Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration

Helen Oxenbury: a life in illustrationWhen 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.

Big Momma Makes the WorldSev­er­al 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.

from Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes
illus­tra­tion © copy­right Helen Oxen­bury from Ten Lit­tle Fin­gers and Ten Lit­tle Toes,
Walk­er Books, 2003, from pg. 222 of Helen Oxen­bury: A Life in Illustration
by Leonard S. Mar­cus, Can­dlewick Press, 2019

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.

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