Between the lines: Kids go ape over shapes with award-winning illustrator
Anthony Browne is a British children's book creator whose works are loved throughout the world. Bestowed with the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2000 and honoured as Britain's Children's Laureate in 2009, Browne is also the only author-illustrator to win the Kate Greenaway Medal twice.
He has published more than 40 books and is known for his illustrations of primates, from the hauntingly beautiful beasts in Gorilla to comically expressive chimpanzees in the Willy the Wimp series.
With more than a dozen books by Browne in our home, we we were excited to meet this creator of thoughtful and surreal picture books on his first visit to Hong Kong. We joined him at the Central Library for 90 minutes of storytelling and playing the Shape Game, which Browne and his brother "invented" and played in their childhood. Browne thought it was unique until he started playing the Shape Game with his fans and learned that children around the world have also played variations of it.
There were 30 children, accompanied by their parents, at the Hong Kong event.
Browne engaged the children in the Shape Game with just a whiteboard and some coloured pens. One child would draw an abstract shape, another would transform that shape into something recognisable, and all the children would try to identify the object. According to Browne, children are much better at the Shape Game than adults because they have that pure sense of imagination unfettered by self-consciousness and social norms.
As each child was given a turn at the whiteboard and parents chuckled good-naturedly at the children's drawings and guesses, I was able to distinguish children from local or international schools. For example, when presented with an inverted triangle with rounded corners, the local schoolchildren interpreted the shape more literally, as a stone or an ice-cream cone. Those from international schools, on the other hand, saw the shape as the side profile of a duck's head, or even "an upside-down princess in a ballgown".
I wondered if I was stereotyping local versus international school education by making such a distinction. After all, it could just be that those children with unconventional responses were raised by parents who valued and nurtured their creative development.
In any event, all the children were enthusiastic and eager to participate, which resulted in a highly interactive Shape Game session.
After playing, Browne read two of his stories, Into the Forest and Gorilla. Children and parents alike were enraptured. The biggest draw was having Browne pause to point out certain images and share his thought process and intentions when he created them. Often, the background to the main story illustrations held many hidden symbols and imagery.
The Shape Game, Browne's picture book, is different from the game. I expected the book to be a collection of shape drawings. Instead, the reader is treated to an intimate glimpse of the fictionalised Browne family going through their first visit to the Tate Britain museum.
When the family characters stop in front of Augustus Egg's painting Past and Present No1, they dissect the painting for its literal explanations as well as its metaphors. Through the rich narrative and introduction of a number of paintings, Browne succeeds in explaining how art is experienced through the eyes of adults and children.
In a way, Browne continues to play the Shape Game in his picture books, from a bicycle wheel that transforms into an apple in Changes, to a giant's leg among a forest of trees that is only revealed upon closer inspection in Into the Forest.
Annie Ho is board chairwoman of Bring Me a Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving children's literacy by reading aloud to them (bringmeabook.org.hk)