Picture books are special, declares Anthony Browne, Children's Laureate

Liz Thomson
News - Children 09 Jun 2009

The much-garlanded Anthony Browne accepted the medal from his predecessor, Michael Rosen, made a brief but eloquent speech, gave an interview or two - and then got straight down to business, chatting to the children who were privileged to be invited to London's Centre Point yesterday to witness the annointing of the sixth Children's Laureate. Among those applauding the announcement were Jacqueline Wilson (Laureate 2005-7), Wendy Cooling, the force behind Bookstart and Booked Up, and Julia MacRae, who published Browne's debut title, Through the Magic Mirror , in 1976. She went on to work with him on such books as Bear , Gorilla and Willy the Wimp - books that have become classics and that have won their creator many honours, not least the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the first time it was given to a Briton. 'I cried and cried,' said MacRae, who recalled how Browne had come into Hamish Hamilton with some drawings and how they had worked to turn them into a book - 'an unusual way round,' she acknowledged.

The appointment of Browne - who studied at Leeds College of Art and worked as a medical illustrator before focusing full time on children's books - puts the emphasis once more on picture books, and is seen as a welcome boost to a genre that is under threat in the current economic climate. He is the first illustrator to take the laurels since Quentin Blake, appointed in 1999 to fill a role suggested by then Poet Laureate Ted Hughes and Michael Morpurgo.

For once in his life, said Browne, he'd written a speech. But, like his much-loved character Willy, who forgets his football boots, he'd left it in the hotel, from where it was fortunately retrieved. Though he joked that he'd once made a mental note to decline if ever the Laureateship was offered, he said: 'I've changed my mind. It's a wonderful honour... I'm absolutely and completely thrilled, though I'm well aware of the incredible things achieved by the five previous Laureates and I'm in awe of their commitment and hard work.' He thanked MacRae, whom 'I've relied on an awful lot.'
Browne continued: 'Picture books are special they're not like anything else. Sometimes I hear parents encouraging their children to read what they call proper books, books without pictures, at an earlier and earlier age. This makes me sad, as picture books are perfect for sharing, and not just with the youngest children. As a father, I understand the importance of the bond that develops through reading picture books with your child. We have in Britain some of the best picture book makers in the world, and I want to see their books appreciated for what they are works of art.' Picture books, he said, are 'perfect for any age'.

He then invited his brother, a retired teacher, to join him in playing 'the shape game', just as they had done as children. 'Take the line for a walk,' he urged his audience. 'As children we can all draw.' Encouraging drawing as a means of communication will be part of Browne's legacy work.
The 10th anniversary of the role was marked by a 50% increase in the Laureate's bursary to £15,000, put up by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, and an increased roster of supporter publishers with the addition of Egmont, Templar, OUP, Simon & Schuster, Orion, Barefoot and Usborne. Elaine McQuade, Chair of the PA's Children's Group, noted that, while publishers were in competition, 'We do come together when we see a great idea.'
It was Chris Smith, then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and now Lord Smith ('it's so good not to be an MP these days'), to whom Ted Hughes had come with his idea, for which 'I managed to scrape together some money.' He reflected on 'the growing exponential benefit' of the project and quoted 'my beloved Wordsworth, the child is father of the man - sexist I know', as he underlined the benefits of giving to children a gift (books and reading) that is carried into adulthood.

Rosen, as rumpled as Browne is casually elegant, paid tribute to his father, who died during his tenure of the role and who had taught him the importance of words and of questions, 'what, how and especially why'. He paid tribute, too, to the many wonderful examples of teaching and pupil empowerment he had seen as he criss-crossed the country, but noted that too many children were 'left to fill out worksheets and denied their rights'.

Andrew Motion, who has only recently stepped down as Poet Laureate, said it had been an honour to chair the selection panel for the Children's Laureate, whose role he envied. Praising the energy and achievements of its incumbents, he said it was 'an honour, a benediction, a commitment and a challenge' to accept the role, which would be 'buttressed and boosted' by the Laureate team. 'Michael's are very big shoes to fill', but he was confident Browne would will them very adequately. Taking his inspiration from Wallace Stevens' 'Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird', Motion proposed '10 ways of looking at Anthony Browne' in which he noted 'the kindness and integrity' of his characters and his 'complex and layered insights' into how children and adults related one to another. Browne was, Motion said, 'an absolutely distinctive and extraordinarily skilful artist someone whose work entrances children, and has influenced an entire generation of illustrators. His pictures and stories give deep and immediate pleasures, while also insisting that we children and adults return to them and when we return, we have a gradually-expanding sense of discovery. It is a great pleasure to be able to recognise the achievement of Anthony's work by celebrating his appointment as Children's Laureate.'

Photos: Anthony Browne with Julia MacRae; Browne 'taking a line for a walk'; and Michael Rosen

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