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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Anthony Browne
Candlewick Press,(October 2006)
Billy used to be a bit of a worrier.
He worried about many things . . . .
Billy worried about hats,
and he worried about shoes.
Billy worried about clouds
--Silly Billy by Anthony Browne, p. 1-6.
Billy is a worrier. He worries about all sorts of things, and though he receives reassurance from his parents, it doesn't stop him from worrying. Then he stays overnight at his grandmother's, and gets more worried--until she offers him a solution: worry dolls. Billy has a wonderful night's sleep, but after a few nights he begins to worry about the worry dolls holding his worry--until he comes up with the best solution of all. This is a reassuring, uplifting book about worry that encourages the reader to talk out their worries and to let them go.
Though Silly Billy is about a child who worries, it is a surprisingly comforting and cozy book, while still bringing enough understanding to resonate with worriers. Browne's (Willy the Champ, Willy and Hugh) text reassuringly opens by telling the reader that Billy used to be a worrier (hinting that he isn't a worrier any longer). The worries that Billy has are not particularly frightening or painful ones (hats, rain, clouds, etc), and Billy's parents' reassurances are included, which the reader may find comforting. Also comforting is the fact that an adult--Billy's grandmother--worried just like Billy when she was little; it may help some readers to hear this, while adding authenticity and backstory.
Browne's text moves quickly, never saying too much. Browne has a good sense of pacing; the initial brief text helps move the story forward quickly and plunges the reader directly into the problem, with sentences and thoughts broken up by ellipses and partial sentences, and each worry placed on a separate page with its own illustration. Later, when Billy gets reassurances, faces his fears, and starts to feel better, the sentences become longer and there are more sentences per page. This means that less time and space is spent on the actual worries, and more on the reassurances, the story, and the solution, which helps bring a cozy feeling to the book. Then, near the end of the book, when Billy has found his own solution, the sentences become shorter again, fewer per page, bringing a sense of repetition and completion, yet the sentences are reassuring, funny, and uplifting. Browne also leaves out unnecessary dialogue, including only important dialogue such as Billy's parents' reassurances, and his grandmother's reassurance and solution.
Billy's grandmother offers Billy worry dolls to help him deal with his fears, but this idea works only for a few days. It is Billy himself who comes up with the final solution, the one that continues to work, and this makes it more Billy's own story, with him as the hero; he's the one who solved his own problem (with a little help). This makes the story more powerful and emotionally rich, and also encourages readers to think that they, too, can find their own unique solution for their worries--that they take others' solutions, and tinker with them so they fit just right. The explanation of the worry dolls is written simply, with a kind of magical thinking that often appeals to kids: "They'll do all the worrying for you while you sleep." This also gives readers who worry a possible springboard from which to find their own solution. The worry dolls will be recognizable to many readers, but for those who they are not familiar with them, there is a paragraph about them in the back matter. Billy's and his grandmother's solution is such a part of the story that it never feels out of place or instructive, but just entertaining and a gentle reminder of possibilities.
Billy worries about the dolls holding all his worries, and this fits the way many children who worry think, and seems realistic. Billy's solution to this, and the ending of the book, is funny and uplifting, and brings good feeling, while still retaining some realism (that Billy worries far less, but still occasionally does). This, paired with the bright, warm, and surreal illustrations, seem just right for this cozy book.
One small thing that didn't work for me was the title of the book; I don't see how "Silly Billy" relates to the story. Billy is the main character, but he's not silly, and only once worried that he was silly for worrying. For me, it doesn't fit the emotional tone--but it is such a small thing, and the title and the art would get me to pick up the book any way. Once the story began, I was caught up in it.
Browne's watercolor-and-color-pencil illustrations have a distinct style; anyone who's seen his other work will recognize it--the way Billy slouches as he walks, the vests and clothes he wears, the way his hair is parted and slicked down, the faces looking slightly ape-like, are all similar to Willy the ape from Browne's other books. Billy's parents' and grandmother's bodies are large and rounded, with slightly oversized heads, hands, and feet.
Browne uses a bright palette, with vibrant, rich colors (including those used for backgrounds) that look like they're from the worry dolls. He also makes good use of texture (especially in the floors, walls, and in the close-up of the grandmother's hand, as well as many of the backgrounds). There is a nice use of pattern throughout the illustrations, found in the wallpaper, the clothing (which is not overdone, but appears in small splashes, which helps make it pleasing to the eye), and the furniture. Pattern often helps draw the eye towards Billy. Billy always stands out in each illustration, as he should, through him being in vibrant color on white background, through pattern pointing toward him (even through the shadows or creases of his pillow), through him being in white against a pale colored background, through the pattern of his clothing standing out against bright colors behind him, and other techniques.
Billy's worries are distinguished from the rest of the illustrations by being in black and white with one color-tone wash (such as yellow or blue), and by a thin black border with a larger white border around them, giving the suggestion of a photograph, as if those events are in the past (as the text suggests). The worry scenes are also surrounded by bright, cheerful color, helping to lessen the impact of any worry or fear readers may pick up on. Each of the worry scenes echo that particular worry on the wallpaper; for the hats, there are small shadowy hats on the wallpaper, for the shoes there are small footprints, and so on. The scenes where Billy worries are illustrated like fantasy or surreal scenes spiced with humor; they are not scary, and instead look almost magical: where Billy is worried about hats, there are hats flying around the room; where Billy is worried about shoes, there are pairs of shoes walking themselves out of his room, up the wall, and out his bedroom window; where Billy is worried about rain, it's raining in his room, so much so that a small lake fills his room almost to the top of his bed.
Browne effectively shows both worry and comfort in his illustrations through his use of body language, color, and light and shadow. In one illustration where Billy is staying the night at his grandmother's, he looks worried, lonely, and very small, his body the one bright spot in the room, his face worried, his ears large, surrounded by a grey-blue gloom, huge furniture, overwhelming pattern on the walls, a stark painting above him, and nothing comforting. And when Billy is being comforted by his parents, they are each shown holding him, surrounding him with their big arms, their faces kind, everyone wearing bright colors, Billy with a small smile on his face, the furniture gentle, the wallpaper neutral. The most comforting, happy illustrations occur after Billy is introduced to the worry dolls; there is a real sense of comfort and contentment in the illustrations of him sleeping with a big smile on his face, light like the sun radiating out from him in one illustration, blue like a soft cloud for his pillow and blanket surrounding him in another.
Browne has a good sense of visual pacing, as well. The illustration where Billy is working on something (and the text does not tell us what) gives the readers hints, but does not directly reveal the worry dolls, though many readers will guess at what he is making. But there is a twist to what he makes, as revealed in the next spread, and because this is broken up between spreads, the punch line is all the more humorous and effective.
There is a visual movement between smaller illustrations within borders on colored backgrounds, larger one-and-a-half page illustrations that bleed right to the edges of the pages, and illustrations where the images appear on white backgrounds. The border around the illustration where Billy's grandmother says she has something for him, but hasn't yet shown him the worry dolls, visually foreshadows the dolls by having a colorful border with various geometric shapes and patterns that mimic those in the worry dolls' clothing and Guatamelean fabric. The one time something breaks outside of its border is when Billy's grandmother holds out the worry dolls in her hand. This breaking out of the border, the faint lines pulsing out from her hand in the background, and the brightness of her hand and the dolls against a dark background all make that illustration pop and bring importance to the moment where Billy is offered something that will prove helpful. Each of the worry dolls are named, except in the very last illustration, and as they multiply, readers may have fun reading the names for each one, as well as examining the different outfits.
The second-to-last illustration shows Billy walking facing the same way as the opening illustration, wearing the same clothes, but instead of looking worried and upset, he now looks happy and carefree, with a smile on his face, his head held high, his body more upright. Even his hair is a little messier and more carefree, not so carefully slicked down, and his socks sag around his ankles in a carefree, playful way. This helps give a sense of having come full circle, with positive change.
Browne is a talented writer and illustrator; Silly Billy is a book to pore over and treasure. Worriers of all ages will identify with Billy, understand his worries, and feel relieved at the outcome. Silly Billy may also encourage readers to buy or make their own set of worry dolls. Reassuring, uplifting, and fun, this is the perfect book for the worrier in your life, whether it's yourself or someone you love. Highly recommended.
-Added May 2007
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