Anthony Browne's Zoo

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A rationale to support the teaching of Anthony Browne’s ‘ZOO’

Anthony Browne is a very prolific children’s author and illustrator, whom some of the children may already be familiar.

It is possible to use this familiarisation to discuss with the pupils reoccurring themes within Anthony Browne’s books. The anthropomorphism of his characters and the use of motifs, such as bananas and hats, are prevalent throughout his books. This is a quality that adds an extra-textual element to Browne’s work, as the reader already has a wealth of prior knowledge to bring to the picture reading process (Duncan, 2009).

It is this wealth of prior knowledge that I intended to incite via the lesson starter. It is assumed that most children have, by the age of ten, knowledge of zoo’s and animals in relation to their natural habitat. Using a dramatic convention that allows the children to depict a scene of their favourite animal within its natural habitat, not only encourages them to engage in being more social and expressive students, but also, through appropriate teacher questioning, may well establish internal notions that will be fostered during the reading of Zoo.

Browne’s recognisable illustrative style is able to impart a great sense of warmth to the reader. However, this is often interspersed with what could be described as bleak and subtly distressing images, as his books often deal with complex issues and dilemmas.

Zoo, published in 1992, centres around a conventional domestic situation, in which ‘Mum’, ‘Dad’ and their two boys spend the day visiting a zoo. The narrative of the book depicts the day as pretty uneventful, mildly boring even. The highlights being “burger, chips and beans”, “the monkey hats” and “going home” - not quite the exciting day they had all anticipated. Browne’s illustrations cleverly compliment the narrative, yet tell an altogether different story. They require the reader to infer an underlying awareness of animal oppression; provoking the reader to engage empathetically with the animals’ plight.

One of the illustrative techniques used by Browne is to make some of the faces of his characters indeterminate. Graham (1990) argues that this enables the child reader to project their own persona into them. The imaginative realisation of the text may then be realised. This illustrative technique appears prominently in Browne’s depiction of the Orang-utan. The reader is drawn in with feelings of sympathy toward the faceless, yet clearly sorrowful creature. This technique appears again on the penultimate page in which the young boy who narrates the story is sitting, confined to a cage with his head in his lap. His face is not visible, adding to the indeterminate aspect of the character and harbouring an imaginative realisation for the reader.

The pictures in Zoo are so interwoven with the text, that, to quote a phrase used by Graham, “to give the text alone would be like giving a performance of a concerto without an orchestra.”. Browne cleverly combines the text and the illustrations in such a way that he “invites the reader to enter his mutual game” (Graham, 1990).

I therefore felt it essential that the initial reading of Zoo was done at a slow enough pace, allowing the pupils to engage with the pictures as well as the text. As Hunt (2001) points out, picture books are read not at word speed but at picture speed. This slower process makes demands on the pupils to look longer and deeper into the pictures, creating opportunities to operate at a higher cognitive level.

I was keen to use the ethical dilemma presented by Browne in Zoo as a stimulus for meaningful drama within the classroom, a chance for the pupils to engage in small groups, exchanging ideas and expressing the views they hold about a dilemma to which the society they belong to is accountable. This idea hits upon and facilitates one of the main principles of English teaching that underpins my lesson - literacy is a set of social...
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