Helen Oxenbury and John Burningham have been honoured with lifetime achievement awards by reading charity BookTrust.
The award is given every year, usually to just one person, who, according to the judges, merits recognition for a lifetime's achievement in children's literature.
Winning was a surprise for the husband and wife duo; Oxenbury told The Bookseller the award was “extraordinary” while Burningham said the win was “lovely, although unexpected”.
The two met at art school in the 1950s and neither initially wanted to become a children’s illustrator. Burningham was designing posters for London Transport when he had the idea for a story about a goose with no feathers and someone he knew at Cape said they would take the story on and publish it as Borka: the Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers. Oxenbury was working in theatre and only tried her hand at children’s books when she had children and wanted to stay at home.
“John was already working in children’s books so I had watched him to do it. I took my first book [an ABC] to Heinemann, not John’s publisher, and the one person there who had dealt with children’s books said they would publish,” she said.
Even though Oxenbury said her early books were “dreadful”, both she and her husband have gone on to have long careers, illustrating more than 60 books each and both winning the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal twice.
When deciding on who to give the award to, BookTrust invites nominations from organisations such as the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), and the Library and Information Association (CILIP). The shortlist is then given to a panel of judges, who this year included children’s laureate Lauren Child and writer and illustrator Antony Browne, who chose the final winner.
Diana Gerard, c.e.o. of BookTrust, said the judges took the “unprecendented” step of giving two awards this year because John and Helen are “titans of contemporary writing and illustration”. She said: “It was a collective decision to honour them each with their own award. The fact that they have been married for over 50 years is just the icing on the cake.”
“I can’t think of two people who have done more than John and Helen to make that possible by bringing their beautiful, profound and perfect books into the world and adding so much magic and hope to children’s lives,” she added. “And, importantly, together Helen and John’s books seem to capture all the glorious diversity of contemporary Britain from eccentric rural characters like Mr. Gumpy to the vibrant multicultural family in So Much.”
However, neither illustrator have plans to retire any time soon.
“People who are not artists don’t understand,” said Burningham. “If you are a pianist you have to practice every day. It’s the same with art.”
Oxenbury added: “I have no plans to retire. Never! As long as I feel like I do now, I don’t want to retire. I so enjoy illustrating books.”