The Booktrust Lifetime Achievement Award was presented at the South Bank today jointly to John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury.
The Award is given to a children’s writer or illustrator whose body of work, in the opinion of the panel of judges, merits recognition for a lifetime’s achievement in children’s literature. It is a separate recognition to the Children’s Laureate in that it is purely celebratory and is not attached to any wider purpose of promoting children’s literature. BookTrust intends it to be awarded to a person who is not likely to become Children’s Laureate in the future.
John and Helen, who married in 1964, have won several literary awards individually but have only collaborated on one book together, There’s Going to be a Baby, published by Walker in 2010.
The judges were Nicolette Jones, Anthony Browne, Lauren Child, Floella Benjamin, Joseph Coelho and Diana Jerrold.
Speaking after accepting the award, Helen Oxenbury thanked all the people in publishing she had worked with – all it transpired (though unsurprisingly), with the exception of David Lloyd at Walker Books, women. She singled out one in particular for special mention – Amelia Edwards, Walker Books’ founding art director.
John Burningham had to good-humouredly cajole Anthony Browne into formally presenting him with his bunch of flowers. Clearly not in the best of health and having to take frequent inhalations of oxygen, he nevertheless vowed (with reference to the association of finality in the award name) NOT to step aside for a younger generation.
Nicolette Jones had earlier talked eloquently about both recipients. Nearly ten years ago she had met Burningham at home for a profile feature published in the Telegraph and drew upon several aspects of this piece in her talk, particularly with reference to Edwardo:
Edwardo: the Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World expresses a principle which could valuably be applied not just to child-rearing but to the penal system and even to foreign policy. Edwardo behaves badly when he is criticised and punished, but becomes kind and useful when, even in the face of his wrongdoing, he is given opportunities. “We are beginning to see it now even on an international level that you can’t just keep bombing people and expect them to change their ways. It isn’t going to work,” says Burningham. The world could learn a lot from Edwardo.
I had been reading the article while travelling to the award ceremony, and had been struck by Burningham’s characterisation of much picture book publishing as ‘party food’ and a belief that “lots of colours and pretty pictures will do when there’s no content”, something I mentioned to David Fickling before the announcement, who was honest enough to admit to publishing ‘party food’ from time to time, but less and less so recently. It was a good opportunity to tell him how pleasing it’s been to see the success of Pam Smy’s Thornhill, a book I had had the honour of seeing when it was in top-secret prototype two and a half years ago, when I visited Fickling HQ in Oxford.
Lauren Child was at pains to attribute artist stature to Burningham’s ‘illustrations’. Both Burningham and Oxenbury were art school trained, Oxenbury at Ipswich School of art and then (in Oxenbury’s case to study theatre design) at the Central School of Art & Design, where the couple met. Burningham spoke about how good it had been to be taught by professional artists, who gave up a day or two each week to pass on their skills, a practice which he thought did not happen any more.