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Nick Butterworth Biography (1946-) - Sidelights

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Nick Butterworth is a British author-illustrator of children's books best known for his "Percy the Park Keeper" picture books, a series which started in 1989 with One Snowy Night. Published in fifteen languages, the series has sold more than two millions copies worldwide. Butterworth also worked in collaboration with the author-illustrator Mick Inkpen for many years, and together they created the popular "Mice of Upney Junction" cartoon strip, as well as the picture books Just Like Jasper! and Jasper's Beanstalk.

Born in a London suburb in 1946, Butterworth and his family moved to Romford, in the English county of Essex, when the author was three. There his parents took up the running of a sweet shop. From his father—who appeared in amateur reviews as a comedian before World War II—Butterworth inherited a sly sense of humor and an eye for comic situations. In Romford schools, he was something of a passive student, but by the time he reached the Royal Liberty School, Butterworth fared much better academically. Sketching was one of his early passions. He and his brother would fill notebooks with comic-book style drawings; but whereas his brother later went into theology, Butterworth stuck with art. He intended to go to art school, but when his mother heard of a paid apprenticeship in the design department of a printing school, he was talked into that course instead of the study of studio art.

"I don't regret the way my life's gone," Butterworth told Stephanie Nettell in a Books for Keeps interview. "But I wish I'd worked harder. I would have liked to have been to art school, though they did send me one day a week to the printing department at Watford College." From an instructor at Watford, Butterworth learned of a London design firm looking for new talent. Joining the firm, Butterworth got his first taste of professional design. After some success freelancing, Butterworth decided to start his own design studio. In 1969, along with two colleagues, he set up a design consultancy studio in Romford, working on "a lot of catalogue and packaging work," according to Butterworth. In 1970, his young friend Mick Inkpen joined the firm in his pre-Cambridge year off, and stayed on.

Butterworth's first book was the result of desultory doodling: he developed illustrations for four nursery rhymes which at the time he thought might make good greeting cards. When others saw these illustrations, they convinced Butterworth to make a book of the nursery rhymes and thus was born B. B. Blacksheep and Company: A Collection of Favourite Nursery Rhymes, a book which a reviewer for Growing Point called a "refreshingly bizarre look at familiar jingles." Butterworth turned many of these nursery rhymes on their heads, looking at them from fresh and often humorous perspectives. Jack and Jill in this rendering are toothy rabbits, the mouse comes down the clock on a parachute, and Humpty Dumpty is a chocolate Easter egg. Brian Alderson, reviewing the book in Times Educational Supplement, noted that Butterworth's collection of favorite nursery rhymes "are stylish and often unexpected."

Publication of this picture book brought an offer from the Sunday Express newspaper for a comic strip, and Butterworth and Inkpen subsequently developed the cheeky mice living in the deserted railway station at Upney Junction. The Butterworth-Inkpen collaboration extended to television, as well, with the two hosting a children's show for eighteen months. "I learned a lot from [Inkpen's] colouring," Butterworth told Nettell in his interview. "My work has always been line-oriented and it used to be more laboured . . . until I realised that reproducing reality isn't necessarily the best way of getting what you want across." Butterworth's draftsmanship rubbed off on Inkpen as much as Inkpen's spontaneity and appreciation for abstract line influenced Butterworth.

The Nativity Play, one of their earliest collaborations, was well received both in England and in the United States. A Publishers Weekly contributor commented that the duo "will delight readers of all ages," and went on to note that the "sweet, funny story is illustrated perfectly by brightly colored scenes of feverish activity." In the story, children and their parents at a local school prepare for the Christmas pageant, with all the attendant confusion, missed cues, and last-minute stage fright. A reviewer for Growing Point noted of the British publication that "colour, exuberance and mood come over with heart-rending force in a descriptive picture book which encapsulates this infinitely varied once-a-year amateur enterprise." Denise M. Wilms, reviewing The Nativity Play for Booklist, concluded that "this is a droll diversion that will please children, who will recognize themselves, and amuse their parents, who will find chuckles between the lines."

Butterworth and Inkpen also worked together on Nice and Nasty: A Book of Opposites, a volume that offers "immediate appeal," according to a critic for Publishers Weekly in a review of the American edition Nice or Nasty: A Book of Opposites. "Readers will find a memorable roller-coaster ride between up and down, first and last," continued this same reviewer. Booklist critic Ilene Cooper concluded that the "oversize illustrations are expertly executed, and the whole format has a clean, fresh look."

However, the most popular collaborative effort of the two has remained the "Jasper" books, Just Like Jasper! and Jasper's Beanstalk. "In another effort from this talented British team," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor in a review of the first title, "plump, likable Jasper the cat heads for the toy store with his birthday money." The problem once he gets there: what to buy? There are too many choices, but finally he decides on the purchase of a toy kitten, who is a ringer for himself. "Children will sympathize with Jasper's dilemma and appreciate his sound choice," concluded the reviewer. Janie Schomberg remarked in a School Library Journal review that the book was a "pleasant offering for toddler story hours," while a Growing Point critic concluded that "brilliant primary colours mark each scene and the book as a whole has a sense of excited movement to extend the simple joke of humanising a cat's thoughts but not its appearance."

The two illustrator-writers returned to Jasper in 1992 with Jasper's Beanstalk, in which the amiable cat tries unsuccessfully to grow a bean plant. He plants it and lovingly tends to it, but when it fails to sprout, he digs it up and throws it aside. Untended, however, the bean develops into a magnificent beanstalk. "Jasper is a delightful character," noted a reviewer for Junior Bookshelf, "and many young children are likely to enjoy this story of his attempt at gardening." Stephanie Zvirin, writing in Booklist, called this second Jasper title a "delightful, bubbly book, ideal for group sharing," while Moira Small described it in a Books for Keeps review as a "delightful picture book with a simple story to help very young children understand how things grow."

Though Butterworth teamed up with Inkpen for a few more titles, mostly the two have concentrated on their individual work. For Butterworth, that has been primarily the "Percy the Park Keeper" books, a series still growing in number. Starting with One Snowy Night, the books highlight the trials and tribulations of a park keeper who looks remarkably like Butterworth himself. In this opening title, Percy finds his hospitality strained to the limit when one animal after the other comes to him seeking refuge from the snow. "The result—too many animals," commented Phyllis G. Sidorski in School Library Journal. The bedclothes become tangled, animals get lost in the shuffle. "The illustrations are lighthearted and the penultimate scene of the cluttered room is a wealth of eye-catching details," Sidorski added.

In The Rescue Party, Percy takes a day off and relaxes with his animal friends in the park. Things start out fine until a jumping game ends up with a rabbit tumbling down an abandoned well. Percy throws a rope down to rescue the frightened rabbit, who ties it to a log instead of herself. Not to worry; everything turns out happily in the end in this "cozy little story, distinguished by amiable illustrations," according to a critic for Kirkus Reviews. Jan Shephard, writing in School Library Journal, concluded that the "bright watercolor illustrations depict the likable and humorous characters" and that the book is a "great read-aloud."

Further adventures of Percy include the aftermath of a storm, the park animals' housing problems, a fox with a serious case of the hiccups, and an angry bunny, among many others. In The Secret Path, Percy sets out to get the park maze in order, but his furry friends decide to play a joke on him at the same time, finding their way to the center of the maze to surprise him when finally he gets there. Everyone receives a surprise when he arrives, however, for Percy has trimmed the maze into decorative shapes. Beverley Mathias, writing in School Librarian, called the book "great fun for everyone, including those under nine," while Carolyn Phelan dubbed it "simple and beguiling" in a Booklist review. "Butterworth's deft line-and-watercolor-wash artwork reflects the general tone of the text," Phelan commented, noting also that the "loving characters and the mild adventure will please young children."

Badger gets filthy digging all day in The Badger's Bath, and Percy decides it is time for him to take a bath. But Badger has other ideas about hygiene, so by the time Percy sets the soapy bath out under a tree, Badger has taken off. Instead of wasting the bath water, Percy dons swimming trunks and takes a soak himself. A reviewer for Junior Bookshelf called the book a "charming story," remarking also that "Percy is such a realistically rotund and plain featured hero that the reader readily suspends disbelief." In The Treasure Hunt, Percy sets up a search for a treasure which he—without thinking—eats. Judith Sharman, writing in Books for Keeps, called this "another whimsical tale about Percy the Park Keeper and his friends." Trevor Dickenson commented in School Librarian that the illustrations in this book "are up to Nick Butterworth's usual very high standards—clear and quietly amusing."

Though best known for the "Percy" books, as Butterworth told Nettell, he has many ideas for new books and does not want to be simply pegged as Percy the Park Keeper's creator. "There's no next time—this is my go, and I must make the most of it." Indeed, Butterworth has dozens of other books to his credit, among them the popular Nick Butterworth's Book of Nursery Rhymes, Amanda's Butterfly, and When It's Time for Bed. His 1995 All Together Now! is a popular lift-theflap book. "The flaps in this chuckly game of hide-and-seek themselves form part of the pictures," explained Nettell in her interview with Butterworth. The premise of this activity book is that a little boy's six animal friends are hiding from him at the outset of a picnic, and he must find them. A Kirkus Reviews contributor remarked that "not only do children have the satisfaction of finding the animals, but they have words to shout as they search." Mary Ann Bursk, writing in School Library Journal, noted that "toddlers will enjoy this interactive book one-to-one, while beginning readers will delight in sharing it with younger siblings." A Butterworth title dealing with Christmas is his 1998 Jingle Bells, a story of Yuletide mice in a stable. "The simply told tale makes a good nonsectarian read-aloud," commented Anne Connor in School Library Journal. "Children will enjoy these plucky mice who work together to ensure a happier new year once their enemy is foiled," concluded Connor.

Q Pootle 5 features the alien after whom the book is named. This chubby green creature crash-lands on earth after the failure of one of his rocket boosters ("which look suspiciously like soup cans," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer). Q Pootle 5 begs the earth creatures he meets for assistance, but the frog and birds that he sees cannot help. Then he encounters Henry the cat, who just happens to have a spare cat-food can/rocket booster. Now Q Pootle 5 can go to his party on the moon, and he invites all of his new earth-friends along. They accompany him in their own freshly constructed ships, made out of faucets and other household items. Despite its high-flying setting, the story "is simple, short, and down-to-earth enough for beginning readers," Piper L. Nyman wrote in School Library Journal.

First published in England as Albert Le Blanc, Albert the Bear is a "brief, clever cautionary take on the dangers of judging by appearances," explained a Kirkus Reviews contributor. The other toys in the toy store are alarmed when a sad-looking stuffed polar bear arrives. Together, a jack-in-the-box, a mouse, and Sally the dancing hippo decide to cheer him up, but their efforts at entertainment fail: the mouse forgets the punch line to his joke and the jack-in-the-box falls down when he tries to show off his jumping skills. But when Sally falls on him in the middle of her ballet, Albert the Bear proves that he is not really sad at all. "This gentle reminder not to judge by appearances slips in unobtrusively, thanks to the buoyant text and illustrations" which include cameos of such famous children's book characters as Paddington Bear, Bob the Builder, and Raymond Brigg's Snowman, noted a Publishers Weekly contributor.

In discussing what he enjoys most about being a children's author and illustrator, Butterworth remarked to an interviewer from the HarperCollins's Children's Books Web site, "I just like the kids. I like the honesty of children, their directness. . . . It's very endearing, and to go out and meet the children is one of the pleasures of what I do. I certainly wouldn't want to be locked up in my studio forever. I get out to schools, I get out to book festivals and do signing sessions in shops when I can. When I can but not as much as I'd like to. It's just very rewarding to see children actually enjoying what you produce in hope." Noting that it is not possible to "road-test a picture book," Butterworth admitted that "You just kind of hope that people are really going to like it and that your judgement . . . has proved to be right. It's nice to have it confirmed when you meet your public."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

St. James Guide to Children's Writers, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, March 1, 1986, Denise M. Wilms, review of The Nativity Play, p. 1014; June 15, 1987, Ilene Cooper, review of Nice or Nasty: A Book of Opposites, p. 1598; June 15, 1993, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Jasper's Beanstalk, p. 920; April 15, 1995, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Secret Path, p. 1505.

Books for Keeps, July, 1991, p. 10; July, 1993, Moira Small, review of Jasper's Beanstalk, p. 10; May, 1995, Stephanie Nettell, "Authorgraph No. 32: Nick Butterworth," pp. 16-17; July, 1995, p. 7; March, 1997, Judith Sharman, review of The Treasure Hunt, p. 18; July, 1998, Roy Blatchford, review of Thud!, p. 21; July, 1999, Gwynneth Bailey, review of The Hedgehog's Balloon and The Badger's Bath, p. 20; November, 1999, Julia Eccleshare, review of The School Trip, p. 21; November, 1999, review of The School Trip and Sports Day (book and tape pack), p. 21.

Growing Point, November, 1981, review of B. B. Blacksheep and Company: A Collection of Favourite Nursery Rhymes, pp. 3980-3981; November, 1985, review of The Nativity Play, p. 4528; November, 1989, review of Just Like Jasper, p. 5249.

Horn Book, spring, 1999, Patricia Riley, review of Jingle Bells, p. 24.

Junior Bookshelf, February, 1990, p. 13; August, 1990, p. 166; December, 1990, p. 276; June, 1992, review of Jasper's Beanstalk, p. 100; February, 1994, p. 13; August, 1996, review of The Badger's Bath, pp. 140-141; December, 1996, p. 227.

Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1993, review of The Rescue Party, p. 1270; September 1, 1995, review of All Together Now!, p. 1277; August 1, 2003, review of Albert the Bear, p. 1013.

Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England), December 28, 2002, Janet Tanslet, review of Albert Le Blanc, p. 27.

Publishers Weekly, December 6, 1985, review of The Nativity Play, p. 75; June 12, 1987, review of Nice or Nasty, p. 83; September 8, 1989, review of Just Like Jasper, p. 66; April 17, 1995, p. 56; September 25, 1995, p. 55; April 27, 1998, p. 61; September 28, 1998, review of Jingle Bells, p. 56; June 18, 2001, review of Q Pootle 5, p. 80; March 3, 2003, review of My Mom Is Excellent, My Grandma Is Wonderful, My Dad Is Awesome, and My Grandpa is Amazing, p. 78; September 22, 2003, review of Albert the Bear, pp. 102-103.

School Librarian, August, 1991, p. 99; February, 1995, Beverley Mathias, review of The Secret Path, p. 16; February, 1995, Beverly Mathias, review of The Secret Path, p. 16; February, 1997, Trevor Dickenson, review of The Treasure Hunt, p. 17; spring, 1998, Trevor Dickenson, review of The Owl's Lesson and One Warm Fox, p. 16.

School Library Journal, May, 1990, Janie Schomberg, review of Just Like Jasper, p. 81; December, 1990, Phyllis G. Sidorski, review of One Snowy Night, p. 70; March, 1991, p. 168; May, 1991, p. 76; December, 1991, p. 80; February, 1994, Jan Shephard, review of The Rescue Party, p. 78; July, 1995, p. 55; March, 1996, Mary Ann Bursk, review of All Together Now!, p. 167; October, 1998, Anne Connor, review of Jingle Bells, p. 40; July, 2001, Piper L. Nyman, review of Q Pootle 5, p. 73; January, 2004, Amy Lilien Harper, review of Albert the Bear, p. 88.

Teacher Librarian, November, 1998, Shirley Lewis, review of Jingle Bells, p. 48.

Times Educational Supplement, January 15, 1992, Brian Alderson, review of B. B. Blacksheep and Company, p. 33; November 7, 1997, p. 13; September 17, 1999, Ted Dewan, "New Perspective on Percy's Kingdom," p. 10.

ONLINE

HarperCollins Children's Books Web Site, http://www.harpercollinschildrensbooks.co.uk/ (February 14, 2004), interview with Butterworth.

Midlothian Libraries, http://www.midlothian.gov.uk/ (November 11, 2003), "Author Biography: Nick Butterworth."

Tameside MBC Web Site, http://www.tameside.gov.uk/ (November 11, 2003), "Nick Butterworth."*

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