How they're ruining my lovely Felixstowe

The artist who gave us toddler Tom and Pippo the stuffed monkey tells Steven Russell about her Ipswich roots - and her sadness at the way Felixstowe's being ruined.

Steven Russell

The artist who gave us toddler Tom and Pippo the stuffed monkey tells Steven Russell about her Ipswich roots - and her sadness at the way Felixstowe's being ruined

MUMS and dads owe Helen Oxenbury three cheers. Her children's books have helped many a bedtime run without tears. She illustrated We're Going on a Bear Hunt, pioneered board-books that babies can both coo at and chew, and even put Alice in jeans and plimsolls when she gave a makeover to those classic adventures in Wonderland.

Pluck a handful of children's books off a library shelf and there's a good chance her name will be there. Helen's warm drawings have adorned stories such as Alexei Tolstoy's The Great Big Enormous Turnip, decorated her own books - an ABC of Things, for instance - and helped youngsters come to terms with challenges like getting dressed, going shopping, and sharing.


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Funnily enough, it was only as a young mum in her late 20s that she became a book illustrator - getting out her paper and pencils once the children were safely tucked up in bed.

Nevertheless, success came swiftly. Within a few years, in 1969, she'd won the Kate Greenaway Medal for her artwork in Edward Lear's The Quangle Wangle's Hat and Margaret Mahy's The Dragon of an Ordinary Family. The award honours distinguished illustration in a children's book.

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Thirty years on, the accolades were still coming: a Sainsbury's Baby Book Award for Tickle, Tickle and a second Greenaway Medal, for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

The latest fruits of her labour can be seen in the autumn: illustrations for Australian writer Mem Fox's Ten Little Fingers And Ten Little Toes

Although London has been home since the 1960s - with a house on the edge of Hampstead Heath and a light and airy studio near Regent's Park - her heart still belongs to Suffolk.

Many of the drawings for Michael Rosen's We're Going on a Bear Hunt - squelchy mud and wind-ruffled grasses - are based on the coast around Felixstowe Ferry and the mouth of the Deben, for instance.

She celebrates her three score years and 10 in June - “Thanks,” she smiles. “That really made my stomach lurch!” - so it's time we paid tribute to her genius.

Helen's first home was in Bixley Road, Ipswich - a bungalow whose huge garden had numerous fruit trees and a big pond with toads, frogs and newts.

War broke out when she was only one year old. “We had an underground shelter in the garden. I didn't quite understand what was going on and I quite enjoyed being snatched out of bed, rolled in a blanket and being taken down. A few neighbours came and it was quite a jolly social time.”

When the was seven or eight, the family moved to Felixstowe, where it was thought the sea air would ease her bad asthma.

Their home on South Hill got the sun from morning until evening and overlooked the wooden Pier Pavilion, where as a teenager Helen would enjoy Saturday night dances and some of the best big-bands.

She and her friends would also cycle to Felixstowe Ferry and amuse themselves all day. Often they'd sit in the café and share a plate of chips.

“If you just forget school, I had a most wonderful childhood,” she says, ruefully.

At 11 she went to - “I don't know if you can say it, because I'm so horrid about it!” - Ipswich High School for Girls, then opposite Christchurch Park. You had to be of academic bent to fit in, she feels.

“I just didn't get on with either the teachers or anything to do with it. The only reason they kept me was because I was quite a good tennis player and I used to win matches for them!

“I also was accepted for Junior Wimbledon two years running, which they loved to put in their brochure! But, other than that, I didn't get on. It was so strict and Victorian, and chilly.”

Underneath lurked an artistic soul. (There was some family precedence: her father started out as an architect and was later East Suffolk county planning officer until he retired.)

Young Helen drew and painted, and her parents entered her for competitions she'd often win. Luckily, one teacher recognised her potential and suggested she ought to study it properly when she left. “So that's what I did: I went to the Ipswich Art School.

“As much as I hated the high school, I loved the art school. You talked to teachers as though they were human beings. They made us work, my goodness, but it was a very good school; very inspiring.

“I can still hear the teachers telling me things, when I'm working now. They made such an impression.”

Whereas high school had been dreaded, she now couldn't wait to get cracking each day.

After her father dropped her off, Helen and friends would go to a Lyons cafe. “We'd get out our pads and at half-past eight in the morning we'd all be drawing customers and things. And then we'd walk up to school.”

In the holidays she'd help out the Ipswich repertory theatre by mixing paint at the warehouse where scenery was built. “I can't remember if they actually let me paint anything, but it was such good fun. I thought 'This is good; I'd like to find out more about this theatre design.'”

So she progressed to the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London and then landed a job at Colchester rep, helping to design scenery and sets for £7 a week.

At the Central School she'd met John Burningham, who was studying illustration. Afterwards, he went to Israel to work on an animated film. Nine months or so after Helen started her job in Essex, he sent her a ticket and she travelled out to join him.

She taught English in Israel, worked as an au pair, and also as a scenery painter for the national theatre in Tel Aviv.

The couple spent three years in Israel, on and off, before settling in London and getting married in the mid-1960s.

Helen had a spell with ABC Television at Teddington and then got a job at Shepperton Studios.

Meanwhile, John - whose work had included designing posters for London Transport - had become a successful writer and illustrator of children's books. His first, 1963's Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers, earned the Kate Greenaway Medal - the very award his wife would win six years later.

When first two children Lucy and William were born in 1966 and 1968, the couple couldn't afford a nanny. Helen left work to look after the youngsters.

“That's when I jumped in at the deep end, really, with illustration. Watching John, I thought 'What a lovely thing to do.' We had a friend who had a greetings card business and they used to ask us to do cards, which I did. I thought 'This is it. This is really what I want to do.”

She'd work in the evenings as the children slept. “It's incredible, now I think about it! I only worked at night and the odd little gap in the day, but used to get two or three books done a year. Now I only get one! But I think I'm now far more critical. I do have the ability to do dreadful work!” she laughs.

There is, she argues, much more to an effective children's book than might meet the eye. Some people think it can simply be dashed off.

The critical ingredients, she reckons, are the same as for an adults' story. “They've got to be interesting, not boring; they've got to have strong characters; humour; excitement; and to move you in some way. Terribly difficult, doing all that, but that's what one looks for.”

Do you need empathy to make an impact? Helen, now a grandmother of three young children, admits enjoying motherhood enormously, longing for the holidays and the chance to have fun.

“I think either you need empathy with children or you've remained a child yourself.”

Which is she?

“I love trying to draw the relationship between children and children, children and adults, animals and children. I suppose I would probably understand how a child felt in a certain situation, and what I really enjoy doing is showing, by the drawing, what she's feeling.

“That's what takes pages and pages: just getting the right tension, the right lean.”

A line drawn a millimetre the wrong way can prove the difference between success and failure.

Her own harshest critic, Helen often rejects a huge amount of drawings before she's happy. “It can go right straight off, and then sometimes you might not get it for a week - for 15 or 20 tries. It is frustrating, and this is the bit of it that people don't understand when they say 'How lovely to draw for children' - and think it takes 10 minutes!”

She can be found in her studio most days, “not as early as I should”, and works through until about seven. Helen's still excited “about seeing what's going to happen today.

“I consider myself so lucky to enjoy what I do. Some many people don't. It must be like that awful dread on Sunday nights of going back to school.”

HELEN Oxenbury's devastated at the way Felixstowe has lost the atmosphere of a quiet Edwardian resort and sacrificed many of its distinctive buildings.

She rues the disappearance of landmarks such as the railway station, and was horrified to see that permission was given to knock down one of the few art deco houses along Cliff Road.

“The concrete block that replaced the pier and the monstrosity in place of the Pier Pavilion were the start of the slide downhill. The area is now ugly and tacky,” she argued in a letter to the EADT a couple of summers ago.

Nothing that's happened since has altered her view. Helen feels the huge expansion of the docks and the growth of homogeneous housing estates have eroded the town's character.

“And that awful sports centre where the Pier Pavilion used to be . . . It's so ugly. And going up to what used to be Butlin's, there used to a little putting green, and now it's just awful, awful stuff . . . they've ruined it. They killed the goose that lays the golden egg. I can't understand why councils allow these things.”

Helen and John maintain links with the county, having a holiday cottage on the Suffolk coast. “When I think of home, I think of Suffolk even more than London.”

DURING her time at Shepperton Studios, Helen worked on Judy Garland's last film, I Could Go on Singing. “It was marvellous seeing her. She never arrived on time and they all hung about waiting for her, and then she'd come in and quickly have everybody dying laughing.

“She'd also come in with all her children. I did notice that everybody was kowtowing to this one daughter - quite a nice little thing. It was Liza Minnelli” - a rising starlet - “and you could see them thinking 'Keep in with that one.'”

THE Burninghams are a creative bunch. Like his wife, John has won the Kate Greenaway Medal twice - the second time in 1970, the year after Helen, with Mr Gumpy's Outing.

John, by the way, was a pupil at Summerhill School in Leiston between the ages of about 14 and 16, and loved its progressive approach.

The couple's three children have inherited creative genes. Lucy is currently reviving her interest in painting, Bill restores houses, and Emily has her own design business producing cards, wrapping paper and textiles.

Helen's simplified, sturdy, board books for toddlers were developed when youngest child Emily was sick and her parents were up half the night, trying to take her mind off it.

“She used to love looking at things - a bunch of keys; babies in a Mothercare catalogue. I thought there must be some books (like that), but there weren't - apart from Dick Bruna, who produced a series of board books with a very stylised rabbit (Miffy), but I wanted to do 'real' babies, with all the normal things around them.”

Helen's Tom and Pippo, a young boy and his stuffed monkey, began life when she was asked to create two characters for a monthly French magazine for toddlers. She worked for the publication for 15 years and it spawned a series of books such as Tom and Pippo Make a Mess, Tom and Pippo See the Moon, and Pippo Gets Lost.

In France, the pair are known as Leo et Popi.

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