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.
Addendum 13 June 2019: I found it!
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. 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.
Thanks, Laura. I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t familiar with Burningham until he died. I now have several of his books on hold at the library. Of course, I’m well aware of his wife and love her work. His books look equally charming.
Thank you. So touching.
Thanks for reading!
What a wonderful appreciation, Laura! I feel the same as you. My kids and I loved Mr. Gumpy’s Motor Car. Thank you for opening me up to Granpa and others.
What a loving final image in your post. My favourite Burningham was always Avocado Baby.
did you know them, sarah?
i also love Time to Get out of the Bath, Shirley.
thanks for reading our blog.
I did not know he had passed on! Thanks for this post. I remember the magic of reading THE MAGIC BED to my children again and again.
I especially love his illustrations from the 1960s, with their chunky lines and bold colours – Borka, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Trubloff the Mouse – he was a master of the art of slapdashery – his art was so spontaneous and joyful! Thanks for your kind tribute to JB. That’s the marvellous thing about artists, though – they never really die, do they? Not as long as kids keep reading his brilliant books and smiling at his paintings!
you describe his art perfectly — spontaneous and joyful. thanks!
Oh, Laura, you are so spot on with your notes and illustration samples. For certain, he is iconic in the magical world of picture books. Thank you for sharing your perspective and what a lucky time you had to visit up close at the Candlewick gathering. You brought us back to his wonderful world.