When Marsha Qualey began this column six years ago, she had us all on the lookout for books about children’s literature. What would add to our understanding of this very particular community of educators, students, collector, and creators? This book about Helen Oxenbury by Leonard Marcus is a gem, filled with the wisdom of a revered author-illustrator as well as her illustrations and delicious photos that help our understanding.
As he writes, “In the art of Helen Oxenbury, seeing is a way of knowing, and drawing a form of felt experience. In the great variety of books she has illustrated over nearly fifty years, Helen has mapped out the territory of childhood in drawings that combine the intimacy of a family snapshot with the formal mastery of a searching and rigorous art.”
Her story is told by decades. She meets, travels with, and marries John Burningham, a fellow art student. In the ‘60s we learn about children’s publishing in England and Ms. Oxenbury’s first two books for Heinemann: Numbers of Things in 1967 and The Great Big Enormous Turnip, told by Alexei Tolstoy.
We are privileged to observe how her art style changes over the years. We observe the growth and flourishing of British children’s books. We hear from her contemporaries in children’s literature.
Several of her books are looked at closely. When she accepted the challenge to illustrate Phyllis Root’s Big Momma Makes the World (Candlewick, 2003), a re-telling of the creation story that casts the Maker as a single mother, Oxenbury writes, “I see Big Momma as highlighting the complex condition of women,” she explained. “It is impossibly hard for women today — so much is expected of them. They have the children, create the environment they live in, nurture this environment, bring up their children, and, more than likely, hold down a responsible job to boot. And then they have to sparkle on a social level!” These are the thoughts with which Oxenbury created a picture book that won The Boston Globe-Horn Book Award.
Every page turn, every photograph, every one of Helen Oxenbury’s included illustrations, invites assured steps on the trail of understanding what it means to create art to tell stories to capture a children’s attention and take a place in their memories.
Leonard Marcus, who chronicles children’s literature in so many books, writes with transparent admiration for this author and illustrator beloved on both sides of the pond.
You need this book. It will make you happy and fill you with wonder. You will feast on the visuals and delight in the widening expanse of your understanding.
Enjoy this video interview of Helen Oxenbury by Wendy Hurrell (BBC London News), about this book.