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British children’s picture book author and illustrator Anthony Browne has established himself as an innovative force in the canon of children’s literature through such works as Gorilla and Piggybook. The author has published nearly 40 titles since the 1970s and enjoys international acclaim.
Anthony Browne’s works have been hailed as penetrating social critiques that encourage the modern children’s picture book to expand its reach and touch upon uncomfortable social issues such as restrictive gender roles and narrow minded class limitations.
Anthony Browne’s eccentric, provocative books are distinctive in the sense that each one refuses to condescend to its young readers, and his works consistently defy assumptions surrounding the suitable subject matter for children’s picture books that require them to be safe, staid and non confrontational.
Anthony Browne regularly employs the children’s picture book as a tool to critically analyze and evaluate cultural assumptions in a playful yet trenchant way.
This essay will analyze several of Anthony Browne’s works from the period between 1976 and 1986, with particular emphasis on how Anthony Browne portrays specific social issues in his works. These works include Anthony Browne’s first published work Through the Magic Mirror from 1976, Gorilla from 1983, Willy the Wimp from 1984, and Piggybook from 1986.
From the educational standpoint, each of these picture books provide children with keen psychological insights into the often unspoken social rules and roles implicit in the world they are entering as they age and progress through higher levels of learning. The essay will also demonstrate the influence of post modern theory on Anthony Browne’s works, as well as the impact of postmodernism on children’s picture books in general.
Anthony Browne’s frugal usage of text and language and the deeply layered symbolism of his children’s picture books combine finely wrought and keenly observed surrealistic features with an amusing and clever vision. Anthony Browne’s themes are consistently serious and cover the gamut of human experience and behavior.
He is neither afraid to confront the failure of certain conventional interpersonal relationships, nor challenge the efficacy of the traditional nuclear family model of child rearing. Anthony Browne’s works also play with the distinction between fantasy, perception and reality.
Artistically speaking Anthony Browne’s work tends toward surrealism and echoes the work of such surrealist giants as Salvador Dali, Edvard Munch, and René Magritte. Anthony Browne’s works also frequently refer to these artists in a wry and self referential way. His books present his deeply personal and idiosyncratic visual approach through a seamless integration of the extraordinary with the mundane.
Anthony Browne’s representational imagery remains simultaneously fantastic yet exact, with painstaking attention to detail and tremendous technical prowess. Anthony Browne’s trademark watercolor illustrations are noteworthy for their signature use of brash colors.
Anthony Browne’s use of animals to represent humans, especially gorillas and chimpanzees, also imbues animals with human traits, emotions, fears, problems and concerns. His texts include elements from the fairy tale tradition, folk tales, allegories, and figurative warning tales as the underpinning structure for subtle yet powerful stories.
A common plot line of Anthony Browne’s works sees his characters, both human and anthropomorphized animals, delve into their own internal pool of strength to overcome issues of solitude and social isolation, parental neglect, ennui, envy and resentment, bullying and social derision. As a rule Anthony Browne’s works contains strong messages to children to honor themselves above all, regardless of the social costs.
In a recent Guardian interview, Flood (2009) drew attention to Anthony Browne’s “reputation as a sharp social observer. Several of his books skewer contemporary adult behavior…especially that of males…by showing how foolishness, cruelty, and self-absorption bring out the baseness of our animal natures.
In 2000, he became the first UK children’s author to win the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, the highest international honour in children’s literature” (Flood, 2009: n.p.). In 2009 Anthony Browne achieved the prestigious honor of being named the children’s laureate in the United Kingdom, joining the ranks of such literary illuminati as Ted Hughes.
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Anthony Browne was quoted as saying “he would use his two-year stint as laureate to focus on the appreciation of picture books, and the reading of both pictures and words. Picture books are for everybody at any age, not books to be left behind as we grow older.
The best ones leave a tantalising gap between the pictures and the words, a gap that is filled by the reader’s imagination, adding so much to the excitement of reading a book,” he said. “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” (Flood, 2009: n.p.).
This brings up a valid point and highlights the driving force behind Anthony Browne’s work. Its enduring significance for educators remains Anthony Browne’s “desire to “make “Art,” with a capital A, more accessible to children. I believe we undervalue the visual as a society.
Too often I see children’s education mean that they grow out of pictures – away from picture books into words – as though that’s part of the development of a child’s education [and the development of a child into an adult…I want children to realize that fine art doesn’t have to be serious and heavy or even part of the educational process. We can just lose ourselves and see ourselves in a painting that was painted 500 years ago” (Hateley, 2001: p. 324).
The Power of Pictures
Picture books represent one of the earliest and most important tools available to help children make sense of their environment, yet cultural and socio economic influences manifest extremely early in children, as Appleyard (1991) highlights in this description of two working class communities: “Both were in their own way literate communities where reading and writing functioned significantly in the daily lives of the people.
But where families did not read to children, ask them the names of things in picture books, use printed stories to help them make sense of their environment, [and] encourage them to write…children had difficulty in school and as adult readers [did] not advance beyond magazines and newspapers, the Bible, and the literacy requirements of their work and social lives” (p. 198).
The socio economic environment of the child mediates the essential learning value of the children’s picture books, and “the kinds and levels of literacy can be correlated with the social structure of the community, its history and traditions, the quality of its schools, and the economic opportunities of its people” (Appleyard, 1991: p. 198).
Children’s picture books hold a deeper meaning when considered in the light of how we learn about ourselves in relation to others and this learning begins almost the instant children begin perceiving images.
In fact Peter Hunt (1999) points to a common and somewhat dangerous misconception regarding the deeper impact of children’s picture books when he states that “picture books are commonly assumed to be the province of the very young, or pre-literate child, a simple form that is beneath serious critical notice” (p. 128).
On the contrary, children’s picture books represent a core component in an extremely complex socialization process that begins at birth. Society begins to shape children the moment they are out of the womb. Picture books impart visual meaning to children well before they have developed the critical skills to accurately judge what they are being shown and how it is influencing them cognitively, psychologically, and emotionally.
While this may seem an obvious deduction, the power of the picture in the social and psychological development of children simply cannot be overstated. In Hunt’s (1999) words, children’s picture books represent “one genuinely original contribution to literature in general; they are a polyphonic form that embodies many codes, styles, textual devices and intertextual references” (p. 128).
At the risk of sounding cynical, picture books instill core social assumptions and biases about the multiple hidden strata of the culture to which a given picture book ascribes: gender roles, class distinctions, family make up, racial differences, and religious affiliations.
As Nodelman (1999) states, children “must have a pre-existing knowledge of actual objects to understand which qualities of [visual] representations…resemble those of the represented objects and which…are merely features of the medium or style of representation and therefore to be ignored” (p. 129) More importantly, “children must learn these prejudices before they can make sense of [a] picture” (Nodelman, 1999: p. 129).
The gender stamp provides one example. Because children’s pictures books show partiality towards a particular point of view – the point of view of the viewer – they possess the power to circumscribe the child viewer into identifying exclusively with what can be seen from that limited perspective.
Depending on the gender of the child viewer, he or she then takes on this imposed perspective in his or her subjective life, and begins to observe and value events and other people as the pictorial narrative presents them from this gender specific point of view.
The power of visual images stays with us for our entire lives. We need only consider the impact of marketing to understand how swayed we are by pictorial representations of gender, beauty and racial differences in the wider media.
The power of Anthony Browne’s picture books lies in their ability to illustrate the emotional discrepancy that many children feel. Anthony Browne’s works highlight the tacit understanding that many children learn very early in life – the sense that their parents are there in body only. As a teaching tool Anthony Browne’s work serves to offer children a means to make contact with an emotional reality that they do not yet have the cognitive skills to name.
Post Modern Children’s Picture Books
Post modern theory targets and calls attention to the essentially meaningless quality of representation that orders language, thought, and the social world that we humans inhabit, and argues that nothing in language truly “is” what it claims to represent. Words are merely symbols, and all printed books are black marks on a white page.
As such, language resembles more of an agreement than an absolute, an implied understanding between literate folk that an arbitrary sound and image combination embodies or “stands for” an equally arbitrary definition. Meaning then becomes socially conferred and as such, subject to infinite change. No representation enjoys purity of meaning.
Barry (2009) refers to this concept as the absence of the real, and points out that “in contemporary life the pervasive images from film, TV, and advertising has led to a loss of distinction between real and imagined, reality and illusion, surface and depth” (p. 87). Barry (2009) explains the post modern era as an era wherein “a sign is not an index of an underlying reality, but merely [an indication] of other signs” (p. 87).
The system of language and the ensuing assemblage of cognitive thought built upon that language then becomes a “simulacrum” that replaces the concept of the fixed representation of reality understood by previous eras, and “the sign reaches its present stage of emptiness” (Barry, 209: p. 87).
Goldstone (2001) understands the impact of postmodernism on children’s picture books as creating a generation of children’s picture books in the last 30 years that lack “clear, traditional, linear story structure [and] a sweet and innocent tone…[and that] mock…rather than model…oral tradition” (p. 362).
Nonetheless, Goldstone (2001) quickly tempers this description by highlighting the fact that present day children’s picture books still “remain true to the classic definition of picture books. Picture books are categorized not by content but by format, which is an interdependence of the illustration and the text. The words and the art reflect and expand each other’s meaning” (p. 362).
The aspect that has changed, according to Goldstone (2001), is “the underlying organization, which has created new linguistic codes. Traditional picture books are certainly not losing their appeal, and no one illustrative or writing style is better than another. Rather, the boundaries of what is understood as a successful picture book are broadening” (Goldstone, 2001: p. 362).
Postmodernism largely defines digital media culture, in that the theory underscores values of playfulness and interactivity. Swaggerty (2009) distinguishes the so-called digital native generation’s cultural make up as “characterized by connectivity, interactivity, nonlinearity, and instantaneous access to information and social networks” (p. 24).
Digital natives tend to have higher standards for their media, as they “typically have the ability to control information flow, and they prefer to be in control of what they engage in…school is not the focal point of their lives; rather it is one of many” (Swaggerty, 2009: p. 24). Given that children gain access to digital media culture as infants, the essential nature of the post modern theory underscores their understanding of the world.
Post modern children’s picture books anticipate this by utilizing the same interactive tools and mischievous disregard for standard literary conventions integral to digital media. For example, post modern children’s picture books may “feature characters that speak directly to the reader. Some books require readers to make choices about how they will navigate the text by presenting multiple texts.
Some children are drawn to the absurdity and humor often found in post modern picture books, or they may enjoy stories that poke fun at fairy tales with which they are familiar…post modern picture books are surfacing in bookstores and libraries and in the hands of children, justifying the attention of educators” (Swaggerty, 2009: p. 25).
Anthony Browne’s picture books contain significant post modern elements, the most notable being the self referential nature of many of his works. Goldstone (2001) explains that Anthony Browne’s works can easily fit into the category of the “new breed of picture book has its own commonly held set of structural characteristics.
These texts do not follow a linear pattern, are self-referential…the characters of a story may refer to the physical presence of the book or the process of making a book, are cynical or sarcastic in tone, and actively invite the reader to co-author the text…Not all of these characteristics are always found in one story, but the presence of even one will significantly change the reader/viewer’s way of interpreting the text” (p. 363).
Post modern children’s picture books intentionally thwart the traditional book’s ability to enchant the reader. As Swaggerty notes, “many readers can relate to the feeling of inhabiting a book, or losing themselves in a story. When readers are really “into” a story, they sometimes forget that they are reading a book” (p. 25).
Conversely, post modern children’s picture books consistently remind the reader that the book is a book, therefore affirming the post modern understanding that meaning is not only a created fiction but also a shared one.
Goldstone (2001) states that in post modern children’s picture books the “characters and the narrator may use the physical pages of the book for props or describe the book’s creation” (p. 366). This activity embodies the self-referential text (Goldstone, 2001: p. 366).
Essentially the children’s picture book continually and playfully demands a response from the reader. In Goldstone’s (2001) words, the book “asks the reader, “What is real? The story? The page? The book itself?” (p. 366). Post modern texts like Anthony Browne’s implicate the reader in their construction.
Anthony Browne’s love of surrealism and the presence of surrealist painters’ influences in his illustrations becomes a consistent post modern element in his children’s picture books, a visual motif that began with his first published book Through the Magic Mirror, in which the work of the eminent surrealist painter René Magritte figures prominently (Browne, 1976).
Anthony Browne’s visual citations of Magritte’s work highlight the magical element of Through the Magic Mirror, which depicts a young boy who suffers from ennui and premature world weariness until he gains access to an alternate universe via an enchanted mirror (Browne, 1976).
As Hateley (2009) has shown, Anthony Browne’s illustrations present obvious references to the Surrealist master’s paintings, and although Through the Magic Mirror “offered the possibility of readerly recognition and acculturation, [the book] did not necessarily depend on such recognition in order for the texts to function” (p. 340).
A successful post modern children’s picture book by definition must operate on both these levels simultaneously, as most young children will have no concept of painting, let alone individual and historically significant painters. The educational delight that Through the Magic Mirror offers harkens back to Anthony Browne’s desire to have art be a natural component of young children’s reading experience (Browne, 1976).
In Hateley’s (2009) understanding, Anthony Browne’s self referential use of Magritte “describes Browne’s deployment of Magritte, but Browne is “marketing” cultural capital. In circulating Magritte as a collection of visual referents, Browne seems to be producing a Surrealist visual epistemology, but is actually offering up Surrealism as something to be consumed” by child readers (p. 324).
Through the Magic Mirror established Anthony Browne as a purveyor of “high-quality, aesthetically and diegetically pleasurable picture books that often include citations of Magritte, but do not necessarily explicitly explain to readers why they should pay attention to such citations. The Surrealist flourishes of the other realm are in keeping with the book’s obvious thematic and titular homage to that favorite of the Surrealists, Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Browne makes direct visual references to the accoutrements of the bowler-hatted men found in several of Magritte’s works including Golconda (1953) and Decalcomania (1966); one of the illustrations reproduces Magritte’s well-known treatments of the mise-en-abyme effect combining easels bearing paintings with the environments such paintings are notionally reproducing, as in The Human Condition (1934) or Euclidean Walks (1955)” (Hateley, 2009: p. 325).
Anthony Browne successfully employs the post modern self referential element within his work not only to poke fun at the institution of high art and its intrinsic sense of exclusivity, but also to provide children with a playful and imaginative introduction to some of the most pivotal and ground breaking surrealist painters and their works.
Another example of Anthony Browne’s usage of post modern elements occurs in his later work Piggyback, published in 1986. Piggyback tells the story of the Piggott family, Mr. Piggott, Simon, Patrick, and Mrs. Piggott (Browne, 1986). The male Piggotts consistently left all of the housework for Mrs. Piggott to take care of and refused to clean up after themselves (Browne, 1986).
This led to building resentment in Mrs. Piggott, until the day Mrs. Piggott vanishes from the Piggott household, leaving behind nothing but a note that says “You are pigs” (Browne, 1986). Then, Mr. Piggott and his sons actually do undergo a metamorphosis into pigs (Browne, 1986).
With no conception of how to look after a home, the Piggott household degenerates into a literal pig sty at the hands of the remaining Piggotts (Browne, 1986).The story ends with the male Piggotts gaining appreciation for the work of Mrs. Piggott and when she returns the family agrees to share the housework together (Browne, 1986).
In Piggybook, Beckett (2001) shows how Anthony Browne often integrates explicit pre existing works of art into his children’s picture book illustrations as a simultaneous form of homage and post modern self referentiality (p. 180). An example of this occurs in Piggyback. Beckett (2001) calls attention to the “portrait hanging in the Piggots’ living room…an unmistakable rendition of Franz Hals’s The Laughing Cavalier.
Although it is the Dutch master’s most famous painting, it is nonetheless unfamiliar to the majority of children and even many adult readers….In Piggybook, the portrait hangs above Mr. Piggott, who is sprawled on the couch watching television with his two sons while Mrs. Piggott attends to all the domestic tasks by herself.
Not only is there a suggestive resemblance between the cavalier and Mr. Piggott…notably the round shape of the head…but the father and one of the sons could easily pass as Dutch. For readers who are at all familiar with Hals’s work, the portrait will evoke guild-hall paintings of Dutch merchants engaged in endless communal banquets” Beckett, 2001: p. 180).
In this example Anthony Browne’s illustration performs four functions simultaneously: it visually cites his own personal influences, affirms the post modern intention to parody the staunch “museum” representation of high art, pokes fun at his own characters, the male Piggotts, and offers children access to a master painter in a fun and playful manner. This example perfectly exemplifies the multi layered and multi tasking ability of effective post modern children’s picture books.
Use of Primates
Published in 1983, Anthony Browne’s Gorilla launched the author and illustrator into the forefront of children’s literature. Gorilla presents the dilemma of a neglected, despondent little girl let down by the reality of her father’s unresponsiveness. Atkinson (2006) calls Hannah’s dilemma “a recurring theme: two worlds existing together – the absurd and the ordinary.
But by the end, a transformation has occurred and the world seems less frightening. It’s also an example of how emotionally powerful [Browne’s] stories can be when he uses primate characters instead of human” (Atkinson, 2006: n.p.)
Gorilla recounts the story of Hannah, a lonely little girl whose father seems perennially preoccupied by his work (Browne, 1983). Hannah desperately wants to visit the zoo, yet her father continually puts her off, explaining that he is too busy (Browne, 1983).
Instead, Hannah’s father buys her a toy gorilla (Browne, 1983). When the gorilla comes to life and takes Hannah to the zoo, she finally receives “the kind of companionship that has so far been unavailable from her unusually preoccupied father” (Silvey, 1995: p. 98).
The theme of loneliness central to Gorilla repeats in many of Anthony Browne’s works. Indeed, Anthony Browne’s heroes and heroines often confront decidedly adult situations such as loneliness, abandonment, neglect and disappointment.
In Silvey’s words, the illustrations in Gorilla set the standard for Anthony Browne’s later works through their “forceful, strongly narrative watercolors that blend near photographic realism with fantastical touches and that exert a strong emotional, often unconscious pull; the skillful use of color, pattern and background detail to convey mood and meaning; ingenious visual puns and surprises that frequently point to serious, often disturbing underlying themes; and an exquisite empathy for the concerns of lonely sensitive children” (Silvey, 1995: p. 98).
Gorilla also cemented Anthony Browne’s use of primate characters in his books. For Anthony Browne, gorillas are regularly substituted for humans. In the author’s words, “I am fascinated by them and the contrast they represent – their huge strength and gentleness.
They’re thought of as being very fierce creatures and they’re not” (Flood, 2006: n.p.) Anthony Browne’s protagonists, simian or human are often social outcasts that encounter neglect, or whose sensitive nature allows them an outsider’s glimpse of the social hierarchy, as exemplified by Willy the chimpanzee that appears in a series of works beginning with Willy the Wimp.
Lewis (2001) points to the sparseness of Anthony Browne’s text and the deceivingly simple yet highly effective way that the author illustrates controversial content in Gorilla, namely child neglect and the failure of parenting (Lewis, 2001: p. 4).
Anthony Browne’s text states simply that Hannah’s father “didn’t have time to take her” to the zoo, while the accompanying image “coolly [illustrates] a picture of Hannah’s father, separated from his daughter by the newspaper that he is holding up and reading at the breakfast table” (Lewis, 2001: p. 4).
In Gorilla Anthony Browne tackles a difficult and painful subject for many children, namely the awareness that their parents may be indifferent to their emotional needs. Anthony Browne’s illustration essentially contradicts and disproves the narrative in a subtle yet forceful way.
Hannah’s father is not “too busy” to take her to the zoo; Hannah’s father does not want to take his daughter to the zoo. He would rather read the paper. Hannah’s father represents the reality of many parent child relationships: the parental figure is physically present yet emotionally absent.
Social Issues in Children’s Literature
Children’s picture books form an integral element of very young children’s understanding of gender roles. Pre-verbal children nonetheless derive implicit meaning from how men and women appear in visual representations, what they wear, how they behave physically, their facial expressions, their spatial relationship to each other within the image, and the focal point within the image, typically the point of power, because it is the point of view.
In Piggyback for example, Anthony Browne’s illustration that evokes Franz Hals’s The Laughing Cavalier shows Mr. Piggott in the position of power similar to the Dutch merchants it parodies. As Beckett (2001) states, “Piggott, who seems to be eating or thinking about eating when he is not at his “very important job,” is certainly a worthy modern descendant of that patriarchal society.
The significance that Browne attaches to the portrait is made obvious by the fact that he has added other signs to assist the viewer in interpreting the parody. He humorously suggests the nationality of the Dutch master by choosing Holland’s characteristic symbol, the tulip, to decorate the room” (p. 180)
In Piggyback, Anthony Browne parodies the obvious gender inequities of the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Piggott and the inherent favoritism shown to males in the Piggott’s world, a reference to male privilege (Browne, 1986).
As Beckett (2001) states, “Piggott and his sons, who by now have been transparently identified as male chauvinist pigs, have been transformed into “real” pigs, and the metamorphosis is reflected in the painting, which replaces the laughing cavalier with a pig in the same dignified pose.
The Laughing Pig is a parody “in the second degree,” to borrow Gérard Genette’s term…because it parodies Browne’s earlier version of The Laughing Cavalier, itself an ironic recontextualization of the original masterpiece (p. 183).
Spitz (1994) argues that “illustrations in picture books for young children frequently carry and challenge prevailing gender role paradigms” (p. 311). Gender itself can often assume a problematic stance in children’s picture books, given that it is “volatile and confusing even to adults” and adults often lack awareness of their own internalized sexism (p. 308).
In Spitz’s mind, children’s picture books in general “assume…that children are influenced for better or worse by the surrounding culture as well as by their familial identifications” and for Spitz, it is imperative that parents and educators alike take an active role in deconstructing children’s literature, as children are “best served by being actively and selectively introduced to that culture by adults, rather than left to assimilate it on their own…particularly…[in] the field of gender” (p. 308).
In Anthony Browne’s Willy the Wimp, Willy the chimpanzee begins the story as a somewhat emasculated male afraid to assert himself even against a fly (Browne, 1984). Anthony Browne believes that “children relate to Willy because often everyone and everything is bigger than they are and that their world is run by parents, teachers and older siblings” (Atkinson, 2006: n.p.).
Anthony Browne’s Willy the Wimp highlights the struggle that young sensitive males encounter when attempting to find their place in the masculine construction of gender, characterized by physical power, might, aggression and violence (Browne, 1984). None of these qualities are inherent to Willy’s character, and he suffers bullying as a result (Browne, 1984).
Spitz (1994) understands that the “operative agenda of many works is not to extend the range of possibility and give concrete form to vaguely subversive wishes but rather to promulgate and reinforce prevailing social codes that resist diversity…diversity especially in the arena of gender” (p. 311).
Works such as Anthony Browne’s Willy the Wimp, Spitz contends, “curiously…often blends these opposing motives” (p. 311). Willy’s predicament is more or less solved by the appearance of a female, who effectively replaces him as the victim and allows Willy to reclaim some of his manhood (Browne, 1984).
Spitz (1994) states that “in an uncanny repeat scene of the gorillas’ attack on Willy, the place of the helpless, victimized little boy is taken by a girl. Instead of Willy, little Milly is held now in a viselike grip by the gorilla gang leader who also grabs her purse. The visual equation is patent: the passive, helpless, vulnerable position is gendered feminine: wimp = girl” (p. 321).
Traditional masculinity carries a heavy burden for sensitive little boys, and as Anthony Browne asserts, much of life as a young boy growing up, especially with older brothers, is characterized by competition (Atkinson, 2006: n.p.). As Spitz (1994) points out, “by being able to scare, Willy has changed from a wimp into a hero.
Big, strong, and alarming now, he attracts the girl, and, on the next page, we see Milly cover his face with lipstick kisses in gratitude for her rescue” (p. 321). Here we see the reward for proper masculine behavior: male respect, and female affection. As Spitz (1994) astutely observes, “our culture continues to perpetuate the notion that to be worthwhile, lovable, and effective as a human being, a man must have prodigious physical strength and a frightening demeanor…
Although much depends on the way the book is read, its casual, even brazen presentation of wide-spread masculine stereotypes can scarcely be evaded. Little Willy, despite his concerted efforts, fails in the end to achieve this goal. His outside changed, but his inside did not. He is therefore portrayed as sympathetic but ridiculous” (p. 321).
In conclusion, Anthony Browne’s children’s picture books bravely tackle difficult and thorny social issues with charm, compassion and wit. The works covered in this essay demonstrate that Anthony Browne’s playful approach to art and literature masks a penetrating and insightful critique of the social assumptions and biases implicit in the Western culture.
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