Books for Children / Big draw for littles: John Burningham's vivid children's stories, with their luminous pictures, sell millions worldwide. But what are the real ingredients of their success?

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JOHN BURNINGHAM'S latest book, Harvey Slumfenburger's Christmas Present, is Waterstone's book of the month for December, which will doubtless help sales along nicely. Not that John Burningham needs much promotion: his books typically have a print run of around 70,000 and are regularly translated into most European languages, plus Japanese, Chinese, 'and probably a few others as well'. He has lost track of how many books he has written altogether - 'between 20 and 30, I suppose' - but knows that they have sold in their millions.

This is lucrative activity. With his wife, Helen Oxenbury, also a phenomenally successful children's author and illustrator, Burningham lives in a gothically decorated Edwardian house on the edge of Hampstead Heath. The porch doors are French, bits of the balcony come from the Savoy, the bell-tower in the garden is from a church, but the overall impression is of powerful coherence: the furniture is lugubrious, the prevailing colours dark green, brown and cream.

The house, one suspects, is his real labour of love. 'I always swear I'm going to give up children's books,' he says at the beginning of our meeting, and seems rather keener on the whole to talk about his grown-up book of drawings about France (the Burninghams have another house in the Rhone Valley), which will attempt to capture the national character, as his England did last year. Like it or not, though, it is children's books he is known and admired for - not least by teachers.

'I have never found a child who didn't want to look at his books,' says Margaret Meek, an expert in children's books at the Institute of Education. 'The pictures and text extend and enhance each other, offer more than their surface meanings, take children on wonderful fantasy journeys.' Helen Paiba, of the Children's Bookshop in Muswell Hill, believes 'his illustrations, though sophisticated, have a lot of child-appeal. They are not threatening, but not soppy either. The language is simple, but capable of making jokes which can be appreciated by adults as well.'

His language, in fact, can be irritating to adults. He sometimes writes in rhyme of doubtful scansion, with little sense of where the emphasis naturally falls: 'He fiddled about / With the engine a bit / And after a while / He thought he'd fixed it.' (The Car Ride)

The words in Harvey Slumfenburger's Christmas Present lack the impact of the pictures. The illustrations are spectacular: small red figures dramatically silhouetted against the darkness and the dawn, suggesting the enormity of the elements as Father Christmas struggles across the world and through the night. But once the central idea - that Father Christmas has to hitch lifts on different modes of transport, since one of his reindeers has fallen ill - is understood, the words seem rather repetitive, and lacking in a corresponding vividness.

Several of his books suffer slightly from an inability to follow through. Borka, his first, published in 1963, is the story of a goose born without wings or feathers. Borka suffers in embarrassed isolation until her mother knits her a grey woollen waistcoat - a charming, funny idea, which is helpful in teaching children something about disability. But when the other geese fly south for the winter, the story takes a different direction, adopts a different pace, and ceases to be about Borka's difference. Aldo, the story of a pretend-friend rabbit, peters out a bit once the little girl's isolation has been explored and Aldo has made his appearance.

John Burningham is a craggy, vague figure, whose sentences sometimes trail off into silence. 'It is awfully difficult, really, to comment on one's own work. I don't know whether . . .' is a typical Burningham answer. 'I think they have a very tough time, children,' he says at one point. When I ask how, he heaves a big sigh, and stares in puzzlement into the middle distance. 'I suppose,' he says eventually, 'if I say something like that I've got to back it up.' There is another pause, more staring. 'They are under tremendous pressure to comply and conform, an enormous commercial pressure on kids to grow up and become little consumers.' Themes of social and environmental concern duly underlie much of his work. He himself grew up all over the country. His father was a sweets salesman who was constantly being posted somewhere new: John went to 11 schools before ending up at A S Neill's Summerhill at the age of 13. (His parents, he says, were more liberal and bohemian than his father's profession might suggest: his mother would have been a very good artist, had she been allowed; his father had trained as a teacher and only been forced into selling by the Depression.) Summerhill was 'very beneficial in some ways: I was able to get on with doing a lot of drawing and painting'.

He left school without qualifications, and registered as a conscientious objector. 'I just didn't think going off to Cyprus and beating up people was . . .' He built schools in southern Italy instead, chopped down trees for the Forestry Commission and worked in the Glasgow slums. He returned to civilian life at the Central School of Art, where he met his wife: they married in 1964, and have two grown-up children, Lucy and Bill, both artists, and a third, Emily, still at school.

His first job was illustrating London Transport posters. He gives little impression of having been ambitious: 'Another aspect of my work could just as easily have taken off, and now I would be doing that.' But he wrote Borka, offered it to Jonathan Cape, and never looked back. It won the Kate Greenaway medal (he won a second with Mr Gumpy's Outing in 1970; he also won the Emil / Kurt Maschler award for Granpa in 1984), and he has written at least a book a year ever since. 'I'm always turning over at least two ideas in my mind, trying to resolve them. I map the books out on endless little charts. People who aren't involved in making books think you can just put a drawing down on page one, two, three, but the relationship between the structure of the story and the pictures is vital, otherwise it's visually boring.' He admits he doesn't enjoy the process much: 'I find it unnerving. The fact that you've produced successful drawings in the past is no guarantee that you'll ever produce another one, and every time I start a new children's book I have to get to know the characters. It took 300 little sketches to feel I knew the headmaster in John Patrick Norman McHennessy.' His style has changed over time: the colours were heavier and more slabby in the early books, became wispier and lighter, and have now become bolder and more dramatic again, although less solid than when he started. He forces himself to find new characters with every book. 'I could have settled into Mr Gumpy, but continuing characters are not my thing in life, even though readers like them. Breaking new ground visually keeps me interested - or more interested.'

Inevitably, some of the books are more successful than others. In Come Away From The Water, Shirley, one of his best, Burningham steals out dramatic irony through the gap between words and pictures. In Granpa, he suggests the depths of feeling possible between people who potter along in their own worlds, yet feed into each other's dreams and fantasies. In Oi] Get Off Our Train, he romanticises the steam train in some of his most wonderful pictures, at the same time as the story makes its hefty, contradictory environmental point. Burningham himself is at a loss to explain why his stories appeal as much as they do, except to hazard that he must have some instinctive understanding of children. My guess would be that his popularity has something to do with his unabashed, childlike ease with fantasy. Wild animals frequently appear on his shopping streets, and pirates on his beaches. He spent his own childhood 'buried in the middle of nowhere, missing great chunks of school, able to dream and fantasise as much as I liked. People need fantasy. If you were to deprive them of it, they would go completely bonkers.'

Margaret Meek's view is that the collision of his words and pictures plumbs depths; Granpa, she says, 'covers all the things children want to read about - origins, sex and death'. Yet the overall impression of Burningham's books is one of blandness. His world is simple, only ever peopled by two or three figures and perhaps a collection of animals or objects; it is classless, white, and lacks the chaos of real life. The underlying values are simple and generalised - the need for generosity, kindness, belief in children, concern for the planet and fantasy. Nothing wrong with any of this, of course, but it remains intriguing that teachers are so keen on an author who writes few words, but still manages to make some of them redundant: 'Another thing he likes to do / Involves the tambourine: / He likes to dance holding a rose] / It really should be seen.' (A Grand Band)

When you compare this with other children's writers who have written in verse - Dr Seuss or the Ahlbergs - it is perhaps puzzling that John Burningham is quite so highly prized. It must be the pictures.

'Harvey Slumfenburger's Christmas Present' is published by Walker Books at pounds 9.99

(Photographs omitted)