Bookshelf talked with British author-illustrator Anthony Browne about his latest picture book, Silly Billy (Candlewick)
In your new book, Billy is a chronic worrier. His grandmother gives him a set of miniature worry dolls so that they can do his worrying for him. Were you a worrier as a child?
When I was a boy, I was a worrier and so was my son, Joe. I used to tell him that worrying meant he had an imagination and that one day he’d be pleased. “I don’t want an imagination, Dad,” he’d say. “I want to stop worrying.” Now he is studying the saxophone at Berklee College of Music and he still has a vivid imagination. And he doesn’t worry too much.
Did you ever rely on worry dolls to help alleviate your worries?
No, but I was given some worry dolls when I was in Mexico about 10 years ago. When I came home, I gave them to my mother, an inveterate worrier. For a while, it worked. In this story, I didn’t want the worry dolls to be the “magic” that would cure Billy. At first, he’s worrying about himself and has fears about threatening hats, shoes, etc. But Billy’s inner worries are turned out, by at first worrying or caring about the dolls [the boy makes worry dolls for his worry dolls], and then caring about his friends [he subsequently makes worry dolls for his friends as well].
I understand that many children with psychological problems are encouraged to express their fears through drawing, and in some way Billy making worry dolls is an equivalent. Worrying can be a kind of caring, and as such is a healthy part of a balanced emotional life.
Given your family tradition of worrying, have you long thought about centering a story on a young worrier, or did the idea for Silly Billy strike you suddenly?
The idea had been hanging around in my head for a number of years, not quite ready to come out. When it did finally emerge it was as Willy the Worrier, a story about the chimp I’ve used in other books. It seemed to me that Willy would be a worrier and he seemed the ideal character for the book, so I made a dummy with him as the protagonist. When I showed it to my British editor she loved the story but asked me if it needed to be Willy. I thought this was a strange and disappointing question—of course it was about Willy. I went home muttering to myself and reluctantly tried to draw the character as a boy. It worked!
Of course, children have always known that Willy is one of them. One of my favorite questions from a child is one asked in a letter: “Dear Mr. Browne, is Willy a real person or did you make him up?” Readers who know the Willy books will notice that Billy has large ears, his hair parted in the middle, a familiar kind of sweater and a familiar-sounding name.
Do you think that today’s children, given our turbulent global situation as well as the extraordinary pressure on them to succeed in school and other endeavors, are more likely to be worriers than past generations of children? Was this part of your incentive to create this book?
I’m not sure that children today are likely to worry more than children in the past. I think it’s always been difficult to be a child growing up, and it wasn’t part of my reasoning behind the creation of the book. But stories come to me in mysterious ways, more like dreams than reasoned creations.
In this and your earlier picture books, do you find that the images come to you first, followed by the words, or is the opposite generally true?
Usually it is more like having an idea for a film, which would be a mixture of images and words together. So the first thing I put down on paper is a storyboard, like a film director.
Do you have another picture book on your drawing board?
I’ve just finished My Brother, which is the last in a trilogy about my family. It is a little boy’s admiring view of his elder brother who is “really cool”—sometimes. And I’m starting work on Little Beauty, a story about the relationship between a gorilla and a kitten.