Was it unfair to split the audience into cats (Judith Kerr) and dogs (John Burningham)?
In actuality, Nicolette Jones of The Sunday Times did point out the similarities between Judith Kerr’s work and John Burningham’s work. They both had huge success with their debut books, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Borka respectively, and Nicolette Jones also showed the audience slides of the little detailed parallels between the two illustrators’ work – depictions of a cat and dog peeing, a baby in a blue romper – much to the amusement of the audience of school children.
This was on September 29th, at The Old Vic Theatre in London, where I was a guest at The Children’s Bookshow, a charity that runs an annual tour of children’s authors and illustrators around theatres and venues in the UK for schoolchildren.
John Burningham set quite a high bar for illustrators back in 1963 when he published Borka. Not only was he the first to win the Kate Greenaway Award for a debut picture book, but his was also the first children’s book that Jonathan Cape published. It wasn’t to be the last. Unique it may have been, but it also depicted a now well-worn trope in children’s literature – that of a child, or in this case a goose, who doesn’t fit in.
Judith Kerr’s Tiger also boasts enormous longevity, with its now familiar warm domestic scenes, and like Borka, shows great sensitivity in the emotions it depicts and elicits.
And whether it was discussing first signs of a promising career, their work, or their travels, both illustrators showed their warmth and zest for life in Friday’s conversation.
Kerr’s childhood has been well documented, most particularly of course, in her own novelised version of her life, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. She speaks about her escape from soon-to-be Nazi Germany, talking about the near-misses in life that dictate how the future turns out:
“I think of the people who didn’t get out who would have given anything to have a small part of the life I’ve had.” Her modesty glimmers through in every sentence as she speaks of the glare her mother gave her for almost giving them away to the passport inspector on the train:
“I wasn’t the most intelligent child,” she says, but she was clearly talented, for her mother had the foresight to save her childhood drawings, bringing them with her in a small suitcase from Germany.
Burningham too, has travelled extensively, although his journeys were mainly contained within the UK. The one place he hasn’t visited is the fictionalised place he references in answer to a well-worn question. As with many children’s authors, he’s often asked where he gets ideas from, and he says his favourite answer to that was the person who said, “If I knew, I’d go there.”
He may not have been to the land of ideas, but it certainly seems as if he has. His latest book shows the quirkiness and specialised way of thinking that many of the top children’s authors and illustrators possess. There is a purposeful naivety to his drawings, but also an idiosyncratic approach to the storytelling which enables him to see things from a different point of view – Mouse House explores the plight of a mouse family when a pest controller is called in by the human parents. The children of the house write a warning note to the mice, enabling them to leave before their execution. Of course, as with many children’s critics, Nicolette Jones reads into this the plight of refugees, perhaps echoing the experiences of Kerr, who is also on stage, recounting her refugee childhood. But it is this very quality that distinguishes Burningham’s work – the ability to read the narrative whichever way one is inclined.
For both illustrators, there is no end to the ideas they have, as proven by their prolific output. Whether inspiration is taken from true-life occurrences, such as Kerr’s father, who for a short time attempted to adopt a seal, retold more kindly in Mr Cleghorn’s Seal, to Burningham’s take on the world around us in such books as Whaddayamean, an exploration of arms control and pollution.
Both infuse their books with their own sense of humour, which comes across in conversation too. Be it stumbling into the illustrators’ world, or failing illustration class at the Central School of Art (Kerr is the latter), they both approach illustration as a privilege and an honour, and are delighted to still be practising the art – Kerr is 94, Burningham, slightly younger at age 81. They are both still working, and still promoting children’s literature, especially to the noisy and enthusiastic audience at the Old Vic, as Burningham says, “I don’t worry about the ideas running out, I worry about time running out.”