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Transcript from an interview with Helen Oxenbury

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Helen Oxenbury. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Helen Oxenbury

The young artist from Felixtown

My name is Helen Oxenbury and I illustrate children's books, and one of my best known books is We're Going on a Bear Hunt, and I re-illustrated the Alice in Wonderland book by Lewis Carroll. I think probably I have… pretty well a hundred books that I have illustrated over the years.

I was always drawing as a child, yes. My father was an architect, and he encouraged me enormously, and I used to go in for little competitions and things like that. So yes, I was always, from a very early age, drawing.

I think probably why I spent so much time drawing was because I was very asthmatic as a child, and I was always away from school, and one of the things that… kept me amused while my mother did the housework and what not was to do drawing. And… of course I grew to love it.

I think probably the art teacher was the one who said to my parents, you know, that they ought to send me to art school, and my father was thrilled. I think my mother thought that I ought to be a secretary or something safe like that, but thank goodness my father won, and I went to art school.

I grew up in a little seaside town on the east coast of England called Felixtown. It's a very nice little town with a long wood pier and lovely beach. It was sort of Edwardian, all the most of the buildings. And I had the most glorious, free childhood there.

We, my brother and I, I have one brother, we were let out in the morning and we'd come back maybe for lunch, go out again, come back for tea, and without any restrictions, and we had the whole of this little seaside town and the beach all to ourselves. It was just a wonderful childhood.

Books didn't play a large part in my life. I say that, but we didn't own books as a family because I was brought up during the War, and it — books were very thin on the ground. But my father used to go to a library and bring me home books, and it was so exciting on the days when he would bring home books.

Absolutely wonderful. And I can still remember those books. And they weren't good books, I have to say. Probably, today they would be considered complete rubbish, but I loved them. They were the only books I had.

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From theatre to television to books

When I was at an art school, there was a theatre, a very good repertory theatre in the town where the art school was called, and the town's called Ipswich. It had a wonderful, this wonderful, repertory theatre, and I used to go on the holidays and help in the scene painting department, and it was absolutely wonderful because you had these huge great backdrops.

And not just little things of paint but buckets of paint and big brushes… and you sloshed the paint on. And I thought this is for me, and that's why later, after I finished a general course at art school, I specialized in theatre design in London which was a three-year course.

Then I got some work as a scene designer in another repertory theatre. I don't know whether you know what repertory theatres are. Well, repertory theatres produce a play a week, and it's very, very demanding and very tough on the poor old actors and on the scene designers because you have to be very quick in changing the scene for the next week.

So that was like square bashing. It was a wonderful training. A better training, I have to say, than actually being at art school. And then I went to Israel, and I worked in a theatre in Israel after I had been… I taught English for a time. And I was an au pair. And then I got work in the National Theatre there called the Habima Theatre which was in Tel Aviv.

And I designed quite a few sets for the National Theatre of Israel. It was an amazing opportunity. A beautiful theatre, a new theatre. They got me to design a lot of English plays like Billy Liar and The Long, The Short, and the Tall, and some of the Hebrew plays. I of course, I didn't know what was going on so I couldn't design it. But it was a wonderful experience.

And then I came back to England, and I worked in television for quite a long time which I actually didn't enjoy terribly. It was sort of sitting at a desk all day doing… working drawings really, I suppose.

So I left there and went to work at a film studio — Shepperton Film Studios — and I worked on the very last film of Judy Garland called… I think it was called I Can't Help Singing. And, my goodness, that was fun. That really was a great, great time.

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A toe in the water

I married John Burningham who is another illustrator, and I watched him working and producing books, and it was almost like taking a course in illustration myself. So that when we had a family I didn't want to leave the babies. I wanted something to do at home, and that's how I started to illustrate children's books.

My first book was a counting book. It didn't need any text. And the second book I did was an ABC or something. So I started… I sort of putting my toe in the water, but it… in those days it was the beginning of the golden days of children's books. And I was so lucky to have been there at that time.

I mean, I pity young illustrators today. It's, you know, the competition is so fierce, but in those days there were very few. Like anything that just begins it was so exciting, and people were enthusiastic. And then it gradually grew and got bigger and bigger and then all publishers started and they all started to do too many books. And this is the point where I think we're probably at the moment.

My husband's been influential in the fact that I really knew nothing about how to go about making a children's book until we were married and I watched the whole process. And, you know, the part the publishers played and all that. So when I first did the counting book, I took it to a publisher, and they said yes straight away.

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Books just for babies

I was expecting my third child, and a publisher came to me and said he was just starting out a publishing house, and his name was Sebastian Walker. He said would you do a book with me? And I said yes, but not yet. Please just let me have this baby and… but I will do something for you a bit later on. Which I did.

But in the meantime my daughter had infantile eczema which is… it keeps you awake at night like, you know, you think babies keep you awake at night, but when they've got eczema, they really keep you awake at night, and the thing that we did with her was show her catalogues of baby's equipment and baby's clothes and things like that which she loved and it stopped her from scratching.

So we used to walk up and down all night showing her advertisements and catalogues and things like that. And I thought well why isn't there anything really that would, you know, be in the shops that would be good. And I thought, right, that's what I'm going to do with this Sebastian Walker who had come to me and said would I do something with him.

So we started doing a series of board books which were a huge success cause a lot of people must have been thinking why aren't there books for babies. So that's how it started. So I did a series of… I can't remember how many. And then I did another series for slightly older where they're just beginning to go outside the house and experience other things.

And then another set that when they're sort of preschool, starting their first ballet class, or going to nursery school for the first time. And all this time my daughter was growing up at that stage.

The only board books I knew before I did mine were the Dick Bruno board books which were very, very good. I think the thing about board books, they must be very, very simple because the experiences of babies is just things that they do, their mother and the food they eat, the clothes they put on, and the pot they've put on.

The board books are really — there isn't a story there, it's just objects and babies, and this is one that's called Dressing. And really it starts off with a little baby in a nappy, and then he gets put on… a little vest is put on him, and then a little pair of socks. It's just for them to recognize… different things… that they're familiar with.

So you have to keep it down to that level. And actually trying to simplify drawings down to that level is quite, is much more difficult than you would think, but very interesting.

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Re-imagining Alice

Well Alice in Wonderland came about because there was a television company in London who were… wanted to do a series. They were going, they wanted a series of Alice, the actual stories for them to carry on, and they had a sort of competition and asked various illustrators would they come up with a new Alice and various other characters.

And they asked me. And they… luckily they did choose my new Alice, and that had taken me a long time and quite a lot of work to come up with a new Alice because to do another Alice after so many had been done is rather daunting. It comes with a lot of luggage. And of course, the illustrations of Tenniel are wonderful, the original Alice.

So I had to just sort of get myself in a frame of mind where I had to think, well, just do it, just do it, don't think about it too much. And I came up with the Alice that is now in the book. Anyway, so the whole series of Alice films were going to be… the whole department folded up, and people left.

And that was that. That was the end of Alice as an animated film. So I went to my publisher and said look, I've done so much work on Alice, and I know now what she looks like, and I know what sort of little girl I think she is.

Shall we — shall I have a go? Shall I do it? And they said yes, alright. And it took me three years to do, and after that I thought, well, don't anybody ask me to do Alice Through the Looking Glass, and I've really had enough. And I did another two children's books.

And then for some reason, I read Alice Through the Looking Glass and thought oh my God, it is just, it is so good, and I ended up illustrating that as well. So they now are a pair.

So I thought, I'll make Alice a child of today, and children today are very physically, very… their body language is confident.

And the clothes they wear are… they're allowed to move easily. So that was the idea I had behind this Alice that I did.

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Bears and ducks

I knew We're Going on a Bear Hunt, first of all, as a song. And it was sort of like a folk song. Also I believe it was sung around campfires here in America, too, which I didn't know. And Michael Rosen who is the author or the person who has re-written it, also knew it as a song, and he very brightly thought I'm going to put this down on paper.

And he asked me to do the illustrations for it and what I loved about it was that it didn't specify who was going on a bear hunt, and I think the author actually, Michael Rosen, thought he wanted a line of kings and queens and people.

And I thought no, bring it right down to the… so the children feel that they could possibly do it. And my idea, first of all, was just have an older brother, two sort of younger ones, and the baby, and a dog. But, in fact, I think most people think that the older brother is the father which it doesn't matter, it could easily be.

And also it gave me an opportunity to do landscapes which I love. I had this idea of doing a black and white page when they're thinking and when they're saying, you know, about where they're going and what they're going to do. And then when they've decided, it burst into color.

And then they have this pause when they get to a forest and they're thinking. I did the black and white. And then, again, when they move it's in color. So I think that was quite… it was quite good to change the mood of the illustrations throughout the book.

I think, I try not to religiously echo the text, but try and give something a little more, or, you know, giving obviously the feeling of the text, but maybe having, for instance, a dog who is reacting to everything that's going on. So then you see him, the dog appearing again, and again, and again. So he develops, but he doesn't interfere with the actual story.

I mean, one mustn't go off on a limb and sort of… you know… have a sort of terrible ego trip, but you have to keep to the text, but of course, if it is an amusing text, you can make it even more amusing which I love to do. I love to do. In fact, most texts that I have chosen to illustrate are mostly with humor.

I think Farmer Duck is a sort of Animal Farm, the famous George Orwell book for babies. And I thought at the beginning that it was going to be very, very difficult to get any expression into a duck's face. I mean, they've got a hard beak and little beady eyes, and I don't seem to have much expression.

So that was quite a challenge to try and get the poor old duck to have… to show his certainly emotions. And, of course, there were all the other farm animals, too, but they were easier than ducks, I have to say. But I did enjoy the communication between the animals.

And then, of course, on top of that is the lazy old farmer who is exploiting all these animals who I just made as horrible as I could.

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Baby fingers and baby toes

Mem and I hadn't met before, but Mem's editor used to send me books and texts asking me if I would fancy illustrating them. And mostly I said no. They weren't quite right for me. And then she sent me Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes.

And I read it, and I thought I know this. I know this. This is… I've been brought up on this, I'm sure. And it felt as comfortable as a pair of lovely old slippers. And I just thought it was wonderful. But what clinched the deal was the last two pages where I think it's a stroke of genius for Mem.

And I said yes, I certainly would love to illustrate that. But it is so like a nursery rhyme, and I used to go around saying "And these little babies as everyone knows…" you know, like getting a song in their head. And I thought, I've got to illustrate that. It's lovely.

It wasn't easy, actually. You'd think it was, but it's not-wasn't, to pace that book especially at the end. You build up the suspense, and so that the end is a tremendous impact. Now to shuffle everything down to get that is quite tricky.

And it is the absolutely eleventh hour that the last picture which I did with all the line of babies, that was only put in at the eleventh hour just to just draw it out a little bit longer before the final lovely ending.

I love the look of little babies. I sort of marvel at them. I can't believe them that they're so lovely. I think babies are wasted on young people… cause my last child I had when I was… there's 10 years between my first children and my last one.

And I so appreciated the last one, and I wasn't sort of thinking I wish she'd hurry up and speak, I wish she'd hurry up and talk, walk. And I wish I could get her off to school, and, you know. I just savored every moment of her.

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The magic of read-alouds

I get a huge amount of letters from children and from classes of children. It's lovely to get letters from little children, and also letters from their parents, too, saying how much they even enjoy reading the books. That's jolly nice.

I remember when reading stories to my children, I used to hide some because I couldn't bear to read them once again.

But if the parents are enjoying it, the children see that the parents are enjoying it, and it gives them the sort of love of the book, too. And, of course, it's just so important that time that parents spend with their children just reading a book. Magic.

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"I used to walk to school with my nose buried in a book." — Coolio