Marcus, Leonard S. Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration. Candlewick, 04/2019. 288p. $40. 978-0-7636-9258-2.
Children’s book author and illustrator Helen Oxenbury is celebrated in this lush coffee table book, filled with personal photographs and reproductions of her artwork, matched with an enthralling and authoritative text by Leonard Marcus. A pleasure for any children’s librarian, this also gives an insightful look at how the publishing world’s approach to children’s books has changed over the past half century.
Told chronologically, Oxenbury’s story begins in her native United Kingdom, where her youth was fairly safe and secure, even during WWII when she as a toddler. During her school years, her interest in theatre, drawing, and painting were already evident, leading to her university focus on stage design. This is when she met her husband John Burningham, who pursued a career in children’s books before Oxenbury decided to take that path as well since it better fit her schedule as a young mother. [Burningham died in January 2019].
One exciting chapter describes how she did the artwork for Michael Rosen’s Going on a Bear Hunt (1989), her best-selling work. Unlike previous books where she did a few illustrations and checked in with the publisher, she did almost all of the artwork for Going on a Bear Hunt before showing the publisher. Then, the book design was based on the artwork, not the other way around which would have been the common procedure.
Another interesting passage describes how Candlewick Press, the United States offshoot of Oxenbury’s British publisher Walker, came to be. In fact, Candlewick’s logo of a bear holding a candlestick was created by Oxenbury.
The typography (both font used, size, and amount of white space) for this book comes from Going on a Bear Hunt; the spacious text makes this a quick read. The match of relevant illustrative matter, especially the reproductions of her book illustrations, lets artwork take the place of text in many cases. For example, showing the pages of her landmark large board books, featuring realistic babies of various ethnic groups, depicts her achievement better than a lengthy description could. This doesn’t undercut Marcus’s achievement as a writer but enhances it as his text is concise while still having plenty of detail.
The book concludes with several tributes from people she worked with, including authors Rosen, Trish Cooke (So Much, 1994), Phyllis Root (Big Mama Makes the World, 2003), Mem Fox (Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, 2008), and Martin Waddell (Farmer Duck,1991). A lovely book for children’s literature specialists to enjoy.
Penny Peck, San Jose State University iSchool