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I used to hide books from my children – I couldn’t bear to read them again

21 December 2018

From The Guardian:

The house opposite Hampstead Heath where Helen Oxenbury has lived with her husband, fellow children’s writer and illustrator John Burningham, in north London for more than 40 years, is a home you might find in an old-fashioned children’s book: turreted, with steps up to a porch, a sun-lit kitchen – all paintings, pots and pans and piles of books. It is easy to imagine it as a family haven for their three children; the youngest, Emily, an artist, now lives next door with her baby and toddler. And Oxenbury, a sprightly, upright 80, with angular features and hair in the messy bun she has worn all her life, is the sort of no-nonsense grandmother you might find in such a book.

Her life and 50-year career as one of the UK’s best-loved illustrators – with classics such as Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little ToesFarmer Duck and, most famously, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (written by Mem Fox, Martin Waddell and Michael Rosen respectively) – is celebrated in a handsome coffee-table book by the critic and children’s book specialist Leonard S Marcus. “Helen has mapped out the territory of childhood in drawings that combine the intimacy of a family snapshot with the formal mastery of a searching and rigorous art,” Marcus writes, placing her in the English tradition of Randolph Caldecott, Beatrix Potter and Edward Ardizzone.

How does it feel to see her achievements between hard covers? “A bit embarrassing,” she grimaces. “I don’t find it easy to look at it.” She feels the same about being interviewed. “I just get so bored of myself. If I were to talk about John, I could do it for hours.” “John! Are you listening John?” she calls periodically to check a date or anecdote. “No!” he shouts back, before retreating to his studio on the ground floor, from which, for decades, he produced one or more books a year, including such nursery favourites as Husherbye and Avocado Baby.

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At first she just wanted to make enough money to afford some help around the house. “Then I loved it so much I wouldn’t have stopped anyway.” Motherhood “spurs you on”, she says. “You think: ‘I’m bloody well not going to sit back and do nothing,’ and she would start work each evening once the children were in bed. “I do feel for mums,” she says, and they are always sympathetically portrayed in her books (Spare Rib approved of the resourceful, fun-loving single mum in Meal One).

Oxenbury’s initial playful counting book, Numbers of Things, was published in 1967. Just two years later she became the first artist to take the Kate Greenaway medal for two books, The Quangle Wangle’s Hatby Edward Lear and the gloriously trippy The Dragon of an Ordinary Family by Margaret Mahy.

“We were in at the beginning of a great boom of children’s illustrated books,” she says of the way in which her and Burningham’s careers took off as part of a group of British artists who are now household names, including Janet Ahlberg (Each Peach Pear Plum), Quentin Blake (The Enormous Crocodile and many more Roald Dahl stories), Raymond Briggs (The Snowman), Shirley Hughes (Alfie) and Jan Pieńkowski (Meg and Mog), and who transformed the drab postwar children’s publishing scene. “It was just wonderful, the energy and the excitement. Printing improved. Also publishers got the idea that you could make money out of children’s books – that helps. We were very very lucky.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Children's Books