Helen Oxenbury Biography (1938-)
"Helen Oxenbury is the book world's foremost authority on the antics (and anatomy) of small people," Tim Wynne-Jones wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail. Oxenbury was one of the first writers to design "board books," the small, durable, thick-paged creations intended especially for toddlers. In stories such as Friends, The Car Trip, and those in the "Tom and Pippo" series, Oxenbury shows babies, toddlers, and preschool-age children discovering new things and learning about life. Her uncomplicated and humorous illustrations have as much to tell her "readers" as her words do. As a result, "there is not a wrinkle of pudgy flesh nor bulge of diaper she has not lovingly portrayed in her bright, water-color survey of early childhood," Wynne-Jones added.
Oxenbury did not plan on becoming an illustrator when she was young. Instead, she found a talent for designing and painting scenery for plays. She began working in local theaters as a teenager, and chose to attend a college where she could study set design. At school, she met her future husband, John Burningham, who was interested in illustration and graphic design. She later followed him to Israel, where she worked as a scenery designer. After the couple returned to England, Burningham published his first book, the award-winning children's story Borka, and Oxenbury continued working in the theater. Shortly after the couple married in 1964, they had their first two children. Oxenbury left her career as a designer to care for them. "In those days it was jolly difficult to do two things, and we didn't have money for nannies," Oxenbury explained to Michele Field of Publishers Weekly. "I wanted something to do at home, and having watched John do children's books, I thought that was possible."
Two of Oxenbury's first projects were illustrations for books by Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, and Edward Lear, known for his fanciful, colorful poems. In choosing to illustrate these works, Oxenbury found the books' humor most appealing. As she revealed in a Junior Bookshelf article, it was "the marvellous mixture of weird people in dreamlike situations surprising one by doing and saying quite ordinary and down-to-earth things one minute, and absurd, outrageous things the next" that made up her mind to take the jobs. She captured this contradictory feeling in Edward Lear's The Quangle-Wangle's Hat with pictures of strange creatures and the magical hat of many ribbons, loops, and bows. As Crispin Fisher noted in Children and Literature, "Her landscape is wide and magical, neither inviting nor repelling, but inexplicable—surely right for a Lear setting."
Oxenbury's first solo project was Numbers of Things, a picture book which uses familiar objects and animals to introduce young children to counting. Oxenbury covers single numbers from one to ten, then twenty through fifty by tens. The amusing pictures, "with their twenty balloons and fifty ladybirds, will help the child to comprehend the difference in quantity between these numbers," a Junior Bookshelf reviewer said. "But a fiddledee-dee on its instructional aspect!," a Publishers Weekly reviewer advised. "A hurrah instead for the fun of it all!" With its humorous yet simple approach and "shape, originality, and use of colour," Jean Russell commented in Books for Your Children, Numbers of Things "immediately established [Oxenbury] as a major children's book artist."
Just like Numbers of Things, Oxenbury's follow-up ABC of Things has "pictures that are imaginative and humorous as well as handsome," creating "a far better than average ABC book," Zena Sutherland said in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Each letter is joined with several pictures that match it and can serve to spur the imagination. "The most incongruous associations are made in a perfectly matter-of-fact way," wrote a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, "setting the mind off in pursuit of the stories that must lie behind them."
Oxenbury began developing sturdy books for toddlers when her youngest child, Emily, was sick. "We were up half the night with her," the author told Field in Publishers Weekly, "and we had to think of things to show her to keep her mind off [her illness]." To make a book more appealing to such a young "reader," Oxenbury simplified her drawing style and focused on stories of babies and toddlers. She modified her layout so that a page with words would be paired with a larger, wordless, illustration. Finally, the books were to be made in smaller, square shapes that would be easier for little hands to manage. And the book's thicker pages would stand up to the chewing and abuse that any toddler's toy must survive.
Oxenbury's first series of board books, including Dressing, Family, Friends, Playing, and Working, are "perfectly in tune with the interests of the teething population, and at the same time executed with wit and the artistic awareness that at this age less is more," Betsy Hearne wrote in Booklist. "The pictures themselves are simple," Robert Wilson similarly noted in Washington Post Book World, "yet everywhere in the drawings there is subtle humor," as well as "a keenness of observation on the artist's part, a familiarity with the ways of the baby." And with their "masterful" portrayals of young children, especially the "delightfully lump-faced baby," Oxenbury's books are "certainly the series most likely to appeal to adults," Lucy Micklethwait concluded in the Times Literary Supplement.
Other collections have followed the baby as it grows into new abilities and activities. One series shows a toddler going to the beach, going shopping with mother, and helping out at home. The books are "fun, but more than that," Sutherland said in a review of Shopping Trip for Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books; they are also "geared to the toddler's interests and experiences."
Later series show children doing many things for the first time, such as going to a birthday party, visiting the doctor, going to school, and eating in a restaurant. Each episode usually involves some sort of mishap; in The Dancing Class, for example, a little girl trips and causes a pileup of students. "Comedy is always central to Oxenbury's vignettes," observed Denise M. Wilms in Booklist, and both kids and adults are targets in "these affectionate mirror views of their own foibles." In addition, Oxenbury "not only knows how children move but also how they think," Mary M. Burns of Horn Book said, for her easy writing style resembles "the matterof-fact reportorial style used by young children." As always, her "clever and colorful" illustrations contribute to "the subtle humor" of the story, Amanda J. Williams noted in a School Library Journal review of Our Dog.
Although she is writing and drawing for a very young audience, Oxenbury tries not to underestimate their ability to understand things. "I believe children to be very canny people who immediately sense if adults talk, write, or illustrate down to them, hence the unpopularity of self-conscious, child-like drawings that appear in some children's books," the author wrote in Junior Bookshelf. "The illustrator is misguidedly thinking the child will be able to identify more easily with drawings similar to his own, while probably he is disgusted that adults cannot do better." Oxenbury's own drawings are uncluttered rather than simple, and include many humorous details that adults, as well as children, can enjoy.
In The Helen Oxenbury Nursery Story Book, for instance, "her drawings really do add another dimension to each tale, and answer some of the questions that spring to a child's mind," Marcus Crouch commented in Junior Bookshelf. In this collection, the author retells, with her own illustrations, favorite stories such as "The Three Pigs," "Little Red Riding Hood," and eight others. "A collection of simple folk tales may not be unique," Ethel L. Heins wrote in Horn Book, "but an extraordinarily attractive one for early independent reading surely is." A major part of the book's charm lies in its pictures, "which give [the stories] a special, strongly personal and essentially youthful feeling," Margery Fisher commented in Growing Point. "At every turning of the page, an illustration delights the eye," Heins added. Throughout the book "the artwork exudes vigor, movement," as well as a lively humor "that manages to be both naive and sly."
In the late 1980s, Oxenbury introduced the recurring characters of Tom and Pippo in a series of picture books. Tom is a young boy with a constant companion in his stuffed monkey, Pippo. Oxenbury's pictures again display her simple yet revealing style; even Pippo's face is "worth watching, whether he is frowning as he is stuffed into the washing machine or reaching down longingly from the clothesline towards Tom's outstretched arm," a Publishers Weekly critic remarked. The volumes also exhibit the broadly appealing humor that is the author's trademark. "Oxenbury understands her audience; young people as well as adults will find pleasure in repeated readings of these unassuming gems, and no one will be able to resist the facial expressions and postures of the long-suffering Pippo," Ellen Fader wrote in Horn Book.
Returning to the works of Lewis Carroll, Oxenbury took on the challenge of illustrating a new edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Her vision of Carroll's classic's up-side-down land, described by Booklist contributor Michael Cart as "a soft, beautiful, springtime world," garnered her the prestigious Kate Greenaway Award for illustration. Oxenbury updates the setting, which "makes it even more appealing and accessible to modern readers," thought Christian Science Monitor's Karen Carden. Instead of the traditional Alice, with her fancy Victorian dress and well-arranged ring-curls, Oxenbury's heroine wears a denim jumper and sneakers. Oxenbury also softened some of the scarier aspects of Carroll's tale; "the villains here are more stoogelike than menacing," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer. As a Horn Book contributor explained it, "Oxenbury delineates the story's humor with a gentle hand"; her "illustrations have a sweetness of tone and an amiable spirit."
Oxenbury also illustrated Harriet Lerner and Susan Goldhor's Franny B. Kranny, There's a Bird in Your Hair!, a humorous story about a free-spirited girl with equally free-spirited, frizzy hair in a family of straitlaced, well-coifed women. "Oxenbury's spirited illustrations . . . give loads of personality to the characters," noted a Horn Book reviewer. Oxenbury accomplishes this through telling details, such as Franny's mother's perfect, elaborate hairdo and her flawless manicure, and Mr. Kranny's reading glasses, which "give him a perennially perplexed look," Ann Cook wrote in School Library Journal. Reviewing Franny B. Kranny in Booklist, Gillian Engberg found the title "breezy fun for story hours, with plenty of discussion opportunities."
Oxenbury turned in another award-winning performance with her illustrations for Big Momma Makes the World, written by Phyllis Root. Root retells the traditional Creation story from Genesis, but with the twist that the male God is replaced by Big Momma, who does things a bit differently. "Oxenbury's luminous, oversized acrylics perfectly capture the strong, no-nonsense personality of this barefoot creator," thought School Library Journal reviewer Laurie von Mehren. Oxenbury's paintings also "aptly convey the tone of each day's production," a reviewer noted in Kirkus Reviews. Her palette changes as the creation progresses, from shades of black before the sun is made to an ever-increasing display of color as golden light and multi-colored birds, fish, flowers, and animals appear. Writing in Horn Book, Johanna Rudge Long found "the illustrations . . . superb, surprising the eye with their joyous variety," while Booklist's Ilene Cooper called Big Momma "an exciting, new version of one of the world's oldest stories."
Although the field of board books is now very popular, "old reliable Helen Oxenbury remains a standard against which to judge new entries," Sandra Martin wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail. A reviewer for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books likewise found that Oxenbury is "still one of the best in terms of maintaining simple concepts, lively art, and action generated from objects." "All Helen's pictures have a vibrant wit and delicacy which is so vital in stimulating the imaginative child," Russell explained in Books for Your Children. "In Oxenbury's case, familiarity breeds not contempt, but admiration," Carolyn Phelan remarked in Booklist. "Using everyday concepts, simple drawings, and minimal color, she gives a child's view of ordinary things, creating books that are fresh, original, and appealing to both parents and children."
Despite her success with board books, Oxenbury continues to expand her accomplishments in another area. "I don't want to be pigeonholed," the illustrator told Field in Publishers Weekly. "It's that which I want to avoid more than anything else." Her main desire, she continued, is to fill the need for quality children's books that stand out among the crowd. "There are millions and millions of mediocre children's books. I hope we're not part of that."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard, The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1984.
Children's Literature Review, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 22, 1991, Volume 70, 2001.
Haviland, Virginia, editor, Children and Literature: Views and Reviews, Scott, Foresman (Glenview, IL), 1973.
Kingman, Lee, Grace Allen Hogarth, and Harriet Quimby, compilers, Illustrators of Children's Books, 1967-1976, Horn Book (Boston, MA), 1978.
Martin, Douglas, The Telling Line: Essays on Fifteen Contemporary Book Illustrators, Julia McRae Books (London, England), 1989.
Moss, Elaine, Children's Books of the Year: 1974, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1975.
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Ward, Martha E., Authors of Books for Young People, 3rd edition, Scarecrow Press (Metuchen, NJ), 1990.
Ward, Martha E., and Dorothy A. Marquardt, Illustrators of Books for Young People, 2nd edition, Scarecrow Press (Metuchen, NJ), 1975.
Booklist, May 1, 1981, Betsy Hearne, review of Dressing and others, p. 1198; May 15, 1983, Betsy Hearne, review of Beach Day and others, p. 1258; September 1, 1983, Denise M. Wilms, review of The Car Trip, The Checkup, and First Day of School, p. 89; June 1, 1986, Carolyn Phelan, review of I Can and others, pp. 1462-1463; April 1, 1992, Ilene Cooper, review of Farmer Duck, p. 1449; June 1, 1993, Carolyn Phelan, review of Tom and Pippo on the Beach, pp. 1859-1860; September 1, 1993, review of The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, p. 59; March 1, 1995, Ilene Cooper, review of So Much, p. 1240; November 15, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of The Candlewick Book of Bedtime Stories, p. 563A; January 1, 2000, Michael Cart, review of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, p. 922; June 1, 2001, Gillian Engberg, review of Franny B. Kranny, There's a Bird in Your Hair!, p. 1891; January 1, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of Big Momma Makes the World, p. 881.
Books for Your Children, autumn, 1978, Jean Russell, "Cover Artist: Helen Oxenbury," p. 3.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1973, Zena Sutherland, review of Helen Oxenbury's ABC of Things, p. 96; April, 1982, Zena Sutherland, review of Shopping Trip, pp. 155-156; June, 1986, review of I Can and others, p. 193.
Christian Science Monitor, November 10, 1989, Heather Vogel Frederick, review of We're Going on a Bear Hunt, p. 12; December 9, 1999, Karen Carden, review of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, p. 18.
Entertainment Weekly, June 26, 1992, Michele Landsberg, review of Farmer Duck, p. 124; April 30, 1993, Michele Landsberg, review of Tom and Pippo on the Beach, p. 69.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), March 16, 1985, Sandra Martin, "By the Boards: Words to Chew On"; April 30, 1988, Tim Wynne-Jones, "A Start to the Page-Turning Experience."
Growing Point, January, 1986, Margery Fisher, review of The Helen Oxenbury Nursery Story Book, p. 4548.
Horn Book, February, 1976; April, 1982, review of Tiny Tim: Verses for Children, p. 176; June 20, 1983, review of Eating Out, The Dancing Class, and The Birthday Party, p. 294; November-December, 1984, Mary M. Burns, review of Grandma and Grandpa, The Important Visitor, and Our Dog, p. 752; January-February, 1986, Ethel L. Heins, review of The Helen Oxenbury Nursery Story Book, p. 65; September-October, 1986, Margaret A. Bush, review of I Can, I Hear, I See, and I Touch, pp. 578-579; January-February, 1989, Ethel L. Heins, review of Tom and Pippo and the Washing Machine, Tom and Pippo Go for a Walk, Tom and Pippo Make a Mess, and Tom and Pippo Read a Story, p. 56; May-June, 1989, Ellen Fader, review of Tom and Pippo Go Shopping and others, pp. 361-362; November-December, 1989, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of We're Going on a Bear Hunt, pp. 764-765; September-October, 1992, Ann A. Flowers, review of Farmer Duck, p. 606; July-August, 1993, Martha V. Parravano, review of Tom and Pippo on the Beach, p. 449; January-February, 1995, Hanna B. Zeiger, review of Tom and Pippo and the Bicycle, pp. 51-52; March-April, 1995, Martha V. Parravano, review of It's My Birthday, pp. 186-187; January, 2000, review of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, p. 72; July, 2001, review of Franny B. Kranny, There's a Bird in Your Hair!, p. 441; March-April, 2003, Joanna Rudge Long, review of Big Momma Makes the World, pp. 205-207; January-February, 2004, Phyllis Root and Helen Oxenbury, transcript of Boston Globe-Horn Book award acceptance speech, p. 17.
Independent (London, England), October 1, 1999, Judith Judd, "Tickle, Tickle Beats Off Peek-a-Boo," p. 7.
Instructor and Teacher, September, 1982, Allan Yeager, review of Tiny Tim, p. 20.
Junior Bookshelf, April, 1968, review of Numbers of Things, p. 97; August, 1970, Helen Oxenbury, "Drawing for Children," pp. 199-201; October, 1985, Marcus Crouch, review of The Helen Oxenbury Nursery Story Book, p. 220.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 1989; January 15, 2003, review of Big Momma Makes the World, p. 146.
New York Times Book Review, November 16, 1975; March 29, 1981, George A. Woods, review of Working, Playing, Friends, Family, and Dressing, p. 38; October 9, 1983, Selma G. Lanes, review of ABC of Things, p. 38; January 27, 1985, review of Grandma and Grandpa, p. 29; November 14, 1993, Linda Phillips Ashour, review of The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, p. 56; November 21, 1999, Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, review of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, p. 40; May 20, 2001, Jane Margolies, review of Franny B. Kranny, There's a Bird in Your Hair!, p. S29; December 22, 2002, Sandy MacDonald, review of Big Momma Makes the World, p. 18.
Parenting, April, 1992, Leonard S. Marcus, review of Farmer Duck, p. 30; June-July, 1992, Leonard S. Marcus, review of Beach Day, p. 29.
Publishers Weekly, April 8, 1968, review of Numbers of Things, p. 51; January 22, 1982, review of Tiny Tim, p. 65; March 12, 1982, review of Good Night, Good Morning, p. 84; March 27, 1982, review of Working, p. 51; May 7, 1982, review of Tiny Tim, p. 79; March 18, 1983, review of The Birthday Party, p. 71; November 11, 1983, review of Helen Oxenbury's ABC of Things, p. 48; November 2, 1984, review of The Important Visitor, pp. 77-78; April 25, 1986, review of I Can, I Hear, I See, and I Touch, p. 75; June 26, 1987, review of Say Goodnight, All Fall Down, Clap Hands, and Tickle, Tickle, p. 69; July 24, 1987, Michele Field, "PW Interviews: John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury," pp. 168-169; July 29, 1988, review of Tom and Pippo and the Washing Machine, Tom and Pippo Go for a Walk, Tom and Pippo Make a Mess, and Tom and Pippo Read a Story, p. 230; June 30, 1989, review of We're Going on a Bear Hunt, p. 104; January 20, 1992, review of Farmer Duck, p. 64; June 28, 1993, review of The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, p. 77; June 20, 1994, review of It's My Birthday, p. 104; November 14, 1994, review of So Much, pp. 66-67; November 1, 1999, review of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, p. 84; January 3, 2000, Julia Eccleshare, "Emil-Maschler Award," p. 34; May 21, 2001, review of Franny B. Kranny, There's a Bird in Your Hair!, p. 107; November 25, 2002, review of Big Momma Makes the World, p. 66; August 11, 2003, review of Farmer Duck, p. 281.
School Library Journal, March, 1981, Patricia Homer, review of Merry Mix-Ups, 729 Puzzle People and 729 Curious Creatures, p. 135; October, 1981, Joan W. Blos, review of Working, Playing, Friends, Family, and Dressing, p. 133; August, 1982, Ellen Fader, review of Beach Day, Mother's Helper, Shopping Trip, and Monkey See, Monkey Do, p. 104; March, 1983, Marge Loch-Wouters, review of Beach Day, Dressing, Family, Friends, Good Night, Good Morning, Mother's Helper, Monkey See, Monkey Do, Playing, and Shopping Trip, p. 121; October, 1983, Dana Whitney Pinizzotto, review of The Checkup, p. 152; January, 1984, review of The First Day of School and The Car Trip, p. 67; February, 1985, Amanda J. Williams, review of Grandma and Grandpa, The Important Visitor, and Our Dog, p. 68; December, 1985, review of The Helen Oxenbury Nursery Story Book, pp. 79-80; August, 1986, Jacqueline Elsner, review of I Can, I Hear, I See, and I Touch, p. 86; September, 1987, Nancy Kewish, review of All Fall Down, Clap Hands, Say Goodnight, and Tickle, Tickle, pp. 167-168; April, 1989, Sharron McElmeel, review of Tom and Pippo and the Washing Machine, Tom and Pippo Go for a Walk, Tom and Pippo Make a Mess, and Tom and Pippo Read a Story, pp. 88-89; January, 1990; May, 1992, Trev Jones, review of Farmer Duck, p. 94; August, 1993, Jeanne Marie Clancy, review of Tom and Pippo on the Beach, p. 149; December, 1993, Karen James, review of The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, p. 95; November, 1994, Elaine Lesh Morgan, review of It's My Birthday, p. 87; January, 1995, Lisa S. Murphy, review of Tom and Pippo and the Bicycle, p. 91, and Anna DeWind, review of So Much, p. 83; August, 1995, Rose Zertuche Trevino, review of The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, p. 167; January, 2000, Heide Piehler, review of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, p. 93; June, 2001, Ann Cook, review of Franny B. Kranny, There's a Bird in Your Hair!, p. 122; March, 2003, Laurie von Mehren, review of Big Momma Makes the World, p. 206.
Seattle Times (Seattle, WA), April 17, 1999, Kari Wergeland, "Big Draw for Kids: Illustrator Helen Oxenbury's Board Books Have Clear, Simple Images—And Often Speak to Both Children and Adults," p. D1.
Times Educational Supplement, September 8, 1989, William Feaver, review of We're Going on a Bear Hunt, p. 32; April 14, 1995, Susan Thomas, "Life Drawing," pp. 17-18.
Times Literary Supplement, December 3, 1971, "Good Enough to Keep," pp. 1514-1515; November 23, 1973; July 24, 1981, Lucy Micklethwait, "The Indestructible Word," p. 840; November 20, 1981.
Washington Post Book World, March 8, 1981, Robert Wilson, "Please Don't Eat the Pages," pp. 10-11; March 14, 1982.
Youth Library Review, http://www.cilip.org.uk/ (spring, 2001), "Helen Oxenbury: What It's Like Winning the Kate Greenaway Award."
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Grace Napolitano: 1936—: Politician to Richard (Wayne) Peck (1934-) Biography - CareerHelen Oxenbury (1938-) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights