BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award winner John Burningham: 'I'm very much working full time'

Published on: 08 February 2018 Author: Emily Drabble

For the first time, BookTrust has handed out two Lifetime Achievement Awards in one year, to picture book legends Helen Oxenbury and John Burningham.

Below, BookTrust's Emily Drabble speaks to John about his life in publishing and why he's got no plans to retire just yet...

John Burningham

How does it feel to win the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award?

Well, it's lovely. I'm very grateful!

How did you become a children's books author and illustrator?

After two and half years of alternative military service I met an old school friend of mine on Waterloo Bridge, and I asked him what he was doing. He said, 'I'm going to Central School of Art and doing a course in graphic design and illustration', and I thought, 'That's a good idea, I'll do that!' I did Art A-Level and I failed it, but they let me in without a foundation course and it went on from there!

How did you actually get your first book published?

I had the story around my first book Borka for quite some time. There was lady called Ann Carter who worked for Jonathan Cape publishers. She suggested I make it into rough dummy that she could take to Tom Maschler, who was the great children's editor at that time, and he said, 'Yes, we'll do it!'

Children's books were very different to how they are today when you started writing them in the late 1950s and early 60s. Did you feel like a pioneer for these changes away from more swaddled childhood books?

It was a great time to start being a children's illustrator. I think my first book Borka was the first time they did full colour printing, where you as the artist didn't have to separate the colours. Had I had to do that stuff I wouldn't have done it - I can't be bothered with that sort of thing!

There were some adults who didn't appreciate the new wave though. I did a series of little books - one was called The Dog and in it, he pees on the flowers. Mary Whitehouse went absolutely berserk and a lot of school libraries took it out of their libraries. I had thought about it a lot and and specifically decided not to use the word 'wee wee'. I thought, 'I'm using perfectly good grammar saying "peed on"'. But oh, the commotion!


Your books are so often about ordinary people or animals to whom magical or out of the ordinary things happen: magic beds, magical doors like in The Way to the Zoo, dogs that can cook and help families as in Courtney and so on. What's the reason for that?

I just want to get out of my dull little life, don't I?! I have no idea - these things come as ideas. There are a lot of ideas that I've had for ages before they are resolved. I've just finished a book recently which I probably wrote 40 years ago! It's about a rhinoceros whose parents have been killed. How you put that across to small children? It's months of thought of how to do it. And it's a Mr Gumpy book, so I've resurrected Mr Gumpy in Africa for this story.

Can you tell us how you make your books?

I have to decide on how many pages it's going to be first. It's going to be 32, 48, 24 or whatever. Then you make a series of squares or oblongs and put in an approximation of the drawing and text. The problem with a story is you have to have a beginning but you also have to have an end. None of it's easy, but the end can be a nightmare to try and get right.

I will go on sort of working it out so I know in the end what I have to draw. When I have to draw it, that's a separate set of problems. But I'm not going to draw page 29 before I know it's going to work in the book.

I don't go, 'Oh, how lovely, I'm going to do some drawing' - it's quite hard work!

People often presume writing and illustrating is so much 'fun' as if you would be laughing all day while you are making them. But that is not the case for me at all. It's not necessarily any fun at all.

Do you think about the reactions you want from children and families who read your books when you write them?

I never think about the audience - I just see it as a problem getting it right for me. And the older I get the more irascible I become. I'm making them because I want to create them and that's that.

Children want your books read to them over and over again. How does that make you feel?

I'm always pleased to hear that. I would hate to think I've done something that was 'alright in the 60s but now what we're doing is something different'. I'm very flattered when I hear people now say they love my books and something I did 50 years ago still works.

Avocado Baby

Did you write Husherbye to get your own children to sleep? Or Avocado Baby to get them to eat avocados?

Husherbye was designed in my mind to be made with a music box to get children to sleep, although I wrote it after my children needed it themselves. The problem with reading to children to get them to sleep is where you've finished it they start asking, 'Are you going now?' And they bounce themselves awake.

This idea was a music box with Brahms' Lullaby as part of the book, so you wind it up and you escape while it's playing. It has taken me 16 years before I finally got the music box. And now I've done it. I've finally got in manufactured in the US and I hope it will be sold here!

Avocado Baby was about our youngest daughter whose favourite food was avocados.

If you had to save three of your books from being wiped off the earth, which would they be and why?

If I had to say which is the most satisfactory, I'd probably put Mr Gumpy's Outing in there. Husherbye is pretty good bedtime story. There's a book I like enormously that was a commercial disaster called Whadayamean. I still think it was a jolly good try even though no-one seemed to like it! Maybe the time wasn't ripe for it then, it could be time to bring it out again!

What's your favourite of your wife Helen Oxenbury's books?

Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig; I think the drawings are absolutely wonderful!

Helen Oxenbury and John Burningham

How do you and Helen work together?

We've only collaborated on one book [There's Going To Be a Baby] in all this time. It's such hard work doing what we do and we are arch critics of each other. You almost want to get away from it when you've finished. We don't share a studio. We will come to each other as critics and say, 'What do you think of that?' And we might get told that the arm is all wrong, or the colour is dead in that corner. We depress each other. When you work all week on something and somebody points out a problem you haven't seen, it's very annoying!

Why do babies and little children need amazing books?

No-one will ever know what absorption is going on with a small child. So we need to give them wonderful things. I remember being dragged around National Trust properties and old churches when I was a child going, 'Oh God! Another bloody old building.' But now I have a fascination for old buildings and all that sort of thing so it must have rubbed off!

What are you working on now?

My rhinoceros book. I'm not sure what it's going to be called but It's coming out next year. And for this year I've done a second Would You Rather? book. A lot of people liked the first one, and and I thought I must do another.

I'm very much working full time. For me, I think while you can and while you're around, you should work. I don't want to have more time to do the garden and clean the car so I want to work!

Are you kept awake by your ideas? Are there too many to do in your lifetime and does that bother you?

No, not really. If I stopped now, I've done enough, actually. I'll carry on if there's something worthwhile for me to do. I'm not going to do something for the hell of it.

What were your favourite books when you were growing up?

I loved Rupert Bear and Cecil Aldin was an illustrator I liked. We had a lot of books at home and my mother used to read to me every night. I can remember being read to; it's a very sweet memory for me. If you can be bothered to read to your children, it's so worth it.

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Lifetime Achievement Award

2018 winners: Helen Oxenbury and John Burningham

Learn more about our award, which we give every year for outstanding achievement in children's literature.

Why John Burningham won the Lifetime Achievement Award

Illustrations and quotes from famous fans

Read why so many authors and illustrators are happy that John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury have jointly won the Lifetime Achievement Award - and see some of their incredible illustrations.

See a list of John Burningham's books

Our favourite books

Check out some of our favourite picture books by John Burningham.