Earlier this year, John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury were jointly presented with the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award, which celebrates the body of work of an author or illustrator who has made an outstanding contribution to children’s literature. Nicolette Jones, who is on the adjudicating panel for the award, selects ten of their very best books, five from each.
Choosing five of the best books each by Helen Oxenbury and John Burningham from their huge body of work is an impossible task. There is no Top Ten. Everything they create exemplifies their skill and spirit, and is excellent in different ways. But here are a few personal favourites.
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt
Michael Rosen, illustrated Helen Oxenbury, Walker Books, 978-0-7445-2323-2, £12.99 pbk
In We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, with text modified by Michael Rosen, Oxenbury responded to a traditional rhyme that suggested bear country – wild woods and caves – and made it domestic. She took a creature who was dangerous and turned fear into a thrilling game, like grandmother’s footsteps. She gave the beast a touch of teddy bear, and a hint of loneliness, so that we might feel sympathy and think of it as a playmate. Her illustrations used places she knew, and real, observed children. (All the characters are children, the tallest a big brother, expressly to suggest the freedom of having no adults about.) So quite apart from the accuracy of her line, her composition, the way she conveys space and light and weather and atmosphere, the sense of place, the warmth of her vision and the perfect rendering of movement, stance, character and emotion, she is telling us something beyond even the drama of the episode. This is a book that illustrates the experience of how you might read it, like the ‘serving suggestion’ on a packet of frozen vegetables. The images say to you: take this rhyme with you on an outing. Have an adventure. Make believe. Explore landscape. Be intrepid. Be together. In fact, it suggests not only how to enjoy the book. It shows us how to have a childhood.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll, illus Helen Oxenbury, Walker Books, 978-0-7445-8267-3, £12.99 pbk
It seems that every distinguished illustrator has had a go at Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, finding ways to make Lewis Carroll’s story their own. But Helen Oxenbury’s version brings to the book the loveliness of her draughtsmanship and a playfulness few have matched. Her characters look friendly where some have been frightening; for Oxenbury the strangeness is more comical than sinister. And her modern Alice, in her blue mini-dress and trainers, with her hair flying free and her casual posture, breathes new life into the classic, which, despite its oddness, becomes an inviting idyll with its sun-kissed settings of English countryside on a summer afternoon.
When Big Mama Makes the World
Phyllis Root, illus Helen Oxenbury, Walker Books, 978-0744573824,
When Big Mama Makes the World, written by Phyllis Root and illustrated by Oxenbury, was never a huge seller, perhaps because of its unconventional theology. But I think this its strength: the notion that the world might have been made in a free few distracted moments by a busy mother with a baby on her hip. The book recognises what superwomen mothers are – which should have made it very popular. Oxenbury rises to difficult challenges, using a mixture of media and daring perspectives, not least conveying both ordinary life and an epic scale. She makes abstract ideas concrete and depicts characters almost invisible in the darkness and hyper-exposed in the glare of the sun. She illustrates a profusion of marine creatures, birds, and animals, and the emergence from a ball of mud of a diverse population. Throughout she never loses the warmth of character of Big Mama nor the essential babyishness of the infant. And when she illustrates loneliness, and then companionship, Oxenbury makes such memorable images. She shows a sad mother comforted by animals and her baby, and then, imagining the quintessence of good company, she depicts the carefree laughter of a crowd of people on a veranda lit by the setting sun.
Tickle Tickle: A First Book for Babies
Helen Oxenbury, Walker Books, 978-1406319477, £5.99 board book
Oxenbury’s baby books were ground-breaking, because of the diversity of the babies she drew, and her affectionate observation of them. They have helped to persuade generations of families that books have a place in the lives of infants under a year old – an achievement of immeasurable importance. Tickle Tickle is a very successful example, which works partly because it reflects babies back at them in a solid and characterful way that they recognise and respond to, and partly because it is interactive. It prompts communication between reader and child, even when the child cannot speak. At seven months, my daughter began to laugh in anticipation, on the page before the tickling.
Martin Waddell, illus Helen Oxenbury, Walker Books, 978-0-7445-3660-7, £6.99 pbk
It is hard not to choose the revisionist The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, or the Captain Jack books about children playing in a garden, but Farmer Duck works perfectly. Martin Waddell’s story of a lazy farmer and his industrious duck who masterminds a rebellion of farm animals, is itself satisfying as a political allegory. But Oxenbury’s drawings, her expressive vignettes of the busy duck, atmospheric autumn-coloured fields and farmyards, and spreads, like theatrical scenes, of the duck serving the portly farmer lunch in bed, or animals lounging in the hay at their mutinous meeting, are glorious. They bring us onto the stage or open up the landscape with distant perspectives, until we live in the story. Even the silhouette of a wintry tree is evocative. And this book demonstrates superbly Oxenbury’s capacity for humour and characterisation, and how she can magically anthropomorphise animals without misrepresenting their physique. ‘How goes the work?’ Brilliantly.
Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers
John Burningham, Red Fox, 978-0-0994-0067-7, £6.99 pbk
The first picturebook John Burningham wrote and illustrated, Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers, was immediately acclaimed. It won the Greenaway Medal for 1963, and gave rise to a whole new children’s book list at Cape. It is the Ugly-Ducklingesque tale of Borka, the sixth gosling born to Mr and Mrs Plumpster, who wears a grey jumper his mother knits because he has no feathers, and can’t fly. Bullied and left behind by his migrating fellows, he stows away on a trawler, makes friends and ends up in Kew Gardens where the geese don’t mind strangeness. The appeal of this story has endured, partly because it is witty and involving and its theme of difference is timeless, but, with its rich textures and patterns and sure, bold, inky line, it is also still beautiful. A stormy sky and landscape, splattered and worked in purples, oranges, greys and greens is almost an abstract; a flight of geese, angular against a sunset, is vibrant with colour and movement; the Impressionistic blurry grey and orange of a misty, wintry estuary is transporting; trees at Kew are lovely, layered, textured blobs; even patches of ground are gorgeous surfaces. This fabulous combination of expressive drawing and sumptuous texture is characteristic of Burningham (see also Simp, Humbert, Harquin, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, for instance) and makes me want to look again and again.
Mr Gumpy’s Outing
John Burningham, Red Fox, 978-0-0994-0879-6, £7.99 pbk
With its simple, repetitive text, and big splash climax, Mr Gumpy’s Outing has become a nursery favourite. But the strength of the experience of this grand day out is in the images, with cross-hatched line drawings, with inviting detail, of Mr Gumpy’s punt on its journey, opposite coloured, textured full pages. These larger images both show and suggest in line, crayon, and paint the creatures, all individual and full of life, that Mr Gumpy encounters among reeds, ferns and wildflower meadows. And as a bonus the book tells us that there is no need to punish anyone who fails to follow instructions. You can take them home to tea instead.
Edwardo The Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World
John Burningham, Red Fox, 978-0-0994-8013-6, £7.99 pbk
Burningham’s books are often resonant about big subjects: death (Grandpa); the environment (Oi! Get Off Our Train); refugees (Mouse House); the power of imagination (The Magic Bed, Time to Get Out of the Bath, Shirley …), for instance; but I am particularly fond of Edwardo The Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World, which I think should be read by every parent and politician because it says something fundamental about how we should treat children, and indeed each other. Edwardo behaves badly until his behaviour is interpreted kindly. This book, with a looser, lighter line than the early books, is economical and expressive, and reminds us that demonising and punishing children, adults or whole cultures only perpetuates misery.
John Burningham, Red Fox, 978-0-0996-6681-3, £7.99 pbk
Dogs with remarkable powers are a recurrent theme of Burningham’s books, and Courtney is a favourite of mine, partly because of the marvellous uncertainty of the plot. Funny, with complete scenes conjured with a tentative line, it’s about an old mongrel, regarded by adults as ‘not a proper dog’, who can cook, clean, juggle, and play the violin, and who rescues a baby from a burning house. It has a wondrous mystery ending and a sense of magic.
John Burningham, Red Fox, 978-1-7829-5555-9, £7.99 pbk
Dogs, cars and landscapes all seem to be favourite subjects of John Burningham’s, and they, and other aspects of his work, all come together in a recent book, Motor Miles, which proves that Burningham has lost none of his creative powers. As funny and quirky as we expect, this is a story of a dog, Miles, that learns to drive. Miles is uncooperative until he finds what makes him happy (echoing Edwardo …). Motor Miles hints at an enigma, reminiscent of Courtney. And it uses the economy of line of Burningham’s later work, but also evokes the countryside with skilled and sensuous use of colour, texture and atmosphere in a way that harks back to Borka and Mr Gumpy. And it has a theme of freedom, which underpins so much of what Burningham has done.
Nicolette Jones has been the children’s books reviewer of The Sunday Times for more than two decades. In 2012 she was nominated for an Eleanor Farjeon Award for outstanding service to children’s books, and she has judged many book prizes including Booktrust’s Ten Best New Illustrators, the Klaus Flugge Prize and the Macmillan Prize for Illustration.