Ten of the Best Books by Helen Oxenbury and John Burningham

Nicolette Jones chooses. Earlier this year, John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury were jointly presented with the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award, which celebrates the body of work of an author or illustrator who has made an outstanding contribution to children’s literature. Nicolette Jones, who is on the adjudicating panel for the award selects ten of their very best books, five from each.


Choosing five of the best books each by Helen Oxenbury and John Burningham from their huge body of work is an impossible task. There is no Top Ten. Everything they create exemplifies their skill and spirit, and is excellent in different ways. But here are a few personal favourites...

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt

Michael Rosen, illustrated Helen Oxenbury, Walker Books, 978-0-7445-2323-2, £12.99 pbk

In We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, with text modified by Michael Rosen,


responded to a traditional rhyme that suggested bear country – wild woods and caves – and

made it domestic. She took a creature who was dangerous and turned fear into a thrilling game, like grandmother’s footsteps. She gave the beast a touch of teddy bear, and a hint of loneliness, so that we might feel sympathy and think of it as a playmate. Her illustrations used places she knew, and real, observed children. (All the characters are children, the tallest a big brother, expressly to suggest the freedom of having no adults about.) So quite apart from the accuracy of her line, her composition, the way she conveys space and light and weather and atmosphere, the sense of place, the warmth of her vision and the perfect rendering of movement, stance, character and emotion, she is telling us something beyond even the drama of the episode. This is a book that illustrates the experience of how you might read it, like the ‘serving suggestion’ on a packet of frozen vegetables. The images say to you: take this rhyme with you on an outing. Have an adventure. Make believe. Explore landscape. Be intrepid. Be together. In fact, it suggests not only how to enjoy the book. It shows us how to have a childhood.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, Walker Books, 978-0-7445-8267-3, £12.99 pbk

It seems that every distinguished illustrator has had a go at Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, finding ways to make Lewis Carroll’s story their own. But Helen Oxenbury’s version

brings to the book the

loveliness of her draughtsmanship and a playfulness few have matched.

Her characters look friendly where some have been frightening; for Oxenbury the strangeness is more comical than sinister. And her

10 Books for Keeps No.229 March 2018

modern Alice, in her blue mini-dress and trainers, with her hair flying free and her casual posture, breathes new life into the classic, which, despite its oddness, becomes an inviting idyll with its sun- kissed settings of English countryside on a summer afternoon.

Big Mama Makes the World

Phyllis Root, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, Walker Books, 978-0744573824, £5.99 pbk

Big Mama Makes the World was never a huge seller, perhaps because of its unconventional theology. But I think this its strength: the notion that the world might have been made in a free few distracted moments by a busy mother with a baby on her hip. The book recognises what superwomen

mothers are – which should have made it very popular. Oxenbury rises to difficult challenges, using a mixture of media and daring perspectives, not least conveying both ordinary life and an epic scale. She makes abstract ideas concrete and depicts characters almost invisible in the darkness and hyper-exposed in the glare of the sun. She illustrates a profusion of marine creatures, birds, and animals, and the emergence from a ball of mud of a diverse population. Throughout she never loses the warmth of character of Big Mama nor the essential babyishness of the infant. And when she illustrates loneliness, and then companionship, Oxenbury makes such memorable images. She shows a sad mother comforted by animals and her baby, and then, imagining the quintessence of good company, she depicts the carefree laughter of a crowd of people on a veranda lit by the setting sun.

Tickle Tickle: A First Book for Babies

Helen Oxenbury, Walker Books, 978-1406319477, £5.99 board book

Oxenbury’s baby books were ground breaking because of the diversity of the babies she drew, and her affectionate observation of them. They have helped to persuade generations of families that books have a place in the lives of infants

under a year old – an achievement of immeasurable importance.

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