Passed/Failed JOHN BURNINGHAM

John Burningham, 62, is a children's author and illustrator. He won the Kate Greenaway Award for Borka, his first book, and for Mr Gumpy's Outing. His story Whadayamean has just been published, and Simp, Would You Rather and Time to Get Out of the Bath, Shirley are now in paperback
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The Independent Online
Where the wild boys are: You name it, I've lived there - or been to school there. I went to probably 10 schools in all; I'm really not quite sure why. I think it is an awful thing to move children like that; there ought to be an enforced day when you can ask your parents all these kind of questions.

I certainly wasn't thrown out; that's my story. They were usually boarding schools. You were dumped at the end of some gravel drive and you had to survive. I developed a sense of survival, saying I understood something when I didn't. I would say that I am uneducated in the conventional sense. I missed a complete year when I ran rather wild, which is wonderful for what I'm now doing.

Airy-fairy: I probably started at Summerhill, which had been evacuated to Wales. My parents took me away because conditions were ghastly. Then I went to a Rudolph Steiner school, which was completely loopy. I recall a teacher drawing on the blackboard the fairies he'd seen the night before. There was a weird Viennese couple who thought my head was too big - literally; they used to mix up a potion for me.

Summerhill and the livin' is easy: At something like 14 I went to Summerhill again, back in Suffolk. I hadn't taken any exams and there were no entry requirements. It was a very happy place, devoid of violence. The principle that you go to lessons because you want to learn is not a bad thing, but if the teachers are uninspiring, you'll play rather than go to classes.

I suppose the principle can work - provided there's financial backing and the lessons are well-handled. AS Neill [the headmaster] was hopeless with money and teachers were paid absolutely nothing; some were totally dedicated and others were neurotics.

East of Eden: All you need is a good teacher. If you meet a couple of inspired teachers, you're lucky. I had two: Harry Herring, the art master, and James East, who taught literature and history. I'd always done a lot of drawing. I was always at it on the quiet: lorries, fighters and bombers. Mr Herring really just let me get on with it on large pieces of paper and with lots of paint.

But I failed School Cert [GCSE-level] art. I had to draw a couple of tennis balls and a racket on a chair, and they disapproved of the way I arranged them. I did get one School Cert - in English literature, which I suppose entitles me to belong to the Society of Authors!

Branching out: I spent two-and-a-half years on "alternative" military service, working with the Friends Ambulance Unit, felling trees for the Forestry Commission, rebuilding slum interiors in Glasgow and doing demolition work in Israel. While working on a farm I went to evening classes in life- drawing at Guildford Art College.

Don't bank on it: On the strength of my portfolio, I got into the Central School of Art in London, where I did illustration and graphic design.

I met Helen here [his wife, the illustrator Helen Oxenbury] - she was studying theatre design. The Central was fairly hard-working. There was a department there which designed banknotes - or rather, half-banknotes; they never allowed you to design the whole of the note.

Interview by Jonathan Sale

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