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the Willows (1983). He thinks he might now do another children’s classic but says that it has always seemed to him to be ‘an unnecessary thing to do - if, instead, you have something new to bring out.’ John’s work, for all its variety and changes over these fifty years, reflects a singular vision. He may not sketch compulsively, but what he says he does is ‘look’; and he feels that our capacity to look closely at the world for ourselves may be being diminished in an age of constant technological visual stimulation. His next children’s book, Picnic, due out in August, has a hide and seek theme which is intended to get its young readers looking very closely at the page.

The intensity of John’s own gaze can be appreciated from his books. Landscapes and skyscapes recur throughout his work: in, for example, the gentle pastoral of Mr Gumpy’s Outing and Mr Gumpy’s Motor Car (1973); the whirling storms of Oi! Get off our Train; the threatening night skies of Harvey Slumfenburger’s Christmas Present (1993); and the mysteries of Cloudland (1996). But he has always been more than an observer and interpreter of light and landscape. He resists discussions of his work that suggest he has a particular social viewpoint to put across, justifiably arguing that he wants to entertain not preach. Nevertheless, his work reveals a consistent interest in social behaviour, from his portraits of family life and the relationship of parents and children, continued in Where’s Julius (1986) or Courtney (1994) to his adult books, England (1992) and France (1998), where he tackles how whole nations see themselves and are seen.

Whadayamean (1999), written for the Japanese Expo, in which he imagines the children of the earth confronting its adult leaders about their neglect of the environment, is his most obviously polemical work, but generally he approaches such subjects obliquely, with humour, with an eye for injustice and absurdity, and some tenderness. The tenderness may be related to the fact that John often draws on his own family for the subject of his stories: Granpa, certainly; and Avocado Baby (1982), which was prompted by his youngest daughter’s favourite food. Family pets, those repositories of so much love and fun, figure frequently as transformed heroes and heroines of Burningham books: from Cannonball Simp (1966) to Courtney (1994). In his darkest book, Aldo (1991), it is a rabbit who acts as an invisible friend for a lonely, neglected and abused child.

His eye for injustice is most apparent in John Patrick Norman McHennessy, the boy who was always late (1987), and Edwardo, the Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World (2006), both firmly on the side of children in the face of adult authority that will not listen or understand them. When I ask John about his own childhood, he touches on this theme. Moved through a variety of experimental private schools, he ended up at Summerhill, where no one was required to go to classes, and children were free to pursue their own interests. He remembers this gratefully, ‘I was not pressurised as a small child, forced to take tests, or crammed with information. I was very privileged. Even though I had this batty sort of life, at least I was out and about, doing things.’

One aspect of John’s present family life is, of course, that John has spent almost fifty years married to another noted children’s illustrator, Helen Oxenbury. They have had separate careers – John has a studio in the house, Helen goes out to hers – and have worked together only once, very recently, on There’s Going to be a Baby (2010), for which John supplied the words and Helen the pictures. I wondered whether, otherwise, they had influenced one

another. John says only in the sense that they have been each other’s arch (and art) critic: ‘I’m better at perspective and she’s better at anatomy. It’s useful to have somebody who hasn’t seen something develop so that when you show it to them, things stand out. And you can say this is working or that’s not working. I like this colour and I don’t like that colour.’

At some point in the interview, I ask John a probably impossible question about what might have been the highlights of his career. It’s a question he struggles with manfully but can’t really answer. But later, as I am packing up the recorder, and we are talking about the humour in his books, he returns to it again: ‘I am glad to be doing the things I do and I hope to be doing them for some time to come. There’s a wonderful photograph that somebody took last year at a literary festival in Norfolk. It’s just me talking to a family, and I don’t know what I’m saying to them and I don’t know what they are saying to me, but the photographer has perfectly caught the moment of…well, they’re just having a jolly good laugh, actually.’ And that scene of shared enjoyment, which words alone cannot quite convey, seems a fine summary of the pleasure that fifty years of John’s books have given to all of us and the real satisfaction that he derives from simply that. n

The Books

Borka: the adventures of a goose with no feathers Jonathan Cape 978-0857550835 £19.99 hbk

John Burningham: Behind the Scenes Red Fox 978-1862309715 £19.99 pbk

Mr Gumpy’s Outing Red Fox 978-0099408796 £6.99 pbk

Would You Rather Red Fox 978-0099200413 £5.99 pbk The Shopping Basket Red Fox 978-0099899303 £5.99 Granpa Red Fox 978-0099434085 £5.99 pbk

Oi! Get Off our Train Red Fox 978-0099853404 £6.99 pbk

Come Away from the Water, Shirley Red Fox 978-0099899402 £6.99 pbk

Tug of War Jonathan Cape 978-0224045209 £10.99 hbk

Harvey Slumfenberger’s Christmas Present Walker Books 978-1844288335 £6.99 pbk Cloudland Red Fox 978-0099711612 £7.99 pbk Where’s Julius Red Fox 978-0099414292 £6.99 pbk Courtney Red Fox 978-0099666813 £6.99 pbk Avocado Baby Red Fox 978-0099200611 £6.99 pbk

John Patrick Norman McHennessy, the boy who was always late Red Fox 978-0099752004 £5.99

Edwardo, the Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World Red Fox 978-0099480136 £6.99 pbk

Clive Barnes has retired from Southampton City where he was Principal Children’s Librarian and is now a freelance researcher and writer.

Books for Keeps No.200 May 2013 13

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