One of my favorites picture book makers, John Burningham, died last week in his Hampstead, England, home. He was 82. He leaves his wife, fellow book creator Helen Oxenbury; a family of four children and seven grandchildren, and a legacy of over 60 picture books.
Our family met John’s work in pre-bedtime reading sessions when our kids were little. Mr. Gumpy’s Motorcar was an favorite. We still borrow its phrase, “it’s a bit of a squash,” if the car is too full.
When I decided to try my luck in picture books, Burningham’s books became touchstones. There is much to learn from studying the books he published.
His texts resonate with relatable themes, humor and simplicity. His illustrations, too, are so inviting, often drawn in a scrawl of brown ink that’s brightened by loose watercolor and colored pencil. I particularly love the proportions of his people and his varied points of view. And the animals; especially dogs and rabbits.
Burningham’s first book was published in 1963: Borka: The Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers. He was well into his career by the time I met him at a Book Expo in Los Angeles in the late 1990s. The occasion was a Candlewick cocktail party where he held court near the bar: a dark haired, dapper guy with a charming British accent. I’d published about six books by then and was thrilled to meet one of my idols. He autographed my conference bag and drew a rabbit on my napkin, which has sadly since hopped away.
My favorite John Burningham book is Granpa.
Here are the opening spreads:
The story continues, through various Granpa/granddaughter activities. The text is inferential, a dialogue that indicates who is speaking by typeface: italic (child) or Roman (Granpa).
As in most friendships, they have a spat.
Then more shared adventures.
They visit the beach (note the lovely point of view) and go fishing and jump rope. The seasons pass.
The final three spreads:
Burningham says so much in that little girl’s posture; says so much with the empty chair.
But he does not leave it there. This is a children’s book, after all. So on to page 32 and a promise of the future.
So it goes. I am a Granma myself now and I love to share John Burningham’s books with our grandchildren. Thanks, John Burningham for your wonderful books. Rest in peace.