Willy's Pictures discussion guide



In 'Willy’s Pictures', Willy, a chimpanzee character that has starred in many of Browne’s picture books, recreates some of the author’s favourite artworks from museums around the world. In each, the human characters from the originals are replaced by simian substitutes, and a reinterpretation is created, often with a postmodern intervention by an on-the-page Willy .

In this book, Browne makes reference to famous works by painters over six centuries, from van Eyck to Kahlo, adds a humorous caption to each, uses them to highlight some enduring truths about life, and references characters and illustrations from his own earlier books.

The final fold-out sheet displays the originals, with a brief note about each, and Browne’s personal reason for selecting it as a favourite. There are also clues to the tiny details of other paintings he has incorporated.

Before reading

Display: Create an author display featuring Anthony Browne’s books in the class or school library. Gather together some primary sources i.e. reproductions of the paintings on which 'Willy’s Pictures' are based. Include biographical information about the artists. You might want to make a timeline to place the paintings in their historical context.


During reading

‘I deliberately make my books so that they are open to different interpretations…Once a book is finished I have to let it go…What happens next is out of my control’ Anthony Browne in 'What’s in the Picture'?, 1998

Browne’s picture books are sophisticated texts, eliciting enjoyment and inviting interrogation at many levels, and therefore suitable for readers of all ages. His are primarily polysemic works, and make reference to other texts or pictures and he 

assumes his readers to be able to relate to the inter-textual or inter-pictorial references.

  • Encourage pupils to compare carefully Browne’s version with each original painting Why do you think Anthony Browne has chosen to make changes:
    • to the characters (Browne’s are usually chimps or gorillas)
    • to setting – these are usually humorous, as in My Best Ever Sandcastle
  • What role does Willy play in each of these pictures? Consider what Browne is indicating by his presence. In The Kind Women where Willy is seen in the picture, but still painting the grass, as are the Women themselves how is this different to the way Willy is shown is some of the other pictures?
  • Do you think the book can be enjoyed without knowing the original paintings?
    • Does a knowledge of the original artwork increase your appreciation of the pictures or spoil it?
    • Does knowledge of Anthony Browne's other Willy books give you a new understanding of what is happening in some of these pictures?(note: Early Morning Dream and My Nightmare, put characters like Buster and Millie (from earlier Willy books) in new situations).
  • How does the text relate to the titles of some of the original paintings?  Would it make a difference if there was no text at all?(for example how do you respond to the title - Lots and Lots and Lots of Dots) 
  • The visual presence of Anthony Browne, the artist, is included on the front cover of the hardback edition.
    • Why might he have included himself in these pictures?
    • Compare with the cover of the paperback edition.
    • Which do you prefer? Why?
Consider the use of incongruous and anachronistic objects ( e.g. artists implements; shower, shower cap and soap in The Birthday Suit). How do these objects affect your response to the picture or your interpretation?
  • Most of Browne’s pictures include absurd anomalies (for example the tower block in the background of The Hero).
    • Adults sometimes find his images bizarre and disturbing. Why might this be?
    • Is this also true for younger readers?
    • Why might children and adults react differently to these images?
  • Which of Willy’s Pictures do you think works best? Why?
Anthony Browne admits that he hopes his interpretation of the Old Masters will lead at least some of his readers to the work of the original artist. Browne acknowledges the influence of the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte on his work. His early work shows this most clearly, especially 'Through the Magic Mirror' (1976), probably the most directly allusive of all his texts, for later he echoes Magritte’s approach rather than being imitative.
Investigate Magritte’s work, and his trademark images: clouds, hats and pipes, apple-

faces, pictures within pictures, visual puns and optical illusions.

  • Create artwork influenced by the other originals parodied in 'Willy’s Pictures'.
    • Pupils might include small details from other pictures within their reinterpretation of the main artwork (see C see for instance coming to Life)
    • Visual puns could be invented
    • They might look at the use of one object in place of another which it in some way resembles (like the loaves/houses masquerading as haystacks in The Kind Women).
    • Punning captions could also be added
    • Like many earlier artists, Browne delights in surreptitiously putting ciphers, monograms and artists’tools in his pictures. Encourage pupils to identify these features and to adopt their own personal cipher or monogram which will mark their work making it identifiable


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