Playing the Shape game by Anthony Browne with Joe Browne

cover image

Doubleday, 2011.
All ages. Highly recommended. Like many book lovers I'm rather suspicious of eBooks and if ever there is a case against them it is summed up in Playing the Shape Game. I loved everything about this book; it's substantial - weighty and reassuring with velvet smooth pages that feel and smell wonderful. The design and layout are a joy and best of all it allows us a glimpse into Anthony Browne's life and work.
Early chapters focus on childhood and Anthony's close relationship with his father, also a talented artist. Growing up in the 50s and 60s Anthony and his brother enjoyed sport and almost complete freedom to play in the fields and quarries near home. Even as a young child his interest in the surreal was apparent and a picture he drew at the age of six shows a pirate family living in someone's trouser leg!
Much of the book is devoted to Browne's career with the through-line being his lifelong preoccupation with the shape game. As an art student he discovered Magritte and Dali, who although new to him felt strangely familiar. Interestingly his final degree show entitled Man is an Animal focused on the similarities between human and animal behaviour - a hint of things to come perhaps.
The story of his job as a graphic designer (he hated it) and then a medical illustrator (initially terrifying) before launching into the greetings card market make fascinating reading. In these days of instant fame it's reassuring to read of a man who served an arduous and at times soul searching apprenticeship.
Anthony Browne's editor Julia MacRae had a huge impact on his development as an author and illustrator. He credits her with teaching him that illustrations can reveal things that the text does not. There are so many fascinating insights here - Anthony's preoccupation with gorillas, his near death experience in a gorilla cage (almost as surreal as his illustrations), his preoccupation with visual jokes, his faith in children's ability to grasp underlying themes, and his anathema for dumbing-down - all are strong messages. It's fascinating to discover the background and inspiration for masterpieces such as The Tunnel and Voices in the Park. It's made me want to revisit all of his books and my Amazon wish-list has grown considerably since devouring Playing the Shape Game.
His joy at being awarded the Hans Christian Andersen medal in 2000 (the first British illustrator to reach this pinnacle) sums up Anthony Browne. What really comes across is his passionate belief in the power of art, his faith in children and their ability to see and understand far more than we adults realise and the importance of picture book for all ages. More than once he decries the current obsession with children being pushed to read 'proper books' i.e. those without illustrations.
You could almost forgive this giant of children's literature for being rather pompous and self satisfied. Far from it, what really shines through is Anthony Browne's modesty; his diffidence and his joy in art, demonstrated by his continued questioning of how he works and his desire to give something back. Perhaps it's no surprise that his self portrait on the front cover bears more than a passing resemblance to a rather wistful and introspective Willy the Wimp.
Claire Larson.