Magic in the Mundane: A Glimpse at the Picture-Book Art of Anthony Browne

by | Nov 7, 2018 | IBBYLink Summer 2018

1. Copyright © 1983 Anthony Browne, GORILLA by Anthony Browne. Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Ltd, London SE11 5HJ,

Ian Dodds

Take a look at almost any of Anthony Browne’s picture books and they begin with a single image of a child – human or ape. They are seemingly alone although the images hint at the potential for escape and friendship through the power of imagination.

In Gorilla (1983) Hannah sits cross-legged on the floor reading a book about her beloved animal – an ape-like shadow on the wall snuggled beside her (illus. 1). In Willy the Wimp (1984) a downcast Willy walks along the street accompanied by an annoying housefly. In The Tunnel (1989) the sister sits reading on a window ledge surrounded by subtle clues to the fairy story she is about to enter: a black cat in the window opposite; the creeping vines of the wallpaper; and pointed witches hats formed from chimney pots and visible in the gaps between curtains.

Escape from loneliness is a continual theme in Browne’s picture books; as are absent fathers, disconnected families and longed-for friendships. These themes are reinforced by the domesticity of his picture-book settings. His kitchens and bedrooms, streets and parks, are familiar to us; however, it is not always the cosy domesticity we expect, and neither are they the cosy family relationships we have come to know in picture-book fiction. In fact, they are often uncomfortable spaces, tinged with unhappiness and the threat of menace to come. This undercurrent of darkness and Browne’s deftness to deal with complex and difficult themes permeates his art and arguably gives his picture books their enduring appeal.

Children are more than capable of coping with all kinds of stories; it’s adults who are threatened by the darkness in children’s books. But it has a place: an essential place. If we insist on telling children that everything in the garden is lovely, we are doing them a disservice. (Browne, 2009a).


2. Copyright © Anthony Browne 1981, HANSEL AND GRETEL by Anthony Browne. Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Ltd,
In Hansel and Gretel (1981) the dining room is a scene of family despair (illus. 2). The father and children sit slumped at the table with no contact or affection between them. Their stepmother sits away from them starring into the distance. The room is shabby. The naked lightbulb, stained carpet, damp ceiling, peeling wallpaper and discarded doll highlight, not only the family’s straightened circumstances, but also their dysfunctional relationships. This is reinforced in the perspective Browne has taken. The room is boxed in and claustrophobic. The walls appear to be closing in, stifling the space, and there are prison-like bars on the chairs and wall that emphasise the oppression we are led to experience. But there are also visual hints at hope through escape: the airplane soaring away on the television set; the bird-like stain in flight on the ceiling; the rolling red ball; even a copy of William Holman Hunt’s allegorical painting The Light of the World (1854) discreetly hanging on the wall. The subtlety of these visual clues sewn into the fabric of our first impression is what entices our creative mind to explore theillustration.

Meaning-laden visual clues are a signature in Browne’s picture books.

I see Hansel and Gretel as a breakthrough book for me, and one of the reasons is because I started to apply meaning in the hidden details. Whereas in previous books I had treated them as little more than doodles in the background, in Hansel and Gretel I employed them as subtle aids in telling the story. Not only do they re- enforce the main narrative; they also offer an insight into extra narrative information that isn’t expressed in the text. (Browne, 2009a)

3. Copyright © Anthony Browne 1981, HANSEL AND GRETEL by Anthony Browne. Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Ltd,
We best see this as the stepmother in Hansel and Gretel prepares to wake the children (illus 3). The shadow on the wall behind her is extended by the gap in the curtains so that it appears as if she is wearing a pointed hat. This hat image links her to the witch that the children later encounter in the story. It is repeated several times: the shadow above the chest-of-drawers; the steeple of the church in the picture on the wall; the mouse hole in the skirting board; and the unexplained object on top of thewardrobe.

These visual clues rely on us having cultural knowledge and competence in other texts and discourses: fairy tales, fine art, cinema and comic books. Browne’s illustrations are accessible on a number of levels, but place some reliance on the audience’s inter- textual competence to understand the visual clues that he carefully and deliberately places there. Fairy-tale motifs are particularly important in his work. They are amongst the cultural currencies that are more likely to be grasped by children and deliver the elements of darkness that he so enjoys. Such references are spread throughout Into the Forest (2004), which tells the story of a boy anxious to be reunited with his father (illus. 4). Black and white illustrations are used for the forest scenes where he meets a cast of fairy-tale characters. The characters are all notable for their absent fathers: Jack, Goldilocks, Hansel and Gretel. Other fairy-tale images are woven into the black- and-white images that heighten the fear and anxiety we share with the boy as he makes his quest to his grandmother’s cottage. In one image the twining branches of a tree incorporate a pumpkin, a spinning wheel and Rapunzel’s tower alongside other fairy-tale objects placed there to prompt us to look more carefully and search for inter-textual meaning.

4. Copyright © 2004 Anthony Browne, INTO THE FOREST by Anthony Browne. Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Ltd,
It is the juxtaposition of familiar domestic experiences with magical images that is intriguing. This is not magic in the sense of spells and dragons; rather, it is a magical realism where magic simply exists, occurring quite naturally without reason or explanation on the page, and in the midst of mundane and everyday events. The magical visual references work to expand Browne’s linear narratives. They blur the lines between what is real and unreal and what is explicable and inexplicable so that we are helped to see new, creative and exciting opportunities for his characters. Browne encourages us to accept the magic, to look for it in our everyday experiences, and believe in it without question.

This type of magical realism has its roots in folklore and fairy tale. It has its genus in South America where it was a device used by writers and artists struggling against oppressive and despotic regimes. The magic opposed a reality that the writer or artist found unsatisfactory, restrictive or uncomfortable and which needed to be disrupted. This desire is clearly replicated in Browne’s work: we see it in the struggle to escape an oppressive family in Hansel and Gretel or to reignite a loving family relationship in Gorilla. It is a central theme in Voices in the Park (1998) which is itself are working of an earlier Browne book, A Walk in the Park (1977). In the book Charles and his mother take a walk in the park with their pedigree Labrador, Victoria. There they share a bench with a young girl called Smudge, her father and their mongrel dog, Albert. The two families are from different backgrounds. We are shown this not only in the names they are given, their dress and body language, but also in the colour palettes, tones and fonts that Browne uses to voice each character. Charles is lonely, living a sheltered and restricted existence under the control of his mother. He wears a buttoned-up duffle coat and is most often seen standing in his mother’s shadow. Her hat is ever-present in the grey clouds, the shape of a leafless tree, and on the tops of the lampposts that line the path that Charles seems unable to leave.

The oppressive regime that Charles wishes to escape is his overbearing mother. The hope of such an escape for Charles (even for a short while) comes in the form of Smudge. She has the freedom and joie de vivre that Charles wants, and Browne shows us this in the magical images with which he surrounds her. They appear without reason and explanation to signal the new and exciting possibilities to come. A streetlight becomes a snowdrop breaking through the harsh concrete pavement; juicy oranges, apples and pears replace the leafless trees; and the tops of the lampposts shift from sinister hats to cherry-topped fairy cakes.

Central to these magical illustrations is the desire for and achievement of change. This is only hinted at for Charles.

I’m good at climbing trees, so I showed her how to do it. She told me her name was Smudge – a funny name, I know, but she’s quite nice. Then Mummy caught us talking together and I had to go home. Maybe Smudge will be there next time?

All that is left of their joyful encounter is a red flower that Charles gives to Smudge. We know that the flower will eventually fade, but the magical touches in the final illustration gives us hope that this will not be their last time together in the park.

The potential for change and the whole transformative process is a significant element in Browne’s illustrations and magic realist approach. His illustrations guide us to better understand his characters’ changing views, wishes and feelings, and prompt an emotional response from us. We see this first in Piggybook (1986) where the roses on the wallpaper gradually morph into pig faces as Mr. Piggot and his two sons become greedier and more chauvinistic towards their mother; but it is perhaps best seen in Changes (1990) where Joseph must come to terms with the addition of a new baby sister to the family.

That morning his father had gone to fetch Joseph’s mother. Before leaving, he’s said that things were going to change.

5. Copyright © 1990 Anthony Browne, CHANGES by Anthony Browne. Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Ltd,
The primary marker for change is the introduction of unusual or surreal images in place of Joseph’s familiar domestic surroundings. The change is gradual. The kettle grows the ears and tail of a cat; the bathroom sink spouts a nose and a mouth; the sofa transforms into a crocodile (illus. 5); and the armchair morphs into a gorilla. The effect is to unsettle us and to encourage an empathy with the anxiety Joseph is surely feeling about the anticipated change about to happen to his family life. Once his parents arrive home again and introduce him to the baby, the magical elements disappear and the illustrations return to domestic realism, reassuring us that Joseph’s anxiety was only a temporary response and normality has resumed.

What Changes also includes is Browne’s trademark references to fine art and in particular his nods to the Surrealist art of Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. Surrealist interest in the marvellous appearing in everyday life, and the transformation that comes from seeing things in different ways, are commonplace in his books.

I believe children see through surrealist eyes: they are seeing the world for the first time. When they see an everyday object for the first time, it can be exciting and mysterious and new. (Browne, 2009a)

Socks hanging on a washing line are transformed into a Dalí-esque animal skull; a hosepipe becomes an elephant’s trunk; a scrubbing brush becomes a hedgehog; and a plant pot develops a bird-like beak. Similarly, Magritte’s bowler-hatted men are found throughout Browne’s picture books from early works, such as Through the Magic Mirror (1976) on to the award-winning Zoo (1992) and beyond — at least until the Magritte estate intervened following the publication of Willy the Dreamer (1997) and told him to stop. In earlier works, the images tend to appear in the foreground or the background without meaning; but in later books their inclusion points to the sub- textual narrative of the story.

I want my books to have a point and so I try to use the transformations or strange happenings to try to tell us something that the words don’t. (Browne, 2010).

6.  Copyright © 1989 Anthony Browne, THE TUNNEL by Anthony Browne. Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Ltd,
Sometimes the inclusion of these fine art references are upfront, like the bowler- hatted men; in other cases they are more oblique.  Through the Magic Mirror is based on Magritte’s portrait Not to be Reproduced (1937), which depicts a man looking into a mirror and seeing the back of his head. A similar Magritte reference drives the narrative of The Tunnel, in which Rose travels with her brother through a tunnel to reach a fantasy world (illus. 6). Reassuringly, the images depict Browne’s trademark fairy-tale references: Rose wears a red-hooded coat; there is a woodcutter’s axe; and a wolf is distinguishable in the gnarled wood of a tree. Rose uses her fairy-tale knowledge to survive the forest and rescue her brother who has been turned into stone. What is much less obvious is that the image of the petrified brother is a reference to Magritte’s painting The Song of the Violet (1951) and his vision of a silent world in which all humans have been turned to stone. This is unexplained and unnecessary to our understanding and enjoyment of the story – but is silently and magically there.

That we may not understand the hidden meaning of these fine art or cultural motifs does not mean that they do not communicate something to us; nor does it diminish the power and enjoyment of the story. For those of us who derive additional meaning from his images, Browne’s magical touches allow for a fuller and more challenging reading of the book. For us all, the magical realism of his artwork encourages us to embrace a new way of looking and seeing. He creates a careful path in his illustrations that steers us through the narrative but which also teases us, like Charles in Voices in the Park, to venture from the path, to free our imaginations and look creatively, so that we become more curious as readers, become more skilful at questioning, and more adept at walking a little way in somebody else’s shoes.

The best picture books are ones that leave a gap between the pictures and the words – a gap that is filled by the reader’s imagination. (Browne, 2009b)


Browne, Anthony (2006) – Anthony Browne quoted in A Life in Books: Anthony Browne in The Guardian: 4 July 2006.

–– (2009a) – Anthony Browne quoted in The Surreal Brilliance of Anthony Browne’s Art in The Guardian: 10 June 2009.

–– (2009b) – UK Children’s Laureate acceptance speech: 9 June 2009.

–– (2010) – Anthony Browne quoted in An Interview with Anthony Browne for the Cooperative Children’s Book Centre: 26 June 2010.


Ian Dodds is Chief Executive of Achieving for Children, a community interest company that provides children’s services on behalf of local authorities in London and south-east England. He started his career as a children’s librarian and has also worked with children and young people in arts, theatre and heritage education. He has a long-held interest in visual literacy and picture books; he is writing here in a personal capacity.