9.27.2010

There's Going to Be a Baby written by John Burningham and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

Part One: A Brief History of 
John Burningham & Helen Oxenbury

John Burningham. Helen Oxenbury. They are the British equivalents of say, Maurice Sendak and Marla Frazee. Except roughly the same age. And married. For decades. Burningham and Oxenbury are royalty in the world of children's picture books in the UK. Burningham won the Kate Greenaway Medal (the British Caldecott) in 1963 for his book Borka: The Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers. The next year, he and Oxenbury married. Her first book was published in 1969. If you are American, you are probably more familiar with Oxenbury's illustrations, especially in We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rose. The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivisas, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox and her own book, It's My Birthday are among my favorites. However, you may not know that Oxenbury illustrated a very charming edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass in 1999, winning her a third Kate Greenaway Medal. 

I have not come across another illustrator - besides Marla Frazee, who is relatively new to picture books in terms of Oxenbury's career - who captures the essence of babies on the page with such gentleness, humor, grace and beauty. Oxenbury's color palette is a peaceful one, her babies (mostly) cheerful. She can even make a baby with a runny nose look charming (see Ten Little Fingers.)




John Burningham has had less of a shelf presence in the States, although his work is often written of with admiration. I think I first came across his books years ago at my local library. Burnignham's work is often a combination of drawing, painting, and collage. In a superb interview from 2009, Burningham talks about his approach to writing and illustrating picture books, over 50 now, and the appetites of his young readers. Writing for the Telegraph, Nicolette Jones notes that: 

although his work is underpinned by liberal values, Burningham is not didactic. 'As soon as you start to deliberately put the messages across, it's like a Seventh Day Adventist on the doorstep... you realise you are being got at.' His guiding principle is different: 'The 11th Commandment should have been, "Thou Shalt Not Bore."' He deplores what he calls a 'party food approach' to books for children: the belief that 'lots of colours and pretty pictures will do when there's no content. Children get very quickly bored. Colour means absolutely nothing unless it is used to some effect.'







Burningham's books definitely do not bore, texturally or visually. Would You Rather . . . is pure brilliance. Burningham offers readers options like, "Would you rather . . . an elephant drank your bath water, and eagle stole your dinner, a pig tried on your clothes or a hippo slept in your bed?" Or, "Would you rather your Dad dance at school or your mom make a fuss in a cafe?" In his slightly wicked and subtly subversive way, Burningham also gives readers the chance to choose between eating spider stew, tasting slug dumplings, staying all night in a creepy house for $50 and being sat on by a rhinoceros. Another favorite of mine, Hey, Get Off Our Train, finds a boy, his toy train and his pajama case dog imagining an epic train ride during which many different animals hop aboard, are told off, and then given a reprieve when the boy and dog learn of their plights, which usually involve a loss of habitat due to human encroachment. In all of his books (and I haven't even mentioned his popular Mr. Gumpy - NOT Grumpy books - Burningham deftly employs his imagination and exercises the imaginations of his readers with his words and pictures.


Part Two: The Book

So, drumroll, please . . . . . . . . . the FIRST EVER COLLABORATION BETWEEN TWO GREATS FROM THE WORLD OF CHILDREN'S LITERATURE - There's Going to Be a Baby written by John Burningham and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury! Because of Oxenbury's way with babies and Burningham's ability to think like a child (and NOT what most adults think is thinking like a child . . . ) I cannot think of two people better poised to write a book about a child's attempts to cope with the very abstract news that there's going to be a baby.

 



It was hard not to include every single gorgeous picture from this book, which is illustrated in two styles. The text walks readers through the six or so months between between the time that a mother (and it is only the mother we see in this book, which makes sense - for toddlers, mother, no matter how excellent a parent the other person is, is the whole world - and this book reflects this perspective) tells her son about the baby and the baby arrives. Over the course of the book and the months that pass, mother and son talk about the baby, wondering what he might be when he grows up, the mother's words in pale blue and the boy's in dark blue. The mother's ideas prompt the boy to imagine the baby doing various jobs, and Oxenbury's illustration style takes on a comical, cartoonish style fir these imaginings.


Imagining the baby trying to do adult tasks and making a mess of things works as a way for the boy to cope with his anxious or negative feelings about the arrival of a sibling. When I was a bookseller, I was constantly surprised by how FEW books there are that really address the arrival of a new sibling and the anxieties it stirs up. There aren't even as many books on the shelf about new siblings in general as you would think. A book like There's Going to Be a Baby is desperately needed, both for the realistic, thoughtful way it addresses a new baby and for the descriptive, but simple illustrations that tell the story as well.

By the time the baby arrives, the abstract is made concrete - almost - and the boy is genuinely please about his new sibling. On the bus to the hospital with his grandfather the two talk. "Maybe it will be Susan or Peter. Maybe it will be good at cooking and it will sail on the seven seas and work in the garden or the zoo or the bank," the boy says. In the final words of the book, as they are walking towards the mother's hospital room, the boy says, "Grandad, the baby will be our baby. We're going to love the baby, aren't we?"

Maybe it takes a combined 75+ years of children's book writing and illustrating experience before you can create a book as wonderfully, simply beautiful as There's Going to Be a Baby - even the title of the book embodies all these qualities. Whatever the reason, there has never been another book like this and I am so glad it is finally here!


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