Remembering John Burningham

The much-loved writer and artist, who created over 70 books published around the world, passed away on Friday (4 January).

John Burningham
all photos credit: John Burningham

With much sadness, the family of John Burningham, author and illustrator of countless much-loved children’s books including Mr Gumpy’s Outing, Avocado Baby and Borka, confirm that he passed away on Friday 4 January, aged 82.

He is survived by his wife, the illustrator Helen Oxenbury, their children Lucy, Bill and Emily, and seven grandchildren.

John was born on 27 April, 1936, in Surrey, and in his youth attended various progressive schools including Summerhill. He was awarded his School Certificate in English Literature, but failed other subjects, including Art. John registered as a Conscientious Objector in 1954 and spent two years doing Alternative Military Service before beginning a course in Design and Illustration at the Central School of Arts. There he met Helen Oxenbury, who was studying Theatre Design. John travelled widely, designed iconic posters for London Transport and taught Illustration part-time before publishing his first picture book, Borka, the Adventure of a Goose With No Feathers, with Jonathan Cape in 1963, winning the Kate Greenaway Medal for Illustration. This began an unbroken life of picture-book creation – John then went on to create over 70 books published in many countries around the world. 

John Burningham

Part of a generation of illustrators who revolutionised the picture-book world, John’s career was filled with exploration, innovation and irreverence. He illustrated Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 1964, and in 1970 introduced the world to Mr Gumpy in Mr Gumpy’s Outing, his second Kate Greenaway Medal-winner. In 1972, after having completed his own 80-day circumnavigation of the globe, his work on the centenary edition of Around in the World in Eighty Days was published. In the coming years he was awarded the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book of the Year Award twice, the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis and the Kurt Maschler Award, among many global accolades and critical acclaim.  

John’s books include the ground-breaking depiction of bereavement, Granpa, the game-like Would You Rather (which he revisited in 2018 with More Would You Rather), and the empowering favourite, Avocado Baby. And in 2010, John and Helen also collaborated on a picture book together, There’s Going to be a Baby, published by Walker Books. John’s books have also been variously adapted as shadow puppet theatre, animations and stage plays.

In 2018, John was awarded the Booktrust Lifetime Achievement Award, which Helen won at the same time. On receiving the award, John commented:

“I’m incredibly grateful to be given an award for a lifetime of work. I’m so very flattered when I hear people now say they love my books and that something I did 50 years ago still works and is enjoyed by their family.”

John’s influence on the children’s book world has been reflected in the outpouring of love and admiration for him throughout his career, when honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award, and when news of his death was announced. In John’s self-penned retrospective, John Burningham: Behind the Scenes, Maurice Sendak’s foreword captured the thoughts of many envious admirers: “Your work, John, is stunning, luscious, sexy, hilarious and mysterious and frequently just plain nuts.”

John Burningham with grandchild Hattie
With grandchild Hattie

John’s final picture book, Mr Gumpy’s Rhino, will be published this August by Jonathan Cape, an imprint of Penguin Random House Children’s. In his own words: “I’ve just finished a book recently which I probably wrote 40 years ago! It's about a rhinoceros whose parents have been killed. How do you put that across to small children? It's months of thought of how to do it. And it's a Mr Gumpy book, so I've resurrected Mr Gumpy in Africa for this story.”

The family say, “We feel we’ve lost a truly wonderful and original husband, father and grandfather, who inspired us, surprised us, and exasperated us in equal measure.”

Helen Oxenbury, John’s wife of 54 years, says, “John was a gargantuan character who played a huge part in my life and in the lives of our children and grandchildren, as he did in the lives of children all over the world, with his wonderful stories and his insight into a child’s mind. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t met John. He’s guided me, influenced me and inspired me my entire life.”

Francesca Dow, Managing Director of Penguin Random House Children’s says, “John was 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. He never spoke down to children, always treating them with the utmost respect.

Jonathan Cape published his debut, the Kate Greenaway medal-winning Borka in 1963, and ever since then we have been the proud publishers of his truly special picture books, including last year’s marvellous sequel to the classic Would You Rather and the forthcoming Mr Gumpy’s Rhino, where John revisits one of his most beloved characters.

It was wonderful to celebrate with John last spring when he was awarded the Booktrust Lifetime Achievement Award at the same time that his wife, Helen Oxenbury, was honoured. This was a fitting recognition of his sparkling career, which spanned well over fifty years and saw him win numerous awards around the world, including two Greenaway medals, the New York Times Best Illustrated Award and the Kurt Maschler Award. This was a wonderful moment in which John’s peers came together to express their admiration for a truly innovative and influential creator.

John will be much missed by his publishing family here at Penguin Random House, and our thoughts and very best wishes are with Helen and his family.”

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