This is part story book, part ‘toy book’, in that the young reader will be encouraged to look at the pictures and work out which fairytale is represented. This makes Into The Forest perfect for classroom use, along with the Shrek films and modern YA stories based on Shakespeare.
Anthony Browne writes postmodern picturebooks and Into The Forest is an excellent example of the form.
The boy is lonely without his father.
We get a hint about the desire before the story even starts, in fact, on the internal title page, where there’s a sign pasted to the window saying ‘Come home Dad’.
Here there is an unseen opponent. The boy’s own anxieties about his father at war are preventing his happiness.
To take his mind off the loneliness, the boy’s mother asks him to take a basket of goodies to his grandmother’s house. She tells him to go the long way round to avoid the forest. But the boy plans to ignore this advice for the first time ever, in case his father comes home early.
This is a mythic journey through a forest in which a boy encounters a variety of characters then ends up back home, having changed fundamentally as a person. The battle is a psychological one, symbolised by the increasingly knotted and gnarly trees and the worsening weather.
The real life battle is off the page — only in the illustrations do we get hints that the father is a soldier off at war. There’s the soldier in the boy’s bedroom, missing one leg, and the light over the dinner table shaped like a hard helmet, and its bulb melting into the shape of a tear. The empty chair casts bar-like shadows against the wall suggesting lack of freedom and imprisonment. This is all postmodern stuff.
In this highly metaphorical story, the boy learns that although being lonely and worried about your father is scary, it is possible to make it through a forest of anxiety and come out all right at the other end.
The boy is safe in the comfort of home, along with both parents there to protect him. We’re given not one but two reassuring images at the end — first the scene at grandma’s house, then again when he returns home with his father. This double reassurance is probably commensurate with the scary images on the previous pages.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION
BLACK AND WHITE
This particular book is a great look into how black and white mixed with vibrant colour can be used to create a certain effect.
Browne plays with different ambient effects in his Into The Forest, shifting from colour to black and white for the setting at the point where the protagonist enters ‘the woods’ of a fairytale world where he encounters characters from rhymes and tales. Browne incorporates many ‘hidden’ characters and objects in the shapes of the environment in these pictures, and the reader explores them in a different way from the emotionally compelling coloured pictures that open and close the story. […] In general then, picture book artists will only ignore the rich meaning of colour choices and their capacity to work on the reader’s emotions when they wish either to avoid that emotional engagement or else to invoke our feelings, particuarly a sense of the uncanny or sinister, specifically by drawing attention to the ideational content of the images.
— Reading Visual Narratives, Painter, Martin, Unsworth
Below, the goodies are wrapped up in a tea towel with the flag of England — a patriotic gesture in time of war?