Growing up in Ipswich, England, Helen Oxenbury loved nothing more than drawing. As a teenager, she entered art school and basked in the pleasure of drawing, and nothing but drawing, all day. During vacations she helped out at the Ipswich Repertory Theatre workshop, mixing paints for set designers. It was there that she decided her future lay in theater design.
While studying costume design, however, Helen Oxenbury was told by a teacher, “This is hopeless, you know. You ought to go and do illustrations—you’re much more interested in the character, and we don’t know who’s going to play the part!”
But sets and scenery, not books, remained Helen Oxenbury’s preoccupation for several more years as she embarked on careers in theater, film, and TV. After marrying John Burningham, oneof the world’s most eminent children’s book illustrators, and giving birth to their first child, at last she turned to illustrating children’s books. “When I had babies,” Helen Oxenbury says, “I wanted to be home with them and look for something to do there.”
Today, Helen Oxenbury is among the most popular and critically acclaimed illustrators of her time. She is a two-time Greenaway Medal winner, and her numerous books for children include Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its companion, Alice Through the Looking Glass, both by Lewis Carroll; Martin Waddell’s Farmer Duck, which won the Nestlé Smarties Children’s Book Prize; So Much! by Trish Cooke; as well as her own classic board books for babies. She collaborated with author Phyllis Root on the jubilant, no-nonsense tall tale Big Momma Makes The World. “As I read Phyllis’s text, I imagined Big Momma as part Buddha, part housewife,” she says. “It was intimidating to create a whole world, but very enjoyable.”
And what does she love most about her work? Thinking up new ideas? Seeing the finished book? Not at all. For Helen, “The best part is when I think I know what I’m doing and I’ve completed a few drawings. In fact, when I get about a third of the way through, and I feel I’m on my way, then I’m happy. It’s like reading a good book—you don’t want it to end.”
Helen Oxenbury and her husband make their home in London, where the illustrator works in a nearby studio. She is also an avid tennis player.