Learning & Development: Books - Double act

We profile Book Trust Lifetime Achievement Award winners John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury, with tributes from judges and peers

Download the PDF of 'Double Act'

Two giants of children’s literature, John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury, were this month presented with the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award – the first time that a double award has been made.

The couple – who are husband and wife – have written and illustrated some of most celebrated and popular picture books of the past 50-plus years. Oxenbury became a household name after illustrating We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, while Burningham is best known within the early years sector for his Mr Gumpy stories.

Set up in 2015, the award celebrates the body of work of an author or illustrator who has made an outstanding contribution to children's literature. Previous winners have been Shirley Hughes, Judith Kerr and Raymond Briggs.

Accepting the awards, Burningham said, ‘I’m so very flattered when I hear people now say they love my books and that something I did 50-plus years ago still works and is enjoyed by their family.’ Oxenbury said, ‘It’s particularly lovely as we have been awarded this honour jointly.’


John Burningham studied illustration and graphic design at the Central School of Art and Design, graduating with distinction in 1959. Many illustration commissions followed including posters for London Transport. Then, in 1963, his first children’s book, Borka: The Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers, won the Kate Greenaway Medal, heralding the beginning of an extraordinary career.

Since then he has written and illustrated more than 30 picture books that have been translated and distributed all over the world. These include Humbert: Mr Firkin and the Lord Mayor of London; Cannonball Simp;and Avocado Baby(see panel, left).

Mr Gumpy’s Outing won Burningham his second Kate Greenaway Medal, while Granpa, an exceptional and moving tale of friendship and bereavement, won The New York Times Best Illustrated Award and Kurt Maschler Award, and was later made into an animated film.

In 2012, Burningham was nominated for a Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration. He has also illustrated Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming and published several adult books.

He and Oxenbury have worked on only one book together – There’s Going To Be A Baby, published in 2010. In it, Burningham captures the excitement, curiosity and trepidation of a young boy who is awaiting the arrival of a baby sibling, while Oxenbury portrays beautifully the child’s loving interactions with his mother, along with the fanciful future scenarios that he imagines for the new member of the family.


Judith Kerr, picture book author and illustrator

‘I was inspired to become an illustrator by just one book – John Burningham’s wonderfully funny and wonderfully drawnHumbert, the working horse that got to pull the Lord Mayor’s coach. More than 50 years later it is still one of the best picture books ever produced for children.’

Lauren Child, children’s laureate and award judge

‘No-one creates a more perfect picture book than John Burningham. His writing is touching, funny and profound; his illustrations are works of art.’

Anthony Browne, former laureate and award judge

‘Like Sendak, John Burningham is a picture book maker who can write just as well as he can draw – a rare combination.’


Helen Oxenbury was born in Ipswich and attended the Ipswich School of Art before moving to London to study at the Central School of Art and Design.

Her career has spanned many fields, including design work in theatre, film and television. She started illustrating children’s books in 1964 and has since published books across age groups, from classic board books for babies to collections of nursery rhymes for all ages. Her work also includes collaborations with a range of authors, including Julia Donaldson and Peter Bently (see right).

Oxenbury is a two-time winner and four-time runner-up for the Kate Greenaway Medal. She first won in 1969, when the two books cited were Edward Lear’s The Quangle Wangle’s Hat and The Dragon of an Ordinary Family by Margaret Mahy. Her illustrated edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland won in 1999 and in 2007 was named one of the top-10 winning works of all time.

Oxenbury has also won two Kurt Maschler Awards – for So Much by Trish Cooke and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – and three Nestlé Smarties Book Prizes: for We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell and So Much! by Trish Cooke.


Lauren Child, children’s laureate and award judge

‘There are many who can draw well, but there are few who can draw as elegantly and bring such warmth to her characters as Helen Oxenbury. She is a sublime illustrator, with a gift for drawing worlds one can believe in.’

Nicolette Jones, writer, critic and award judge

‘Helen Oxenbury has been a ground-breaking illustrator throughout her career. Her baby books set a trend and helped to persuade parents that you are never too young for books. Her images reflected the diversity of our society at a time when few did.’

Joseph Coelho, playwright, poet and award judge

‘Her characters are those that we see on our streets and I find myself believing that when I close any of her books, her characters live on between the pages.’

John Burningham's books

John Burningham: Behind the Scenes Burningham reflects on his childhood, schooling, early days as an illustrator and career as a picture book author and illustrator.

avocadoAvocado Baby A puny baby discovers avocados… and strange things start to happen.

Oi! Get Off Our Train Endangered animals seek refuge with a little boy on his round-the-world train journey to Dreamland.

Would You Rather Would you rather drink snail squash or eat mashed worms? Or would you rather just be… you?

Come Away From The Water, Shirley Mum and Dad settle down to snooze on the beach, while Shirley prepares to set sail for adventure, but not before shirleywarnings from mum.

Time to get out of the bath, Shirley It’s time to get out of the bath, but Shirley has floated away to a watery fantasy land beyond the plughole.

Trubloff: The mouse who wanted to play the balalaika Trubloff runs away with gypsies who promise to teach him to play the balalaika. But it’s his trubloffgift for music that saves his poor family from an awful fate.

Cannonball Simp An unloved and homeless dog finds hidden talents and happiness as a circus performer.

Harquin: The fox who went down to the valley Harquin ignores his parents’ warnings and heads for the valley, where he is spotted by the gamekeeper…

Courtney When a family takes in the-mongrel-that-nobody-wants, they discover he can cook, juggle and play the violin! Then one day, he packs his trunk…

Where’s Julius? Julius is too busy to come to meals – he’s riding camels, cooling hippos or digging to the other side of the world.harquin

Husherbye A lullaby in which kittens to bears get ready for bed and fall fast asleep.

Motor Miles Miles is a very difficult dog until he is given his very own motor car. Inspired by the family pet!

Harvey Slumfenburger’s Christmas Present How the last present in Santa’s sack makes it to Harvey.

Mouse House A family are not alone; a mouse family has moved in. Time to call the mouse-catcher?

Cloudland When Albert falls off a cliff, he is rescued by Cloud Children. He plays with them in the clouds and rain, until he decides it’s time to go home.

Helen Oxenbury's books

tom-and-pippoTom and Pippo Make a Mess Just one of the many adventures of toddler Tom and his stuffed monkey Pippo. The stories were later made into a French animated series.

Tickle, Tickle Part of Oxenbury’s First Book for Babies series, Tickle, Tickle won the 1999 BookTrust Early Years Award. Oxenbury’s other baby books series includeI See, I Touch andI Can.

The Helen Oxenbury Nursery Rhyme Book and The Helen Oxenbury tickleNursery Story Book Beautifully illustrated collections of familiar rhymes and traditional tales.

The Birthday Party A little girl doesn’t want to hand over her present to John, while he doesn’t want to give her one of his party balloons. Part of Oxenbury’s First Storybooks series, which includes Our Dog, Eating Out birthdayand The Dancing Class.

Helen Oxenbury’s ABC of Things and Helen Oxenbury’s Numbers of Things Bold and inventive books teaching the alphabet and numbers from one to infinity.

growingIn partnership

Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox Babies may live in different places, but each has 10 fingers and 10 toes to tickle.

The Growing Story by Ruth Krauss A little boy sees plants growing in the fields and wonders jackif he and his puppy will grow too.

When Charley Met Grandpa by Amy Hest Henry is excited about seeing his grandpa but apprehensive about what he will think of his new pet dog.

King Jack and The Dragon by Peter Bently Bedtime looms but King Jack and his knights are still protecting their castle fort from terrible beasts.

jumpereeThe Giant Jumperee by Julia Donaldson Rabbit hears a loud voice from inside his burrow announcing it’s the Jumperee. But who is this Jumperee?

The Animal House by Ivor Cutler Zoo animals help build temporary shelter for a family in need.

Time to Dream by Timothy Knapman Little brother Jack is certain that the Wicked Wolf is making the strange noise coming from the wood, and big sister Alice thinks it’s time to find out if he is right.

Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas Three little wolves set off into the world and build themselves a splendid brick house. But they haven’t reckoned on the Big Bad Pig coming along…

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