John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury are two of England’s most honored and beloved author/artists for children. They have been married for 46 years and between them they have created scores of picture books. But until now, they have never done a book together. What prompted this belated change in their MO and what in particular inspired their first collaboration, There’s Going to Be a Baby? PW spoke with them at their midtown hotel during a brief visit to New York.
Why after all these years of making picture books separately, did you collaborate on There’s Going to Be a Baby?
JB: Well, we get lots and lots of different ideas. Years ago, we were going to work together on a series of little films but the project got shelved. This book started out 10 years back but we couldn’t solve it, so it stayed in limbo.
How did you finally get it to work?
HO: The text was always going to be a conversation, but the early pictures were all of the baby dressed up for his future life: as a farmer, a truck driver, a steeplejack, a this and a that. The problem was that the baby was too realistic and it looked grotesque. And for some reason we had decided not to have the mother in the illustrations at all. The breakthrough came when we realized that, yes, we must have the mum in the pictures along with her little son, and make the imaginary episodes of what the baby was going to do when he grew up a separate entity.
Q: The fantasy episodes have a retro comics flavor. Are they based on something particular that you read as a child?
HO: To set them apart, the fantasy scenes had to be either “comics” style or caricature, and so I did go back to the comics that I had as a child, especially one called Beano. John had those too, I think. They were wonderful. I remember the colors, which were rather limited yet vivid—black, red, and white—and the great characters.
JB: There was one called Uncle Windbag and there were the McTickles, among others.
HO: So the book has stories within stories and the dot patterns give the fantasy illustrations that pixilated comics paper look. I got help with that from a brilliant computer person.
In picture books that offer suggestions about a child’s future life, a career in banking isn’t usually one of the choices mentioned. Picture books don’t often talk about money at all. Yet young children certainly know about it and are fascinated with it to some extent.
JB: For a child especially, there’s something about loose coins in bags, isn’t there? That’s proper money. That’s what you find in buried treasure. That’s real stuff.
The colors in the more realistic pictures are so intense.
HO: I started out with softer watercolors, but that didn’t work because there weren’t any landscapes and because I wasn’t particularly aiming at atmosphere. The story was purely about the relationship between two strong characters. For that reason it needed simplicity, and within that simplicity the most important thing was to focus on the expressions of the mother and the little boy.
Q: Some of the pictures look almost like posters.
HO: That’s not a million miles from what I was thinking of—as well as Japanese silkscreen prints. First, you’ve got to get the drawing absolutely right and then you can forget about that and concentrate on the color. Color is what interested me with this book. I was influenced in that by our daughter, who is a textile designer. I had been watching her work with color and had found it fascinating, wasn’t it, John?
JB: Oh yes. She sometimes brings us her problems so we see her work as we might see the work of a student, and have to ask ourselves, as a teacher would, why this color is right with that color, or why it isn’t. And of course textiles open up the whole world of pattern, too.
I thought you did something very nice for expectant mothers by giving the one in your pictures so many beautiful things to wear. It’s as if you were reminding them not to neglect themselves even in a difficult time.
HO: I was getting so sick of doing tired, haggard mothers! I thought, This time I’m going to do a really smart mom.
JB: I think she’s your first smart mom.
HO: Yes, I suppose she is. I don’t think you’ll ever do a smart mom!
JB: I don’t think so either.
The text reads as a conversation, but in the pictures it stretches over nine months and all four seasons.
HO: That’s right. That brings in another element to talk about.
Do you imagine a mother and child reading this book aloud to each other?
JB: Well, it works as a children’s book but it’s also a kind of gift book—a children’s book for expectant mothers.
What suggested the focus of the story? Was it based on memories of your own childhood, or of being a parent or grandparent?
JB: Not consciously. In this curious world of writing for children, you program yourself to write about whatever it is in such a way as to make it plausible, to make it seem real. I find that the less there is to the writing, the more difficult. It’s like someone who can’t cook will have masses of flavors and colors, when all you really want is a well-cooked piece of fish or meat. People who bombard you with conversation do so either because they feel insecure about really having anything to say, or because they just can’t ration their words.
There’s a line in the book that seems to come out of nowhere. After considering several possible futures for the baby with his mom, the boy suddenly says: “Mrs. Anderson’s baby was sick all over their new carpet.”
JB: It did come out of nowhere. The text somehow wasn’t coming together and our editor, David Lloyd, said over lunch one day that he wasn’t sure there was going to be a book. It took me a couple of weeks to come up with that line, which filled out the sequence.
HO: It punctuates the boy’s doubts and fears.
JB: And it’s a climax. He’s really angry, that boy. “Haven’t I put you off having this baby yet?” is what he’s saying. “Just think, that other boy was sick and ruined this carpet.” What is nice about the book is that any story that just says “Isn’t life lovely?” is not really telling you the truth. It’s the same for any story that just tells you life is awful. It’s the juxtaposition of hope and doubt in the boy’s mind that makes the story interesting.
That's also the moment when you show the boy naked—something that, strangely, is rarely seen in a picture book, even 40 years after Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen.
HO: I didn’t even think about it. The child is in a bath, and he’s furious—so he stands up. If he had been naked in the park I suppose that might have been different.
JB: Or the bank.