Thirty five years after it first came out, Anthony Browne's masterpiece can still break hearts.
It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes you pick up an old children’s book at a yard sale and a whole new world opens up to you and your kids. That’s what happened to me two years ago when I picked up a worn paperback copy of Anthony Browne’s 1983 children’s classic Gorilla. Browne, an extremely well-known author and illustrator in his native England, is less well known in America, where is morally complex work has never really caught on.
Gorilla, very much in that mold, is the story of a little girl named Hannah and her workaholic father. “He went to work every day before Hannah went to school, and in the evening he worked at home,” writes Browne, “When Hannah asked him a question, he would say, ‘Now now. I’m busy. Maybe tomorrow.'” But the book isn’t just an illustrated version of “Cats in the Cradle.” It offers surprises.
The book opens the night before Hannah’s birthday. All she wants is a gorilla. Her father dutifully gets her one, but it’s a little stuffed-animal version. That night Hannah’s gorilla grows in size and comes alive. He asks Hannah what she wants to do and, when she says go to the zoo, he dons her father’s coat and hat and away they go.
The entire book is full of brilliant illustrations. Browne studied graphic design at Leeds College of Art and worked for years as a medical illustrator at the Leeds Royal Infirmary. He is heavily influenced by both the Surrealists and the Pre-Raphaelites. There are two spreads in particular that really capture the breathtaking genius and depth of thought Gorilla yields if only you look. They are the meal scenes.
Obviously, Gorilla is a substitute father figure for Hannah. This is communicated through drawings of the two that illustrate their different approaches to breakfast.
“The two meal scenes in Gorilla are the result of my childhood preoccupation with spot-the-difference puzzles,” Anthony explained to me recently. “In some ways the images are very similar. Compositionally, they both show the back of Hannah’s head as she eats her meal, with the foreshortened table stretching towards a male character sitting opposite her. But certain visual clues ensure that the pictures tell very different stories.”
The first meal is a breakfast Hannah “shares” with her father. The man is in the background, barely visible behind a newspaper. “There probably would be a phone in a more contemporary kitchen scene,” says Browne, “but the tone of the breakfast would have been the same — illustrating the lack of communication between the two characters.” One immediately senses the chill of the room as Hannah chews. The cabinets are blue and spotless, not unlike a mortuary slab. It’s a sad and silent image.
The first meal is thrown into sharp relief by the second, which occurs after Gorilla and Hannah visit the zoo and to see Superman, who is a gorilla, naturally.
"In the second meal scene,” explains Browne, “I have flattened the perspective so that Hannah is nearer to the gorilla and nearer to the viewer. It is a closer shot, which makes the reader feel more included in the scene. The two characters appear physically closer than they did in the first illustration, and their proximity is far more conducive to interaction.”
The table before them is laden with a feast. From left to right, a raspberry tart, two peaches, an ice cream Sundae, a cup of coffee, a cheeseburger and fries, eight bananas, a slice of Victoria sponge cake with strawberry mirror glaze and whipped cream filling, a chocolate eclair, another cup of coffee, another coffee, a bottle of ketchup, a pink steamed pudding, a cherry pie and three miniature puddings in their own ramekins.More to the point, there is a real connection between the gorilla and Hannah. “The gorilla is looking directly at Hannah,” says Browne, “eating a banana and possibly listening to something she’s saying.”
As Browne has discussed in the past, much of his work was affected by watching his own father, a publican and a former boxer, die of a heart attack in front of him when he was only 17. And though the father in Gorilla isn’t perfect, what makes the story so wonderful is that Hannah’s real father isn’t perfectly awful either. Both gorilla and man have their flaws, but they both care.
What makes it truly remarkable, though, is the penultimate spread, which shows the morning of Hannah’s birthday. We see Hannah surrounded by gorilla ephemera, a gorilla cake, a gorilla toy, and a gorilla card. Her dad, hairy handed and unshaven, plants a kiss on Hannah’s hair. There’s a banana in the back pocket of his jeans.