June 10, 2009 / 11:02 AM / 10 years ago

British children's laureate to get country drawing

LONDON (Reuters) - Anthony Browne, Britain’s new laureate for children is on a mission to get the country drawing.

Browne, who started his two-year stint as laureate on Tuesday, told Reuters he intends to use the platform to promote drawing as a way for children — and adults — to express their creativity.

Making images is a great way to unleash the imagination, Browne said, and he aims to get them playing the shape game — a game invented by him and his brother when they were little — to encourage more children to put pencil to paper.

In the game, the first player draws an abstract shape and the next person adds to it to develop it into a recognizable image. It’s a game that children tend to be better at than adults as they have an innate ability to draw, he said.

“Every time we create something we play the shape game, every time we write a story or draw a picture or compose a piece of music we are playing it,” Browne said over lunch at the headquarters of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

“We are taking something that we have seen or experienced and transforming it by turning it into a story. So although I think of it as a fun game we played as children, it’s the essence of creativity.”

Playing the game will inspire those who had all the confidence they had in their artistic ability knocked out of them at school, to return to what is a rewarding and enriching pastime, Browne said.

“I’d like to promote the shape game as an incredibly successful way to encourage people to use drawing skills they didn’t know they had. Older children and adults think they can’t do it, so I’d like to get the whole country playing the shape game.”


Browne also hopes to use his new role as a chance to bolster the standing of picture books, which he feels are somewhat looked down on as suitable only for young children.

“There’s been a big cut back in the number of the picture books that the shops are stocking. I feel that picture books have been marginalized in the last few years, I’d like to encourage attention on picture books and the idea of using our eyes,” he said.

“I’ve heard parents say: “oh you don’t want to get a book like that, come and get a proper book. I think it’s a terrible shame that picture books and pictures in general (are viewed in this way).”

The Harry Potter series — which has seen over 400 million books sold around the world — is partly responsible for turning children away from picture books, Browne said.

“The Harry Potter phenomenon has been great for encouraging children to read, but maybe it’s encouraged them to read longer books before they’re ready.”

The focus on text-only books means children can miss out on the depth and layers of meaning that feature in the best illustrated work, said Browne who has won The Kate Greenaway Medal twice, the Kurt Maschler Emil award and the Hans Christian Andersen award.

“I use little transformations in the background to help tell parts of the story that the words don’t tell. That’s what excites me about picture books, the way that the pictures can sometimes provide clues about how someone’s thinking or feeling that’s never actually mentioned in the text.”

“The reader puts those elements together, the words the pictures and the gap in between the two that the reader fills in.”


A focus on getting children to pass tests and teaching art within the rigid constraints of the national curriculum may have hurt the popularity of art, Browne said.

“You see in some schools art is on the wall, joyous, free expressive, personal art for art’s sake.”

“But there’s also some schools where you can see they are trying to fit it into the curriculum, so if they are doing history, they will draw a picture of Henry VIII.”

Britain particularly seems to eschew taking children’s picture books seriously, Browne said.

“There’s art up there and there’s children’s picture book illustrations down there. Abroad there’s no problems with putting children’s picture book illustrations in the best art museums because there isn’t that huge gap between the two.”

Story telling seems to have come naturally to Browne. He grew up in a pub, which his parents ran, and remembers standing on the bar and telling stories.

“I also used to do big drawing of battle scenes and I used to cover the whole page with terrible scenes, people being killed, blown up and shot,” he said.

“There would be speech bubbles and jokes in the background and in a way I’m still doing the same thing.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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