When I was a teacher, I often had a class reading book, usually chosen by the children themselves, that I would read at the end of the day, just a chapter at a time. It helped the children and me wind down and gave us something to think about and question, away from the successes, hard work,intrigues and sometimes failings of the day. Reading the book, just one chapter at a time, also enabled the children and me to think about the issues, themes and characters in the story at a leisurely pace. Sometimes the book might be a novel such as a Harry Potter and sometimes it was a picture book, such as VOICES by Anthony Browne. The first thing we would do is read the title and look at the picture on the cover. What did the title and the picture tell us about the story we were about to read? The title, “VOICES” brings to mind a number of thoughts. Are these voices overheard by a person in the park? Are they voices somebody might be hearing in their mind? Differing voices have different viewpoints. This is something that we all need to be aware, that situations, can be seen from different angles, different viewpoints and have different effects on different people. We have our viewpoint and other people have theirs and we must learn to empathise.
The picture on the front of VOICES shows a scene set in a park. Parks are egalitarian places. People from different levels of society; employment, education, and work, see each other, pass by and occasionally say hello. An avenue of trees leads to two small characters facing each other. The boy offers the girl a flower. Behind them, at odd crazy slightly unnerving angles, grow neat green conical bushes. A little unsettling. There is something church like in this scene.The tree trunks are like the columns lining the aisle of an ancient church The canopy of leaves pressing down on the bright green grass and the young couple is somewhat oppressive. It presses down heavily. It is bright red with flashes of yellow at the top part and dark and gloomy at the base of the leaf canopy. Two dogs, also in the distance to the right of the picture run and cavort. The dogs appear carefree and abandoned compared to the reticent and tentative, maybe tender, encounter between the little boy and the little girl. Ominous forebodings or happy encounters? What is to come?
The characters are portrayed as gorillas. This is something Anthony Browne has used in other books. It removes the characters from looking like human beings, however, the characters are hyper human, almost more than human. At first you might think, is this a racial slur, but it is not. The characters are you and me or any person from various walks of life. Anthony Browne has been asked about his portrayal of some of his characters as gorillas. His reply has always been, “I like gorillas.” Gorillas have obviously had a deep emotional impact on him. We can wonder. His characters portrayed as ordinary humans are often monstrous.
Four different voices of four characters appear in the story: The first voice is that of a mother with a son called Charles and a pedigree Labrador. They emerge from a large, elegant mansion with manicured lawns on their way to the park. The type of script used to record her voice is a bold Baskerville script. It looks refined. The second voice, the father of the girl, wears overalls and a workman’s jacket. He is unemployed and needs to get out of the house. The four walls must be making him feel crazy. He has a depressed look on his face as he sits in an armchair contemplating. The script used to portray the father is bold and simple. The third voice is that of the little boy, his voice printed in a much lighter and subdued version of his officious mothers script.He leads a lonely, controlled life it seems. His mother is overprotective, controlling and stuffy. The fourth voice is the little girl. She seems to be the most liberated of the four voices, adventurous, open to meeting new people, the most empathetic of the four characters. Her script is uneven, bold, creative, invented. The portraits of the characters, the script used to portray their individual voices and above all their words reveal their characters. We know them. We have all met people like that. Children reading this will empathise with the characters. They will know them as much as any adult reading this story.
The four characters portray the social layers of society, attitudes and the effects those layers have on the individual.
The mother, is formal and class ridden in the little things as well as the big things. Her dog is not any dog it’s a ,”pedigree, Labrador”, called Victoria. The son, and she formally calls him her son, is Charles. The regal connections are obvious.When they reach the park another dog is merely “some scruffy mongrel.” Words such as “bothered,” and ,”horrible,”reveal her attitudes. She orders Charles, “ Sit,” I said to Charles.”Here.” No love, no warmth just cold command. The picture by Anthony Browne that reveals as much if not more than the words, shows Victoria chasing the mongrel dog in the distance. The two dogs look carefree . The mother and Charles, the obedient son sit ,on the park bench, slightly apart looking in opposite directions. The mother with an angry, expression Charles, forlorn.
The girls father, makes an appearance sitting on the opposite end to the park bench to the mother. The mother is alarmed. Charles has disappeared. A close up of the mother shows panic. She calls Charles name. She refers to the “frightful types,” you get in the park. She sees Charles ,”talking to a very rough-looking child.” ”Charles, come here. At once!””And come here please, Victoria.” This whole scene feels constipated. It is painful for the mother and it is certainly painful for her son. She attempts to control the situation but her panic shows her helplessness. Her rigid views do not sit comfortably with her, and her son. The dogs are just dogs. They don’t care about class, pedigree and superiority. It means nothing to the dogs and you feel acutely it shouldn’t matter to the human characters in the story either.
The second voice, the father of Smudge, needs to get out of the house. You can sense his frustration, boredom, desperation and depression at being unemployed. Unlike the mother, he senses the vigour , and energy his dog has and wishes he felt like that He spends time looking for a job in the newspaper. He needs some hope even if things are hopeless. His daughter Smudge cheers him up with her chatter. The picture of them on their way home expresses the joy and fun he at least gets from his daughter and his dog. The mother could derive no joy at all form her son and her dog. Which of them is better off?
The two other voices are Charles and Smudge. Charles is bored at home.The park visit is an epiphany for him. He sees the mongrel dog is friendly with his pedigree dog. He so wishes he could have a good time too. Then he meets Smudge and he plays with her on the slide and the climbing frame. He is amazed at the feeling of fun and joy he feels and thought Smudge was, brilliant. We feel pleased Charles has had this experience. You get the sense he now knows what fun , joy and friendship are. A chink of light in his depressing dark life. He hopes “Smudge will be there next tme.”
Smudge is confident and abandoned. She is open to meeting Charles and just being friendly. Charles responds by giving Smudge a flower. It is almost romantic. Smudge brings joy to Charles and also to her own father. Her dog, Albert, has an abandoned free spirit too,”he went straight up to this lovely dog and sniffed its bum (he always does that).” Smudge is a catalyst of hope for all she encounters it seems. She notices the sadness in Charles. She can empathise.
If you were to read this with a class of children, what might you discuss? What would their reaction and thoughts be? Have they ever been in a situation or know people like these? Have they encountered people who are aloof? Why would somebody be like that? Have they experienced loneliness, lack of confidence?. What does this story tell us about dealing with those feelings and situations? Do they know about unemployment, being wealthy, finding themselves in awkward social situations? Have they experienced feelings of freedom? What makes them joyous? Some of those answers children might want to keep to themselves. What is important is that they can learn to empathise with those situations and feelings themselves.
BIOGRAPHY: Anthony Browne is an illustrator and writer of children’s books. His books delve into the psychological, social interactions and relationships of children. They are sometimes dark, sinister stories. Empathy is an overriding theme. Great children’s literature helps children deal with deep issues imaginatively. He was born on the 11th September 1946 near Sheffield in the north of England. His mother and father, Jack and Doris, managed a pub called the Red Lion at Hellfire Corner. He did graphic design at Leeds College of Art graduating in 1967. He became a medical illustrator at Manchester Royal Infirmary. Later he designed cards for Gordon Fraser, a company who produce cards for all occasions. After a few years of doing that for a living he began illustrating and writing his own books. Through The Magic Mirror, came out in 1976. He won The Kate Greenaway prize for children’s literature in 1992 for his book ZOO. In 2001 he became a writer and illustrator at Tate Britain helping develop children’s art. In 2009 he became the 6th Children’s Laureate. Previous Laureates include Quentin Blake, Michael Rosen, Michael Morpurgo, Jaqueline Wilson and Anne Fine. The present laureate is Cressida Cowell famous for, How To Train Your Dragon.
Anthony Browne has written fifty books for children. The most famous ones are VOICES, ZOO, WILLY THE WIMP, THE TUNNEL and INTO THE FOREST. I have probably missed your favourite ones in this short list. They are all worth engaging with. They provide food for thought for both adults and children.