John Burningham, prolific author of children's books, dies at 82

Children's book author John Burningham in 2005.
Children's book author John Burningham in 2005. Photo: Lee Besford

John Burningham, who wrote and illustrated scores of books that took generations of young children on fanciful journeys full of surprise and heart, died on Jan. 4 in London. He was 82.

His death was announced by his publisher, Penguin Random House Children's, which did not specify a cause.

Francesca Dow, the publisher's managing director, called him "a true original, a picture-book pioneer and an endlessly inventive creator of stories that could be by turns hilarious and comforting, shocking and playful."

One of Burningham's many books, 'Aldo'.
One of Burningham's many books, 'Aldo'. 

Burningham had quick success in the children's book field: His first published book, "Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers," won the 1963 Kate Greenaway Medal, a British prize that recognises outstanding children's book illustration. The story involved a featherless goose who, left behind by her migrating siblings, finds a place in the world nonetheless.

He won the same prize in 1970 for "Mr. Gumpy's Outing," in which the title character, about to take his boat out on a river, accedes to requests from his children and a series of animals to come along, with cheerfully waterlogged results.

Burningham liked to mix line drawings and ink washes in small scenes but also would often throw in, several times in each book, a larger, more arresting painting to startle and captivate the 7-and-under crowd. The artwork, though, always retained a simple, even childlike quality, in contrast to the more overwhelming imagery of other children's books.

"Sometimes you see a lot of pattern and colour in picture books," he told The Bookseller in 2003, "and it masks the inadequacy of the drawing or text."

In his storytelling, he liked to start off quietly, then draw his young readers into the realm of imagination. There was, for instance, "Where's Julius?" in 1986, in which Mr. and Mrs. Troutbeck wonder why their son hasn't come down to lunch - it's because, as almost every child has done, he has made a little fort in his room out of a curtain strung across a couple of chairs. But as the book progresses, Julius doesn't come to subsequent meals because he is riding a camel up a pyramid in Egypt or climbing a mountain in Tibet.

In "Courtney" (1994), parents reluctantly allow their children to go to the pound to adopt a dog but are dismayed when the youngsters return with Courtney, an unloved mongrel, rather than a pedigreed animal. Yet Courtney turns out to be an excellent cook, butler, juggler and violinist.

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That might have made a decent children's book, yet Burningham took the story further. Courtney inexplicably disappears one day, and the family adjusts to life without him. But when, on summer vacation, a boat the children are playing in breaks away from its mooring and drifts out to sea, endangering them, a mysterious something tows them to safety.

"They never did find out who or what it was that had pulled their boat back to shore," the book concludes. "I wonder what it could have been."

Leaving such holes for his young readers to fill in on their own was classic Burningham.

Vicki Weissman, reviewing another of his books, "John Patrick Norman McHennessy: The Boy Who Was Always Late," in 1988 in The New York Times, praised its economy of words. "Mr. Burningham," she wrote, "has long since grasped that all children need is a trigger and their imaginations will do the rest."

John Burningham was born on April 27, 1936, in Farnham, Surrey, southwest of London. He attended various progressive schools, among them Summerhill. In 1954 he registered as a conscientious objector and did two years' worth of alternative military service before enrolling in a course in design and illustration at the Central School of Art in London. There he met Helen Oxenbury, whom he would later marry. She too became a noted writer and illustrator of children's books. (They did not collaborate on a book until "There's Going to Be a Baby" in 2010.)

Burningham designed posters for the transit authority London Transport and other agencies before the publication of his first book. Another early achievement was illustrating the first edition of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car," the Ian Fleming book, in 1964.

Among his most beloved titles was "Avocado Baby" (1994), about a baby that becomes abnormally strong from eating avocados. Also much admired was "Granpa" (1984), which gently explored the theme of bereavement.

Later in his career Burningham sometimes was more directly didactic, addressing themes like pollution and war, as he did in "Whaddayamean" (1999), in which God visits Earth, is displeased and sets two children to the task of getting grown-ups to change their ways. The book was one of several in which he used collage, incorporating photographs into his paintings.

In addition to his wife, Burningham is survived by their three children, Lucy, Bill and Emily; and seven grandchildren.

"If you tell people you do children's books, they say, 'What fun!'" Burningham told The Telegraph in 2013. "There's no fun attached to it at all; it's a bloody nightmare."

"When I get an adult project," he added, "I rejoice. They're easier than children's books because you don't have this immense simplification that you need when communicating with children."

But that simplification was something he excelled at, as Gregory Maguire of the nonprofit group Children's Literature New England noted in 2010 when he introduced Burningham as the recipient of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honour Award for Picture Books for "It's a Secret."

"Where does John Burningham get his ideas?" Maguire asked the audience. "He charts the clandestine terrain of childhood so aptly that one has to suspect the presence of a mole on the playground."

The New York Times