- Virginia Johnson
"One of the most important things is to laugh with your children and to let them see you think they're being funny when they're trying to be. It gives children enormous pleasure to think they've made you laugh. They feel they've reached one of the nicest parts in you.... As a picture book artist, I don't think one can be too much on the side of the child."*
Helen Oxenbury understands babies. She knows that they are messy, cranky, and wonderful. She knows that few things fascinate a baby like, well, another baby. In the world of board books, those sturdy first books that are impervious to drool and can survive a few tasty chews, Helen Oxenbury reigns supreme.
When her own children were small, she looked in vain for something that would work for them during the very youngest years. Like her husband, noted author and illustrator John Burningham, Helen had studied art at Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. She saw her husband successfully illustrating children's stories, so she thought that might be an Numbers of Things (1967). It was quickly followed by ABC of Things, and other wonderful books for young ones such as All Fall Down, Clap Hands, and Tickle, Tickle. As her children grew older, so did the characters in her books (Shopping Trip, It's My Birthday). Her wise regard for children and utter glee for the mischief they create led her to being lauded by critics who, on the whole, did not approve of simple books for children:
"Helen Oxenbury's 'Baby Board books'—and the second series, somewhat bafflingly entitled just 'Board Books', but retaining the same size, format and level—are utterly engaging little books which will have parents chuckling from the first opening to the last. Depicted are babies, divested of the prettiness often accorded them by unobservant adults, but accorded that diabolical innocence in the face of which parental or other grown-up ammunition is powerless. (An all-too-familiar quality to those who actually live with babies.) The pictures themselves are so clear, so uncluttered, the situations so recognizable, that we need not feel guilty about the books' appeal to ourselves, for children love them too. Here is true sharing of that 'slice of life' which constitutes a good book."**
Ms. Oxenbury sometimes brings a part of her own childhood into her books. For the illustrations of the award-winning We're Going on a Bear Hunt, she brought in images of a muddy estuary where she played as a child. Hers was a childhood full of pictures. Born June 2, 1938, in Suffolk, England, she enjoyed drawing and painting from a very young age. Her father, who was an architect, created little pictures for the author and her brother.
She has always maintained a child's insight, and it shows in her writings and illustrations. Her books have a stronger and subtler purpose than simply telling kids not to be messy or to get along with their friends:
"I'm quite suspicious of books that set out to teach things. A picture book, after all, is primarily a stepping-stone to reading. That is what one hopes will happen in the end. What a book must do is to make a child want to read it, to make him think: Oh, gosh, now what's going to happen?--and turn the page."*
In the 1988, she created a new series featuring the Tom, a mischievous young boy, and his beloved stuffed monkey, Pippo. Ms. Oxenbury remarked that Tom was very much like her son "when he was a little lad." Like Tom, her son would often blame his misdeeds on HIS trusted buddy, the friendly family dog.
Helen Oxenbury has been widely recognized for her talent. Some of her many awards include: The Kate Greenaway Medal (the British equivalent to our Caldecott), 1969, for The Quangle-Wangle's Hat; Smarties Book Prize, 1989, for We're Going on a Bear Hunt; Baby Book Award, Sainsbury's (later called the Early Years Award from BookTrust), 1999 for Tickle, Tickle; and Kurt Maschler Award, 1999, and the Kate Greenaway Medal, 2000, both for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. She also received the Boston Globe-Horn Book Picture Book Award, 2003, for Big Momma Makes the World.
Lately, she has illustrated Amy Hest's charming Charley books, Peter Bently's Captain Jack and the Pirates and King Jack and the Dragon, Julia Donaldson's The Giant Jumperee, and her husband John's There's Going to Be a Baby.
Helen Oxenbury lives in North London with her husband, John Burningham.
The Central Rappahannock Regional Library owns many books written and/or illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. Click here for the complete list.
Biography in Context
Find articles from Contemporary Authors Online and St. James Guide to Children's Writers on Helen Oxenbury. You will need a CRRL Library card to access this resource.
A short biography, photograph, and bibliography from a British publisher.
Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book, by Leonard S. Marcus.
Available from the library. Pages 141-149 are devoted to Helen Oxenbury.
**From Dorothy Butler's Babies Need Books, p. 14.