forest.

Nikki Gamble (27:27):

Is that a challenge?

Anthony Browne (27:29):

Yes! Yo be quite honest, I can’t remember. I tried not to put any gorillas in, but I might have. The little evil side of me might have said,”I’ll just put this little one in here. Nobody will see that.’

Nikki Gamble (27:41):

<Laugh> These children also remind me of Hansel and Gretel. How you’ve painted the characters takes us back to that book.

Anthony Browne (27:51):

Yes, I think, I think it probably does. I wanted to try and give an impression of the relationship between the girl and the boy by how they spoke to each other.

So maybe it is my last book. Maybe I’ve done it all. <Laugh>.

Nikki Gamble (28:13):

No, definitely not!

If I can skip to the end of Hide and Seek, there’s a surprise for the reader. And because we’re not talking to children, I don’t feel too concerned about giving away surprises. But these children live in a caravan, or they’re on holiday.  I took it that they lived in a caravan in the forest.

Anthony Browne (28:38):

Well, because I painted the picture and wrote the story, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I know whether they live there or are on holiday.

Nikki Gamble (28:47):

There is not anything like enough stories about people who have alternative lifestyles. So, it was a real joy for me to turn that page And see that hidden reveal.

Anthony Browne (28:58):

As is the building in the background near where they were.

Nikki Gamble (29:08):

The high-rise block of flats reminded me of the final scene in Zoo. The cityscape and the contrast.

Anthony Browne (29:19):


Nikki Gamble (29:20):

Your work in the past has been influenced by art. I know that it’s something you feel passionate about. Does your experience with fine art continue to bring fresh ideas to your work?

Anthony Browne (29:42):

Yes, I think so. I’ve often said I’m probably more influenced by painters than other illustrators. Although I look at other illustrators’ work and admire many illustrators, and don’t see a huge difference between illustrators and painters. I don’t see this dividing line which the cultural world seems to put up. But yes, going to an exhibition of paintings is one of the joys of my life, a bit like going to a forest.

Nikki Gamble (30:11):

You have talked about how you came to children’s book illustration via mortuary art, medical illustration and greetings cards. Today, many courses exist to train young people to become illustrators and indeed to become illustrators of children’s books or even undergraduate courses on children’s book illustration. Do you sometimes wonder what it might have been like if you hadn’t fallen into this world of children’s book illustration? Where would you have gone with your art?

Anthony Browne (30:48):

I dread to think. I did twice try to become an art teacher. I went to Goldsmiths for half a day. But I realized I was going on the course for the wrong reason. I was thinking I could be an art teacher because it would give me time and space to paint my own pictures. And that probably isn’t the best reason to become a teacher.

Nikki Gamble (31:12):

We can’t imagine you as anything other than a children’s book Illustrator, Anthony. And Looking ahead, is a new book in the offering?

Anthony Browne (31:23):

Yes. the book I’m working on a book at the moment, which is based on the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. It’s based on a story she told about herself when she was six or seven. And I’ve tried to relate that story to the rest of her life in a way. So it is basically about her when she was a little girl. And it’s proving one of the hardest books I’ve ever worked on.

Nikki Gamble (31:49):

I know you’ve been to Mexico quite a lot. Did that interest in Frida Kahlo’s work come from there?

Anthony Browne (31:55):

Yes, very much so. I’ve been to the Frida Kahlo Museum three times now. And although I can’t pretend she’s one of my favourite artists, or even, dare I say, she’s probably not a great artist, but I find the whole package, her story, her pain, her suffering, her paintings, her relationships with people, her politics fascinating. And the book is quite difficult because it’s the first book I’ve ever written that’s very obviously about somebody else.

Nikki Gamble (32:29):

I think you have painted her before. Didn’t you paint her self-portrait in Willie’s Pictures?

Anthony Browne (32:34):

Well, remembered. Yes, I did. Her estate was one of two estates that said I was allowed to do that. One of the paintings that I did could not be used. Of course, she loved monkeys too. So, I’m finding all sorts of similarities. She longed to fly. She had the idea that she wanted to fly, and so she wanted a toy plane for her birthday. But when she woke up on the morning of her birthday, she found that all her parents had given her was a pair of straw wings. Now that reminds me very much of the little girl in Gorilla, who reminded me of myself when I asked for a trumpet and was given a plastic toy trumpet. So, I’m finding all sorts of connections, which is helping to make the book more personal.

Nikki Gamble (33:22):

I think we’re going to enjoy it very much when it arrives. And I think it’d be lovely for the many fans you’ve had in Mexico for many years. I know. Who keep inviting you back there to see something of their art and culture. In your books, I know that Hide and Seek is going to be hugely enjoyed by lots of children, just as I enjoyed it. And thank you so much for talking to me today.

Anthony Browne (33:47):

Thank you, Nikki. Thank you very much.

About Hide and Seek

When their dog goes missing, Cy and Poppy play hide and seek to distract themselves. Poppy counts to ten and looks for Cy – but she can’t find him anywhere.

But then there’s a rustling from the woods – maybe someone else can help her find him.?A reassuring tale of sibling love by the master Anthony Browne