Wednesday, May 18, 2016

John Burningwho?

By Jennifer K. Mann 

This week it’s nothing but a little something about John Burningham, one of my very most favorite author/illustrators anywhere anytime. 
John Burningham seems not to to be as familiar to American readers as he ought to be. A big group of children's book afficianados, with whom I shared company recently, could not answer this question: "Which children's book author/illustrator is married to Helen Oxenbury?" The answer is John Burningham, who lives and works in the UK, and has been making books since 1963 when he published his first book, the wonderful BORKA. 

I learned of him from the brilliant G. Bryan Karas, who mentioned his heroes in a talk I heard long ago—John Burningham was among them. It was love at first sight for me. Of all of the author/illustrators that I revere, he is the one that I have studied most closely, and I hope some of his genius rubs off on me.

John Burningham is the master of spare prose, and effortless-seeming art. There is nothing particularly cute about any of his books—I suspect “cute” is not what he is after. 

But there is an awful lot of truth in them, and I think that is what speaks to me the most. 

He seems not to give a fig about the adults who might happen upon his books. (And possibly not about the children who will read his books either--read the interview that is linked at the bottom, and you will see his Sendakian view on this.) 

But John Burningham has a remarkable talent for creating books aimed right at the eye level of kids and their truths. 

Burningham’s art is loose and almost messy/awkward in the most wonderful un-selfconscious way. (But don’t be fooled—he is actually a master draftsman!) 

I’ve spent many hours trying to unpack just how he creates his rich, layered, complex early paintings. I've never really figured out just how he does it, but I have learned a lot along the way, and have developed some of my own visual voice by looking closely at his. 

Some of my favorite children's book art is that which reveals the artist’s hand—the previous layers that have been painted over, the pencil guidelines, the erasures, the blobs and scratches that make it clear that a creative and (maybe unfettered) human created them. 

(Also in the interview linked below, you will read that even he puts great effort into pulling off the illusion that his art making is effortless and free. Even John Burningham agonizes and frets that his ability is all gone, until he actually begins to make the art about which he is worried.)

John Burningham allows much of his process to show, veiled under the layers of paint and collage, not quite invisible, like secrets to be discovered. It's what makes his books worth reading over and over, which is the goal of many fine children's book creators.

Here are a few more of my favorite books by John Burningham, so you can have a look for yourself:

Read this truly wonderful conversation between David Roberts and John Burningham—LOTS of truths here.

If this is the first you've ever heard of John Burningham, then hooray! I'm so glad to be able to introduce him to you. 

And for those who are old or recent fans, let me know what you love about John Burningham.



  1. His last line in the interview--"I’ve got projects that I’ve absolutely dreaded for weeks and weeks and I can’t get myself to start them and then eventually I do and think what was the fuss about!" SO TRUE for both writing and drawing!

    1. Oh yes, I really can relate to that problem as well. Thanks for visiting Chris!

  2. Great post Jennifer - I've been a devotee since the late 80's - I adore his scratchy messy textury often very messy visions!