Anthony Browne was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire. His parents, Jack and Doris May Browne, owned a pub in Wyke, Yorkshire, and Browne and his older brother Michael grew up there. As a young boy, he enjoyed art, and used to draw with his father. He also played rugby in school, as well as football and cricket. His future ambition was to be a journalist, a cartoonist, or a boxer. He studied graphic design at Leeds College of Art, where he graduated in 1967.
He intended to become a painter, but being short of money he took as job as a medical illustrator, drawing the insides of bodies for Manchester Royal Infirmary. After three years he grew tired of the job's repetitiveness and moved on to design greeting cards for Gordon Fraser. He designed cards for fifteen years before he started writing and illustrating his own books.
He had his first book published in 1976, Through the Magic Mirror. It was not particularly successful at first, although it is still in print. A Walk in the Park followed and gained a cult following. Bear Hunt was more commercially successful, and his breakthrough came with Gorilla in 1983, an idea from one of the greeting cards he had designed. It won him the Kate Greenaway Medal, which he won again in 1992 for Zoo. He has also won the Kurt Maschler 'Emil' Award three times, for Gorilla (1983), Alice's Adventure in Wonderland (1988) and Voices in the Park (1998). In 2000 he became the first British illustrator ever to win the Hans Christian Andersen Award, for his services to children's literature.
Gorillas are frequently featured in Browne's books, as he has said he is fascinated by them. He was once asked to present a children's programme, whilst sitting in a cage of gorillas, and despite being badly bitten by one of them he got on with it before being taken to hospital. His character "Willy" is said to be based on himself. He currently resides in Canterbury, Kent.
He won the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis in 1985.
On 9 June 2009 he was appointed the new Children's Laureate for 2009 to 2011, selected by a panel chaired by Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate.
Criticism of Browne's works
Ellen Handler Spitz heavily criticizes Willy the Wimp on moral grounds for having what she deems to be a macho ideology and a racist presentation of stereotypes of African-American children living in an urban area, who she says are designated as the villains in the book. Spitz manages to reach this conclusion despite the fact that no human children, African-American or otherwise, are featured in the book.