Neal Layton on John Burningham

By Katherine Woodfine | 01 February, 2019


Following our January show, Neal Layton writes about two favourite titles from picture book creator John Burningham.

Thank you you so much DTRH for inviting me to join in the celebration of John Burningham’s books. What an incredible legacy– so much to talk about and so little time!

Two books I really would have liked to mention were Aldo and Picnic, so I thought I would write a few thoughts about them for inclusion in your blog.

Aldo (1991) is a very moving book, and I think is a great example of how John Burningham’s books deal with the full range of children’s emotions. He once said, ‘Children aren’t less intelligent than adults, only less experienced’ and his ability to connect with children is one of the great strengths of his writing, It begins with fragile drawings of a little girl in black ink and pencil. ‘I spend a lot of time on my own. Of course I watch the television. And have lots of toys and books and things. Sometimes we go to the park, and have meal out which is nice.’ And then the page turns, ‘And then I’m on my own again.’ Crucially on this page the line he uses to draw the girl turns from black into grey felt tip, and it is much sketchier– the drawing is almost falling apart, the illustration perfectly conveying the depth of her feelings. Then again later in the book the text reads, ‘Once I woke up in the night after a bad dream and Aldo was not there and I thought Aldo would never come to see me again.’ The illustration accompanying this text is all in graphite pencil, the figure of the girl rubbed out of tonal grey, again perfectly communicating the feelings of a young child waking in the dark. This is a beautiful and tender description of a child’s feelings, and I’ve found it useful to help children talk about their emotions, and for all children actually who ever feel alone or a bit ignored.

Picnic (2013) is a perfectly joyous affair, and I think shows John Burningham’s capacity for fun and playfulness. This was my youngest daughter’s choice. When she turned 2 we found choosing books to read with her much more difficult. But Picnic proved perfect. It begins, ’Boy and girl lived in a house on top of a hill.’ They then decide to go on a picnic (making the meal themselves) where they meet sheep, pig and duck. ‘But they had not seen bull.’ A brilliant page turn whereupon bull chases them causing boy, girl, pig, sheep and duck to hide. ‘Can you find, boy girl, pig sheep and duck? And suddenly the book changes into a playful hide and seek game which any 2 year old will LOVE. Sheep also loses his hat, and pig drops his ball. Two year olds will love helping them find their lost possessions. Once everything has been found, they have their picnic and boy and girl invite pig, sheep and duck to sleep at their house, providing a lovely narrative closure, and referencing his earlier masterpiece Mr Gumpy’s Outing in a subtle and poetic way. It amazes me that Burningham, who must have been in his late 70’s could, so effortlessly write a book that speaks so directly, and meaningfully to young children in this way. To me it shows his mastery of the picture book form: speaking to children, never patronising them, but entertaining, amusing and enriching their worlds with wonderful stories. Such is the genius of John Burningham.