We intend to fall off the perch while working, says ‘Bear Hunt’ illustrator Helen Oxenbury at 80
PUBLISHED: 12:02 28 October 2018 | UPDATED: 18:49 28 October 2018
There’s magic in her pencils and brushes… As the skill of Helen Oxenbury is honoured with a deserved biography, she talks about childhood in East Anglia, her enduring love of Suffolk, and getting children hooked on reading
Quick! Back through the cave! Tiptoe! Tiptoe! Tiptoe!
Back through the mud! Squelch squerch! Squelch squerch!
Back through the snowstorm! Hoooo wooooo! Hoooo wooooo!
They might be the rhythmic words of poet and novelist Michael Rosen but (with all due respect to the former Children’s Laureate) we owe the pictures in our minds to the magic of Helen Oxenbury.
She provided the illustrations for the picture-book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, out in 1989 and a huge hit then and forever among youngsters, their parents, grandparents and teachers.
It wasn’t the first, or the last. Helen started her book-illustration career as a mum in her late-20s. She’s since brought pictorial sparkle to 80-plus books for children – selling more than 35million copies. (Thirty-five million!)
Some have been individual projects, such as her classic board-books for babies. Others, like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, are collaborations where her pictures dovetail with a writer’s words. It’s all brought a sackful of awards.
If you’ve had anything to do with youngsters over the past five decades, you’ll recognise the titles. Such as Farmer Duck (written by Martin Waddell) and The Giant Jumperee (Julia Donaldson).
Walker Books is honouring her career (in the year she turned 80) with a coffee-tablesque tome called Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration.
The biography is by Leonard Marcus, who’s done a fine job charting Helen’s life from her roots in eve-of-war Ipswich to 2018 – via the tennis courts of Wimbledon, the theatre in Colchester, adventures in Israel, her 1967 debut Numbers of Things, and an old boathouse that survived the 1953 North Sea floods and remains her link with East Anglia.
The Brooklyn-based writer first met the illustrator in 1989, and says it seemed even then that she “understood how hard it was to be a new mum or dad and how impossibly hard it must be, at times, to be a baby – a brand-new person in the world. What was more, she had a gift for crafting words and pictures that brought adult and child closer together”.
I seem to turn up like a bad penny around the time of landmark birthdays. I interviewed Helen in 2008, for instance – at her London studio in Primrose Hill – a couple of months before she turned 70. Now I’m back to irritate a few months after she became an octogenarian.
This time, it’s on the phone. She’s at home, on the edge of Hampstead Heath. With – it emerges – the bath and loo for company. Er, why is she ensconced in the bathroom? “I wanted somewhere quiet,” she laughs. “Nobody is going to come in and interrupt me.”
Fair enough. And it is nice – more a pukka room than a smallest-room-in-the-house, and with underfloor heating. With the kind of black and white marble floor-tiles that pop up in some of her illustrations, unless I’m mistaken. Yes, she confirms. There are some in her acclaimed version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Curioser and curioser.
Helen was born in 1938. Her first home was a bungalow in Bixley Road, Ipswich. Her architect father, Bernard, later became East Suffolk county planning officer.
When she was seven or eight the family moved to Felixstowe. It was thought the sea air would ease her bad asthma. “I think actually it made it worse!” she says now. “So damp! Eventually it disappeared…”
At 11, Helen went to Ipswich High School for Girls. It (strict, “Victorian” and chilly) and she (not a full-on academic) didn’t gel. But she was good at drawing and painting.
Happily, a teacher suggested she ought to study it properly. So she went on to Ipswich Art School – where she did gel.
In the holidays she’d help Ipswich repertory theatre by mixing paint at the warehouse where scenery was built. On to the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London from 1957 to 1959. Then a job at Colchester rep, helping design scenery and sets for £7 a week.
At the Central School she’d met John Burningham: a former teenage pupil at Summerhill School in Leiston, oddly enough, who was studying illustration. Afterwards, he went to Israel to make puppets for an animated film. Helen went out about nine months after starting her job in Essex. She taught English, worked as an au pair, and became a scenery painter and then set designer with Israel’s national theatre.
Helen and John spent about three years in Israel, on and off, before settling in London. She worked at ABC Television and Shepperton Studios. John produced some stylish posters for London Transport and, in 1963, saw the publication of his first book for children – Borka: the Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers. It took the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration.
Daughter Lucy was born in 1965. It didn’t look as if Helen could easily slip back into the world of theatre, but the chance to design a card for a friend’s business led to an idea for a children’s picture-book.
Her first was the counting book Numbers of Things – “two cars… four mice” and so on – published by Heinemann in 1967. The next year she illustrated The Great Big Enormous Turnip. There was also the arrival of son Bill.
Progress was swift, if cottage industry-like. Helen invariably worked in the evenings as her offspring slumbered. Whatever, talent will always out, and in 1969 she won the Kate Greenaway Medal for her artwork in Edward Lear’s The Quangle Wangle’s Hat and Margaret Mahy’s The Dragon of an Ordinary Family.
They were halcyon days. Leonard Marcus suggests: “It was as though the war had drained the colour from English life, and a new generation of artists, designers, musicians, writers and others had arisen to put it back. As The Beatles would proclaim in much the same celebratory spirit: ‘Here comes the sun’!”
Two key things happened in the late 1970s. Helen was recruited by the somewhat eccentric Sebastian Walker, who after working for other publishing houses set up his own: Walker Books. And she had third child Emily in 1978.
Helen told me in 2008 that her flow of simplified, sturdy, board books for toddlers developed after young Emily was sick and her parents spent half the night trying to take her mind off it.
“She used to love looking at things – a bunch of keys; babies in a Mothercare catalogue. I thought there must be some books (like that), but there weren’t – apart from Dick Bruna, who produced a series of board books with a very stylised rabbit (Miffy), but I wanted to do ‘real’ babies, with all the normal things around them.”
So in 1981 there was a series with titles such as Working, Family, Friends, Playing. The following years brought books such as Bedtime, The Birthday Party, Gran and Grandpa, and I Can.
Helping no end in this process was Emily – offering her artistic mother inspiration as she grew and had new experiences.
Helen talked in 2008 about how there was more to creating an effective children’s book than might meet the eye. They might look simple, but they couldn’t just be dashed off.
“They’ve got to be interesting, not boring; they’ve got to have strong characters; humour; excitement; and to move you in some way. Terribly difficult, doing all that, but that’s what one looks for.”
A line drawn just one millimetre the wrong way could prove the difference between success and failure. Even the precise positioning of eyes – just a dot each, maybe – was critical.
Leonard Marcus cites Walker editor David Lloyd’s reaction to 1983’s The Dancing Class.
“A seemingly minor detail in one of the drawings suddenly crystallized for Lloyd the full extent of Helen’s uncanny powers of observation. The pianist, a heavyset, older woman, wore a support bandage around her calf.
“In so ‘simple’ a picture book about a little girl’s first foray into the realm of dance, here was a touch of realism that went well beyond the literal requirements of the situation – a subtle aside (if one thought about it) on the vagaries of physical decline.”
And so the books (and triumphs) have rolled on. From the bold and vibrant illustrations for Trish Cooke’s 1994 book So Much and 1999’s Kate Greenaway Medal-winning Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (“a kind of sprinter’s marathon, with nearly one hundred drawings of differing sizes and degrees of complexity ultimately required”, says Leonard) to the 2010 husband-and-wife first-ever collaboration There’s Going to Be a Baby.
Helen has no intention of stopping.
“The bulk of my day consists of ‘Oh, gosh, I must get to work. I must quickly do the shopping and then go to work’,” she says.
With seven grandchildren ranging from university age down to four or five months, and Emily’s family living next-door, inspiration is never far away.
“I have to have a sort of a dose of the grandchildren every day,” she admits. “I like little children. I love to watch them and see what they do. They are fascinating, and I use them for my work. I watch them and use them – see their movements.”
I tell her of a 2009 quip (I imagine!) from John, who said “We are hopeless grandparents, Helen and I, because we are so incredibly busy… Getting older makes you want to get on with your work, while there is still time.”
“John’s right, in a way – we are terribly busy, you know! It’s extraordinary. We intend to fall off the perch while doing it! What other career can you go on doing into your 80s, if you want to? I think it’s wonderful.
“It would be awful to have to retire. What would we do?”
Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration is published on November 1 by Walker Books, at £30
East Anglia forever!
She might have called London home since the 1960s, but Helen Oxenbury’s soul is still in her native Suffolk. Particularly Felixstowe – and the hamlet of Felixstowe Ferry, where she and John have long had a weekend and holiday home in a wooden boathouse.
“It sort of gets into your blood, doesn’t it? I can’t go too long without going to the sea. When I get there, it’s like a great relief,” she says.
Some of the drawings for Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt were inspired by the coast around Felixstowe Ferry and the mouth of the Deben – areas whose squelchy mud and wind-ruffled grasses are lodged in Helen Oxenbury’s soul.
The boathouse is nowadays home to son Bill, though his parents come to stay, of course.
Bill’s a renovator of old buildings – authentically and with sensitivity – and the boathouse has benefited from his TLC. (Artistic sensibilities run in the family: Lucy’s a painter, and Emily a textile designer.)
“He’s made it beautiful,” says his mum. “You can live there all year round now, whereas before you could only really go in the summer. You could look through the floorboards at the shingle!”
She comes up from London “not as much as I’d like”. Visiting the Suffolk seaside is always a fillip. “It’s like a great weight lifts off my shoulders.”
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Have children changed in the way they enjoy picture-books? (Or, maybe, don’t!)
“After the age of six, I don’t really know. I just know that children up to the age of six love books,” says Helen Oxenbury. “They’ll look at ‘rubbish’ and they’ll look at good books. You have to give them alternatives.
“I learned to read with comics – the Beano and Dandy – when they were very frowned upon! But they were lovely. I think they (children) should be given anything and everything, to get them interested in reading, and not have any rules. One hopes they will in the end also like ‘the good stuff’.”
And it fires their imaginations, of course...
“Yes. It’s so important – and so neglected, I think, these days. If they haven’t got anything to do, they don’t reach for a book, they go on their phones, or whatever it is. Games, or Twitter. I don’t know… but I don’t think it’s very good for them.”