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John Burningham, Prolific Author of Children’s Books, Dies at 82

Category: Art & Culture,Books

That might have made a decent children’s book, yet Mr. Burningham took the story further. Courtney inexplicably disappears one day, and the family adjusts to life without him. But when, on summer vacation, a boat the children are playing in breaks away from its mooring and drifts out to sea, endangering them, a mysterious something tows them to safety.

“They never did find out who or what it was that had pulled their boat back to shore,” the book concludes. “I wonder what it could have been.”

Leaving such holes for his young readers to fill in on their own was classic Burningham.

Vicki Weissman, reviewing another of his books, “John Patrick Norman McHennessy: The Boy Who Was Always Late,” in 1988 in The New York Times, praised its economy of words. “Mr. Burningham,” she wrote, “has long since grasped that all children need is a trigger and their imaginations will do the rest.”

John Burningham was born on April 27, 1936, in Farnham, Surrey, southwest of London. He attended various progressive schools, among them Summerhill. In 1954 he registered as a conscientious objector and did two years’ worth of alternative military service before enrolling in a course in design and illustration at the Central School of Art in London. There he met Helen Oxenbury, whom he would later marry. She too became a noted writer and illustrator of children’s books. (They did not collaborate on a book until “There’s Going to Be a Baby” in 2010.)

Mr. Burningham designed posters for the transit authority London Transport and other agencies before the publication of his first book. Another early achievement was illustrating the first edition of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car,” the Ian Fleming book, in 1964.

Among his most beloved titles was “Avocado Baby” (1994), about a baby that becomes abnormally strong from eating avocados. Also much admired was “Granpa” (1984), which gently explored the theme of bereavement.

“Avocado Baby,” one of Mr. Burningham’s most beloved books, tells about a baby who becomes abnormally strong from eating avocados.

Later in his career Mr. Burningham sometimes was more directly didactic, addressing themes like pollution and war, as he did in “Whaddayamean” (1999), in which God visits Earth, is displeased and sets two children to the task of getting grown-ups to change their ways. The book was one of several in which he used collage, incorporating photographs into his paintings.


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