With an ever-growing list of professional titles (author, historian, critic, curator, educator, editor, international children’s literature advisor), Leonard S. Marcus is accustomed to packed days and constant hat-shifts. Even so, 2019 is shaping up to be an extremely busy year. In addition to his acclaimed exhibit “Out of the Box: The Graphic Novel Comes of Age,” currently on view at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., three book projects, many years in the making, have just been released. With a completely rewritten text, 100 Years of Children’s Book Week Posters is more than just an expansion of Marcus’s earlier 75 Years of Children’s Book Week Posters. The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter is a catalogue companion to an exhibit organized by University of Minnesota’s Kerlan Collection and inspired by Marcus’s New York Public Library exhibit of the same name. PW caught up with Marcus to speak about his third title this spring, Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration, a survey of the groundbreaking children’s book creator’s work.
You begin Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration by describing your first meeting with the artist, in 1989. How did her books stand out from everything else that you were seeing then?
In creating books that had artistic and literary merit for a baby or a toddler, she was looking at a different group of children than almost anyone had before her. At that time, most board books were basically flash cards with a binding, with the exception of Rosemary Wells’s books, which appeared just a little bit before Helen’s, and Dick Bruna’s books, which weren’t as well known here.
Helen was somehow able to create stories that had artistry, psychological depth, humor, everything, even in the simplest book. She was able to incorporate both points of view, the parent’s and the child’s, and she had great insight into what goes on in a young child’s mind and in the relationship between young children and their parents. She understood, better than most people, that a book for a child has to have something in it to hold the parent’s interest, too. If you don’t have that, the parent is going to become disengaged, and then the experience is going to be diminished, if not spoiled, for the child. It really is ingenious that she realized this communal aspect. In a way, to call Helen’s books “children’s books” is a misnomer. They’re books for families to bond with.
She was also well aware that children’s books were almost entirely about white kids—and that that wasn’t a full picture. Her board books, such as Clap Hands, were the first of several of her books to address that issue. On each page of the board books, there were toddlers of four different racial backgrounds. For her, making books for young children has always been an effort to give children a chance to be their fullest selves. She expanded outward from that initial impulse as she thought more about society as a whole.
In tracing the growth of Oxenbury's pioneering career, you also provide an overview of how British children’s literature evolved in the last half of the 20th century. Can you discuss that evolution?
The war didn’t end for England in 1945. There was a lot of suffering, and there were shortages; it was a very gray period. We think of England as the mother country for children’s literature, but after the war, they were really looking to us for energy and inspiration. Their structure for publishing children’s books was copied from what we developed before World War II. So, when Helen came into the field as a young artist, it was not a very dynamic industry. She had to struggle to get good design for her work, for example. Helen, John [Burningham, her husband], Quentin Blake, and a few other people really were the children’s book equivalents of The Beatles. They came along at about the same time, and they were bringing color and a youthful sense of excitement to a society that had been pretty beaten down for many years.
Was Oxenbury's life as a parent instrumental in developing her work?
She originally wanted to be a set designer for the theater and did do work of that kind for a few years. But she’s very practical-minded. She realized that to be an artist and to have a baby, the thing that she could do most readily was to design greeting cards, which she did at the kitchen table for a friend who had this very avant-garde company in London—very hipster ’60s stuff. Then, she realized that if she put a number of related images together, they could become a counting book. She began to think of the picture book as a kind of tabletop theater. So that was her way into picture-book making— a way for her to do the things she’d always wanted to do, given her life circumstances.
When her third child, Emily, was born, Helen began thinking about books for her, and that led to the board books. And as Emily grew, Helen moved up the developmental ladder with books about taking a preschooler to the department store or a restaurant or for a long car ride, things like that. And there was always humor and the gentlest reminder to the parent that the child might have a very different point of view that needs to be respected.
You write that in Oxenbury's art, “seeing is a way of knowing, and drawing a form of felt experience.” Can you explain that a bit more in relation to her work?
One of the most basic goals that an illustrator has is to make the reader feel an emotional connection with the character on the page. When Helen’s looking out at the world, on her own or on the page for us as viewers, she’s noticing relationships, gestures, all the little details that tell you about a person, and she’s selecting from all the things that she sees in a way that becomes meaningful to the story that she’s trying to tell.
In the little book called The Dance Lesson, there’s a bandage on the leg of the older woman who is playing the piano for the preschoolers, who are having a ballet class. Why is that detail there? Well, for one thing, it lifts the scene out of the generic into something much more real, and it makes you wonder. She makes it feel important to know people as individuals. She pays attention to the way people express themselves with their faces or the way they touch each other or present themselves to the world, and when they stumble, that’s interesting, too. It’s very human. It’s sort of paradoxical that she’s such a perfectionist as an artist and yet one of the biggest themes of her work is that we are all imperfect and that we need to accept ourselves on that basis.
And that authenticity extends to her animals, too. You include a wonderful quote by E.B. White about that.
Yes, White had resisted Disney’s offers to make Charlotte’s Web into a film, and in a letter, he wrote, “My feeling about animals is just the opposite of Disney’s. He made them dance to his tune… I preferred to dance to their tune.” And it really summarizes the two extreme points of view. Helen is certainly on the E.B. White side of the fence. Even though it’s a sleight of hand, of course, to have animals stand up on their hind legs and behave like humans, there can still be an affinity with the animal as a part of the natural world that can be either preserved or violated, and Helen is always about preserving and operating in that sort of magical middle ground. So, in a book like Farmer Duck, you’re in a world that doesn’t exist anywhere else but on the page. She’s able to pull off this feat of making you believe that a duck could be wielding a broom, for example. It’s easy to fake a hand or fake a facial expression, but she doesn’t do that. With artistic integrity, she structures a fantasy world visually, rather than in words alone.
As befitting a book about beautiful art this is a beautiful book. Were you involved in the design?
Helen, understandably, wanted to control things, but I am responsible for the opening sequence. In London, in the years after the war and on into the ’60s, there were vacant lots where there had been bombings that were piled high with leavings from demolished buildings. Helen and John would find all kinds of architectural elements that they would incorporate in their house, and they found this beautiful hardwood door, which Helen installed as the door to her studio. It’s from the Arts and Crafts period, which she and John both gravitated toward because craftsmanship was so important then—the intimate quality of something made by hand for another person. And that’s, of course, a quality of their books, too. So I said, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a photograph of that door, followed by a sequence of photos inside the studio?” And so the idea was to begin the book by taking people into her world.
In another of your recently published books, The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter, you write: “Behind every children’s book is a vision of childhood—a shared understanding of what childhood is all about.” What do you think Oxenbury’s books tell us about her vision of childhood?
A quote of hers, which is probably the most emblematic of all is, “One can never be too much on the side of the child.” So even though she is looking at both sides of the equation, the parent and the child, in the end, she’s thinking most of all about the children and their needs and their point of view. They, of course, are the vulnerable ones, and they have less power. And I think she has a lot of trust in children’s curiosity and in their fundamentally good impulses. I think she would say that children make good decisions for themselves and that part of the parent’s role or the adult world’s role is to give children the freedom to think for themselves and to try things—to have experiences and not feel cloistered or tethered too much to the people around them.
Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration. Leonard S. Marcus. Candlewick, $40 Apr. 9 ISBN 978-0-7636-9258-1