Review: What If…? by Anthony Browne

Today’s review is of What If…? by Anthony Browne.

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What it’s about (from the publishers): What if Joe doesn’t like the party he’s going to? What if he doesn’t like the food, or the games, or the people?

As Joe and his mum walk down the darkening street, his imagination starts to run wild. And as they search for the right place and wonder “What is…?” they make surprising discoveres along the way.

Sam’s review: I was excited to receive this book to review from Random House because Anthony Browne is one of my favourite picture-book authors, to the point that I wrote a paper in my MA on Children’s Literature on the psychology of two of his books – Into the Forest and Me and You.

Browne’s works are perfect examples of how rich picture books are, and how the illustrations act as a counterpoint to the text. While the words seem to be narrating a simple and straightforward story, the pictures reveal a deeper level, that of the psychological preoccupations of the child characters. In Into the Forest, a child’s fear is explored when his father vanishes mysteriously from the family home. In Me and You, two parallel stories are told on opposing pages, both based on the traditional tale of Goldilocks, with the female protagonist lost and frightened and looking for her mother.

The fear in these stories is portrayed through the backgrounds to whatever journey the characters are on. In What If…? Joe and his mum walk down a street trying to find out where his friend’s house is, as Joe has been invited for a birthday party. As they wander, Joe asks typically anxious questions such as ‘What if there’s someone at the party I don’t know?’ and ‘What if I don’t like the food?’ and ‘What if they play scary games?’ while the mother calmly dismisses such fears. The way Browne sets out his books reflect the journey – on the left-side pages in a palette of black and dark blues, Joe voices his fears to his mum, while on the right-hand facing page they pass houses which has hints of potential danger that are synonymous with Browne’s work – partially hidden fairytale characters, animals blended into architecture and houses with almost human-like features in their windows and doors. It becomes a game almost to spot the little extras included.

In between these spreads are entire double-page spreads dedicated to the people within the houses down the street – an elderly couple with a man who has Shrek-like horns above his ears, an elephant occupying an entire room, Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee fighting over a meal and a room full of people having a party that looks rather threatening in places. The blending between the real and surreal works well but when I showed it to Holly she was slightly disturbed by it. The illustrations become crazier alongside Joe’s increasing fear until he is dropped off at his friend’s house.

Normally in Anthony Browne’s work, this is the moment of revelation, where the child discovers that all is well, and this moment is symbolized by light. However, in this case, we do get the brightness of the party house followed immediately by the mother in shadows, the worry transferred onto her shoulders.

‘I hope Joe will be all right.’

‘Of course he will… it’s only a party!’

‘But what if he’s REALLY unhappy?’

As a mother who has gone through this anxiety, I had to smile at the reverse worry and appreciated its inclusion in the book so children can see that parents also fret! However, this is not carried on any longer than is necessary as, on the next pages, the mother lurks outside the window of the house, two hours later, desperate to see how Joe is. The colour palette has changed to warmer colours, hinting at happiness rather than fear, and indeed the final spread has Joe in colour (we discover he has blonde hair and blue eyes and, suitably, is wearing a Superman-style shirt, except with a ‘J’ rather than an ‘S’ on it), in a full-page close-up. This is a fairly typical ending in Browne’s work – happiness is restored so the child reader also feels relief from the tension in the story.

One of the reasons I chose to study Browne last year in my MA was because of the way in which his picture books resemble fairy stories. They lack the verbal brutality of many of the traditional tales but the illustrations can be frightening at times. More recently, modern authors have adopted a different approach to their retelling of fairy tales, sometimes adjusting them to counteract accusations of sexism or to poke fun at the often gruesome nature of the originals. Former Children’s
Laureate and fairytale fan Anthony Browne does neither of these things, seeking instead to resituate the tales in more modern and realistic situations, with everyday characters, which risk becoming too close for comfort because of their familiarity.

Browne has been accused of creating stories that are too dark and disturbing, but in an interview with the Guardian, he insisted that, “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… it has… an essential place” (Guardian, 2009). He also asserted that his intention is never to make children worried or afraid but that his ‘…pictures are born from the belief that children are far more capable and aware of social complexities than we give them credit for’ (Telegraph, 2011). While this is true, it is also fair to say that, while his endings may console, the journeys his characters take to arrive at psychological resolution can be unsettling. However, I still feel that a child reading this can take away from it reassurance that, despite the enormous fear they may feel when in similar situations, relief will come to those who face up to their demons.



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