PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 11:47am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 11:47am
Experienced artists who have mastered their craft can often come to view their early efforts critically. Obvious examples are an actor’s early films, or a musical prodigy’s first live performances. Regardless of how great the innate talent, artists often need time and experience to develop and mature their art.
This also applies to creators of children’s picture books. Award-winning author-illustrator Anthony Browne felt that dissatisfaction when he re-read A Walk in the Park, a book he had written and illustrated 20 years earlier. It nagged at him, and he didn’t know what to do. Just as actors and directors do not remake their own movies, Browne didn’t wish to rewrite his own picture book.
Instead, he created a unique variation on the story of A Walk in the Park, and the result was his best-selling picture book, Voices in the Park.
A Walk in the Park tells the story of a father and daughter, Mr. Smith and Smudge, who take their dog to the park. There, they share a bench with a mother and son, Mrs. Smythe and Charles, also on a walk with their dog. The neighbourhoods from which they embark, their manner of dress and their body language all indicate that these two families have very different backgrounds.
First the dogs run around together, and soon the children start to play together. However, the two parents never acknowledge each other, and eventually they call out to tell their children that it’s time to go home.
The voices of Voices in the Park refer to the four characters from the original story. The visit to the park is shown four times, but each time is seen from the perspective of a different character.
The text and illustrations created for each “voice” reveal a great deal about the characters. While haughty Mrs. Smythe gains nothing from her walk with her son and pedigree dog, dejected Mr. Smith is reinvigorated after being infected with his daughter’s vivacious play. Mrs. Smythe’s son Charles is similarly infected after playing in the park with Smudge. His quiet discontentment with his sheltered life is juxtaposed with Smudge’s colourful and carefree existence despite her father falling on hard times.
Browne’s signature use of anthropomorphic primates is complemented by varying colour tones and backgrounds to depict their moods and intentions. There are many layers to this story. The reader will see and learn something new with each reading.
The two children in Browne’s story remind me of the little girl in John Burningham’s Come Away from the Water, Shirley. Like Charles, Shirley has parents who are unable to view the world through their child’s eyes. However, Shirley uses her imagination to overcome the impediment of having uninspiring parents. Like Smudge, she creates her adventures for herself in her humdrum life.
I am impressed with the resilience and adaptiveness of children, both fictional and real. Browne and Burningham artfully capture this beautiful ability to rise above one’s circumstances to create one’s own happiness.