You probably know John Burningham best for Mr. Gumpy’s Outing but illustrators, book creators, are so much more than what we see between the covers of their books. Their lives are often illustrated. They record things on paper visually. They put what they’ve observed into drawers and portfolios and notebooks so they have that once-seen image to call upon for their work.
In this eponymously titled book, John Burningham (Candlewick Press), both Maurice Sendak and Brian Alderson write forewords for the book, particularly about the early 1960s which saw the publication of Borka (Burningham) and Where the Wild Things Are (Sendak). Those books “were the direct result of those fast and furiously freshly designed picture book days. Down with the simpering 19th century goody-goody books that deprived children of their animal nature, wild imagination, and lust for living.” (Sendak)
The majority of the book is Burningham’s remembrances of childhood, living in a caravan with his family during World War II, his early jobs, attending the Central School of Arts, and each of his books. This Literary Madeleine is replete with sketches, drawings, and finished work, photos, inspiration, and observances.
Here are some highlights:
“There is a misconception that picture books for children should be packed with colour and decoration on every page. This is rather like saying a successful piece of music should be crammed full of loud noise. It’s the juxtaposition and build-up of sound that makes music interesting.” (pg 127)
“When I look at some of my childhood drawings, I realize I have reproduced them again years later. The plumbing picture I drew as a child is very similar to the picture in Time to Get Out of the Bath, Shirley.” (pg 130)
He offers comments on many of his books, insightful, producing much flipping back and forth to look at other drawings, to examine how Burningham has done this elsewhere, to absorb his scope and style. For Oi! Get Off Our Train (called Hey, Get Off Our Train in the US … oi!) he explains that the West Japan Railway Company hired him to make a book about the Yoshitsune, Japan’s first steam locomotive, for Expo 90, a world’s fair held in Osaka in 1990. The painting below is from this book …
It’s very revealing about this author/illustrator that he writes, “Oi! Get Off Our Train was first published in Japan in 1989. It is an environmental tale, now dedicated to Chico Mendes, who did so much trying to protect the rainforests. He was murdered for his work. Oi! Get Off Our Train is about endangered species, but more than that it’s about the social hierarchy of young children and the need to ease themselves into a group.” (pg 167)
Harvey Slumfenburger’s Christmas Present relates the story of a young boy who is quite poor. The only present he will get for Christmas is the one that Father Christmas will bring him. “Father Christmas was very tired. The reindeer were asleep and one of them was not very well. But Father Christmas knew he had to get the present to Harvey Slumfenburger.” (pg 179)
It is a book to be read carefully, savored, and cherished. Pull it down from your shelf every few months and you’ll quickly be pulled into his artwork once again. You’ll find yourself filled with effervescence, the type that carries you on to do great things.