BBC Science Music, Radio podcasts. Hello, I'm Lauren Laverne, and this is the Desert Island Discs podcast. Every week I ask my guests to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they'd want to take with them if they were castaway to a desert island. And for right reasons, the music is shorter than the original broadcast. I hope you enjoy listening. My castaway this week is the illustrator and author, Helen Oxenberg, she's one of the UK's best loved children's illustrators and her books have been family favorites for over 50 years, winning the prestigious Kate Greenaway medal twice and selling an astonishing 35 million copies.
Her artistry, her talent for capturing an emotional memory and her tender observation of the details of children's lives mean her illustrations resonate with readers of all ages. If I say we're going on a bear hunt, you will probably feel the wind and hear the squelch of mud. Even if you last read the book decades ago. Like much of her work, Bear Hunt brings a domestic adventure vividly to life with an intimacy and informality that makes it all the more affecting the book's character.
For In Children and Natural Landscapes are recurring themes in her work, which ranges from collaborations like the Modern Classics, so much to the 1999 edition of her own childhood favourite, Alice in Wonderland. As an author illustrator, she broke new ground. She was the first person to come up with board books about babies for babies and one of the first to feature subjects from different ethnic backgrounds. Though whether her books are as pleasurable to create as they are to consume is another question, she says.
People have the impression that illustration is jolly. I suppose it is in a way, but it is very hard work as well. It can consume you. It's so personal that you feel as if you're putting yourself on a plate. Helen Oximetry, welcome to Desert Island Discs.
Thank you very much.
So, Helen, as you say, your work is all consuming. How much of yourself ends up in the illustrations you create?
Oh, well, about myself, but certainly my family, my children and friends, children, I think I think it's inevitable that you're influenced by your children and the way they look. I could stare at them for hours this lovely and sort of innocent and hopeless and charming. I could do that also with adults, anybody. I just love looking at people and watching how they act.
What is it that you're looking for?
I love to sort of imagine what their relationship is and what they do. I have to be quite careful not to stare. I used to have a little Jack Russell. I used to go and have coffee with up at a cafe and I honestly think he enjoyed doing it too. So there were two of us watching people go up and down and sitting at different tables and things.
Do you get in public? No, no, I jolly well did.
I couldn't bear that. I mean, people looking over and commenting and no, I'm very, very private when I work.
And of course, you know, there's the watching people, but there's also that lovely soft power, you might call it, that you have as an illustrator. You're invited into children's worlds, into their imagination with your illustrations. That's such a lovely thing. I wonder how you feel about your readers.
One mustn't talk down to the children and their stories are usually read to them by their parents or the mother or the father.
And you have to slightly appeal to them, too.
I know from personal experience that I've actually hid books because I just couldn't bear to face them again.
All right, Helen, time to hear your first desk. Tell us why you've chosen this one.
I loved musicals as a teenager and longed to do tap dancing. I did ballet, but I really, really wanted to be a tap dancer like Gene Kelly and Syd Sarees and all those people. But West Side Story actually took musicals to another level. I love the. OK, by me. That's about as much economic. I like the city of San Juan. I know you can get hundreds of flowers and hundreds of people in each room to talk about.
That's why America from West Side Story, composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, performed by the original Broadway cast Alan Oxenberg, you once said, The great challenge of illustration is how to convey emotion economically. So how do you deal with the complexity of human emotion in just a few lines? Where do you start?
I think I can sort of understand little children a bit. I know what they're going through, either shyness or bullying or, I don't know, happiness and all those things. And it's just the the gestures they make when they are expressing these, they may not be able to do it with words, you see. Yes, it is the body language, I suppose.
I mean, the details matter as well. Don't only an illustration. I know that eyebrows are very important to you. Why is that?
Well, there are certain things that you can gauge people's mood by their eyebrows. Yes. I mean, I know I know what I want to do. It's just getting it from the hand or the head, the hand and then onto the page.
How do you know when it's finished? Oh, I really need somebody who come and snatched away because I often go on and on and ruin it and I have to start again.
When you arrived on the publishing scene in the 60s, publishers were just beginning to grasp the potential of illustrated books for children, weren't they? Especially at that time, public libraries suddenly had budgets to invest in that market. So it was a it was a publishing boom. And it brought your work to our attention, along with peers like Quentin Blake, Raymond Briggs, Shirley Hughes. What was it like to be part of that? It must be an exciting time.
It was getting over the war years, wasn't it? It was a sort of like a new a new beginning.
Did you discuss art and ideas? I mean, what we used to discuss, mostly if we discussed it at all, was about was publishers and editors and writers that we tear them to shreds. But we didn't sort of talk about art particularly. I think it's a very personal thing and you can't really talk about it. I didn't want to talk about it.
Anyway, it's time for some more music. Call and tell us about your second disc today. What are we going to hear and why?
Sebastian Walker was a dear friend of ours and he started Walker books and he used to invite John and I to Glyndebourne to the opera. And we went to see Fidelio. There was a picture two rows in front of us. It was trying so hard not to sneeze and he was doing very well. And we hit a very quiet part of the of the opera is very, very well not to sneeze, but he was suddenly overcome with this enormous sneeze and to repress it.
It is a huge fart which echoed around the auditorium and this very quiet passage. But of course, the audience, they were so polite, they just did a sort of jump. It jumped a bit, but that was it.
They went home.
Lewis Scooter Libby, Lewis Scooter Libby.
Sweet. Hopefully no disruptions at home during the quiet sections that I feel so wonderful from Beethoven's opera Fidelio performed by Lisa Melun, Anya Kamper, Andrew Kennedy and Brinley Sharat with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Mark Helda, Helen Oxenberg. You were born in Ipswich. Your father was an architect, and your mother looked after the home. You suffered from asthma and were confined to bed quite a lot. I must have been difficult for you.
Well, I didn't sort of know anything else, but my I was applied with a lot of paper and pencils and marbles and all sorts of things to play with in bed. So I did a lot of drawing then.
What were your subjects in those days? What were you trying to capture?
I drew my father and my grandfather and I've still got the painting of my grandfather with very, very odd fingers. But it's his actual face looks quite good. He loved cricket and used to listen to the cricket on the radio, and I think that's so. I sketched him and he was listening.
So I know that you said your mother, Muriel, was a huge influence on you. Tell me a little bit about your relationship.
Yes, she was. I mean, again, you have to remember the the way it was. And Father sort of didn't really play much part in in my life. My father didn't. He was a jolly good father. He was always their kind gentleman. He was absolutely so involved with his work, though. But my mother was the main influence. She enjoyed us without being too possessive. She let us run free.
When you were eight, you moved to Felixstowe in Suffolk with your family. I know that the big skies and the mud flats have made it into your illustrations many years later.
Yes, that was in a place a little further up the coast, caught the ferry, Felixstowe Ferry. I used to go there and play a lot up there on my bicycle. It was on an estuary right on the estuary. And when the tide went out, the a lot of mudflats were revealed and the sky used to be reflected into the mudflats. There's something about that landscape now. It sort of got under my skin. And when I go there now and I do because I've got a we've got a boathouse there, it's absolutely I sort of could feel I can breathe again.
And looking out to sea and the sky is it it refreshes me. And physically, when you moved there, your health improved as well. You became quite sporty. What were you playing?
I know I sort of like the other side of the coin from this sort of poor child in bed all the time to this charge there off the tennis court, which was must have been marvellous for my parents because it got me through the teenage years.
You know, they never had to worry about where I was because I was on a tennis court whacking a ball across the net. And then I got really terribly involved in it. I've played it twice at junior Wimbledon. You think you might be good, but when you get to junior Wimbledon, you realise you're not. Well, it's time for some more music.
Helen, this is your third disc today. Tell us about this one.
In our house in Felixstowe, we had a wind up gramophone and I think we had about half a dozen records. The one that my brother and I played and played is called Tabare the Tuba by Danny Kaye. And we loved it.
He was a little too much puffing away, but in. Oh, what lovely music, thought Toby, and he sighed. Here, what's the matter is that people, the picolo all said to me, every time we do a new piece, you get such pretty melodies, the play and I never, never a pretty melody Touby the Tuba performed by Danny Kaye.
So Helen Oxenberg, I know that you had a happy primary school experience, but you didn't enjoy secondary school as much. Why not?
I don't think I just had such a great time at home. I mean, I wasn't I wasn't sitting and watching television. I was doing things all the time. And it was much more interesting and inspiring than than school for me.
I mean, I didn't like it and I don't think it liked me. The art teacher said she thought I should go to art school, but I think it was because there was absolutely no hope about anything else. It it was art or nothing.
Well, you did. You went to Ipswitch School of Art, and I think that was a bit of a turning point. Tell me what happened.
Oh, gosh, that was so enjoyable by comparison. And one was treated like an adult.
You had a very exacting teacher. I understand. PPIF at 14. Yes. You tell me about it was terrible. It was terribly, terribly rude, terribly rude to everybody. I think it was if he thought you could do better, I think if he thought there was no hope, he just sort of left you alone for years afterwards, I could hear him saying, you know, why those people aren't standing on a surface, they're floating in the air, things like that.
It was marvelous.
At 19, you enrolled then at the Central School of Art and Design and you were studying theater design. What was the attraction of that?
During the holidays? When I was at art school, I used to work at the repertory theater and I was sort of mixing paint and painting flats and, you know, the scenery and nothing to sort of responsible. But I enjoyed it and I thought this is something I would like to do.
It was around that time that you met your future husband, John Birmingham, who was studying graphic design and illustration at Central himself. What was your first impression of him?
I thought he looked a bit like James Dean and we used to laugh our heads off at things. And it was it all seemed very possible and nice.
After art school, John got a job in Israel. He was making puppets and you followed him out. Then you were working painting sets at the Habima Theatre in Tel Aviv, the National Theatre of Israel. It must have been such a rewarding experience to travel and live somewhere new.
It was full of full of hope and energy and life. Tel Aviv I'm talking about. You'd walk down the street and from every house there would be a piano being practiced or a violin being played. Very, very inspiring. I loved it.
Alan, let's take a break for some music. This is desk number four. Tell me about it.
While I was in Israel, I stayed in a flat and I was introduced to the music of Eric Garner. I was absolutely enthralled.
I thought it was the best thing ever. So. Erol Garner and Lullaby of Birdland had an assembly in 1964. You married John, who was by this time writing and illustrating picture books for children, motherhood and the birth of your children. Lisa and Bill was the spur for you to begin drawing professionally, I think. How did it happen?
I didn't want to carry on with theatre design because I wanted to stay at home with the children. So I started working for Yanping Kosky, who had started a Gallery five, which is a greeting card company. Cards up until then had been very, quite boring sort of kittens in baskets and bunches of flowers and things. And he he got a completely new look and I did a few cards for him. And I'd also watched John do I think about two books by then.
So I thought, I'll do a book that is very, very simple, which was a counting book and took it to Hineman. They hardly had a children's section in those days and they published it and that was it.
I was off. How did you work at the time? Was it at the kitchen table after the guest sleep?
Yes, when they were in bed, I would get everything, all the stuff out, the paints and whatnot. But then I.
I couldn't just leave it, which is what I do now, which is lovely and just walk away from it. I had to clear it all away so that for breakfast the next morning.
Yes. Alan, this was obviously also the height of the feminist movement at this point. How did your own experiences as a mother inform the work that you were doing both in the Greetings cards? I think that you were creating and then in your early books.
Well, the book that sort of went down rather well with Sparerib. Do you suggest a feminist magazine?
Yes, the purpose I was a book called Mial One, and that was by Ivor Cutler, who was a great feminist, quite mad, really, but it was about a single mother being a friend as opposed to her son.
And she got into gets involved in football and playing games with him. And then there's a tree that grows through the little boy's bed and mother turns the clock. But it's a typical Ivor Cutler story, and it's terribly difficult to actually tell you what it is in a sensible way.
How did you capture the story? Because, as you say, it's quite hard to describe. So I would imagine to illustrate perhaps tricky.
Yes. Well, I made her a sort of quite a sturdy lady.
Did you show John your drawings and vice versa or talk about storylines?
The only time we did is when we knew it wasn't right. If I knew there was something wrong that I just couldn't see it, I would bring it back to show John and vice versa. He had terrible trouble drawing Pretty Ladies, and I used to help him with that.
And then I used to have terrible trouble drawing sort of cars and lorries and things, and he'd help me with that. Or at Helen.
Time for some more music. What are we going to hear next and why have you chosen it? He was definitely a one off. Ivor Cutler was terribly funny one minute and very annoying the next.
And he used to come round always on New Year's Eve. But instead of celebrating celebrating New Year's Eve at midnight with us, he would insist on going ten to 12 at night.
But he we had to give him a lift home so that we we all missed it.
That is typical of life in a Scotch sitting room. Episode one. The children migrated into a large sponge which sat by the window, if it was boys, the girls had to look hard at the ceiling with their fingers by their ears. If it was girls, the boys had to cluster in a group in a far corner.
Episode one from Life in a sitting room. Volume two, Ivor Cutler. In 1978, your daughter Emily was born, of course, a personal joy. But I know that it also changed your professional life. What happened?
Poor Little Lamb had eczema when she was very tiny and we used to spend a lot of the nights walking around with her, tried to stop her from scratching and one of the ways was to show her baby catalog's. She definitely recognized the things in this catalogue. And I thought, well, you know, that would be such a good, good idea for a broad book.
So 1981 books for the very earliest readers, these baby board books critics have described them as revolutionary. What were you aiming to convey in these illustrations? They're very tender illustrations of cuddly, curious looking babies.
Emily used to get very, very excited when she looked at the pictures and there was something there that she recognized. And I thought, well, if if if Emily recognizes it, it's over, said all babies.
I used to get told often it's not worth doing. Books were very young children because they, you know, it just doesn't register with them, but it jolly well does.
It's also a question of of children being able to see themselves, isn't it? And families that look like theirs. You know, later on your your books did that. You know, you're one of the first to to celebrate diversity and praised for it.
I didn't do it with any sort of, you know, oh, I have to do it. It's just you just you just do what what you see around you, really.
So that was in books like Clap Hands, Tickle, Tickle and All Fall Down. And then in 1994, you illustrated a book that that went on to be a modern classic. It's so much written by Trish Cook. And it's a story about African Caribbean family celebrating her father's birthday.
How did you approach the project? I loved the text instantly. There's the expectation. There's excitement. What's you know, what's going on? Who's coming next? Why are they all gathering in this room? I also decided that instead of doing page after page of full color, which can actually be a bit boring, that that page is where the visitors are waiting for the next person to arrive is in a sort of sepia color. And then you turn the page and they've arrived and they're in color.
It's just very joyous.
It's time for your next discussion. What are we going to hear? Oh, it's just so lovely. And I used to come back from work and open the front door. And more often than not, John would have some sort of piano music playing down in his studio. It was just lovely to open the door and hear it. Schubert's impromptu number three in G Flat, performed by Alfred Brendel Helen Oxenberg in 1989, you were approached to illustrate we're going on a bear hunt, which was written by Michael Rosen and has since become a children's classic.
And crucially for you, I think the text doesn't have any description of where the protagonists are. No, that's right.
They could they could be anybody. In fact, Michael told me afterwards that he had thought of it as sort of kings of queens and a line of sort of historical figures, I think was a royal procession on a bet on something last year.
Yeah, yes. And that's not at all what you created. Tell us about your institution.
I did. I had to go. I tried it. I did Roths to try.
But it just didn't wasn't right. I didn't feel comfortable with it. And I thought just has to be bought much more simply just with some children.
How did he react when he saw the illustrations that you'd created?
He did tell me what he thought and he said I couldn't relate it to the stories. And I was absolutely amazed.
I think he in the end, he came around to it and he liked it, but he was very surprised.
So obviously he hadn't seen any of these illustrations until they were finished. Is is that representative of how you typically collaborate with authors? It's quite a separate endeavor to create the illustrations.
Yes, it is. I, I really I couldn't sort of do it with somebody, say, oh, but I see it. She said she should wear a green dress.
The author just has to have faith that the illustrator will come up with the goods.
It was your idea, I think, to make the bare real. Why is that important? I made him into a rather sympathetic bear, didn't die the last the end papers of the bear hunt show the bear sort of has been rejected by their family. Oh, is so disappointed. And you see his shoulders are slumped as he walks along the beach all on his own.
He's a disconsolate Beeb's based on a friend of yours, I think. Yes, he was it it was a friend of his. Gave it through a very, very bad patch. But I happily can report all as well now.
Is it true that you gave him the original illustration? Yes, I did.
I did. I don't I regret it. But it was in the days when I quite soon after I had it had been published and I had no idea it was sort of going to take off as it has done.
And had I known, I think I think I would have given it to him and tell him, well, perhaps it's just as well were his shoulders. After all, it's time for disc number seven.
The musical that I really loved and influence enormously was singing in the Rain. And I've seen every one of Gene Kelly's and Fred Astaire musicals. Oh, many, many times I've seen.
And in the end, yes. What a glorious feeling, I'm happy again. I'm laughing, it was so dark, Papa. The sun's in my heart and I'm ready for love, let us. Singin in the Rain, performed by Gene Kelly from the original film soundtrack, Alan Oxenberg, we talk a lot don't mean about the message that children's books might carry and of course, about their educational value, which is really important. But I wonder if we talk enough about the pleasure that books bring to children, even to very early readers.
Do you think we prioritize that enough?
Probably not. No, I really do avoid doing anything on the sort of educational level. I don't want to carry any messages or any morals or anything to do with school. They associate books with just pure pleasure. I always think that half of the beauty of a picture book is the time that little children spend quietly and sort of concentrated with parents and teachers. They should be a joy. Yes, because, I mean, you know, they aren't a joy.
They're not going to carry on reading books, are they?
You once said that as you're getting older, you've become more critical of your own work. What stops you from looking at it and enjoying it in the moment?
Yes, I'm so critical that I could almost say, oh, I just can't do this anymore. I've never I'm honestly never really happy when I've done something.
I've never quite got what I've imagined in my head.
You would be entitled to put your feet up if you wanted to. Why don't you? Oh, gosh.
Now I know I won't do that. Well, only only I couldn't do it, but as long as I can do it, I certainly will.
I should go mad if I couldn't work or Ireland.
Well, I am about to cast you away to your desert island. How are you imagining it? What do you hope it'll be like?
Lovely white sand and palm trees and. And hopefully. Hopefully so. Really friendly animals. Oh yes. That would be that would be really good for me to look at and play with or something.
Well, hear one more track before you go, if you don't mind. This is your eighth disc today. Why are you taking it with you?
John and I bought a house in France is quite a rundown farmhouse, but attached to it was a big barn and I we got a huge horn gramophone. John collected 78 and this barn had a sort of balcony. And I used to work on the balcony and listen to this horn gramophone. The sound was extraordinary.
Maybe. Monthly fee was. For. I think I still hear from BSES opera, The Pearl Fishers, performed by Benjamin Osili, conducted by Sir Eugene Goossens. So Helen Oxenberg, I'm going to send you away to the island. I'm giving you the Bible or another holy book, if you would prefer.
No, I wouldn't take any holy book at all.
OK, well, I will give you the complete works of Shakespeare and you can also take another book of your choice. What will that be? I read J.G. Farrell some time ago. I think they have brought out a trilogy, three of his books. And it's sort of about the the downfall of the British Empire. If they all three came in a sort of slipcase, would that be possible?
Well, there is precedent actually for that. And Cleeves took the Balkan trilogy by Olivia Manning in 2019 to her Ireland. So this is Troubles the Christian Opera and the Singapore grippe. Yes, that's right.
What about a luxury item? What would you like to take with you, if possible?
I'd love to take an unlimited supply of white, crisp linen sheets and a bed.
Well, Morrissey took a bed. I happen to know a whole sumptuous bed.
Just imagine when you were all hot and Sandy just to slip in between linen sheets. It would be lovely.
All right, Helen. Well, we will allow you a beautiful bed and your linen sheets. And finally, which one track of the eight wonderful discs that you've shared with us today, would you save from the waves if you had to?
Oh, it's terribly difficult, but I think probably usually. Oh, I think it's so beautiful. And it reminds me of the wonderful times we had in France with the family. Helen Oxenberg.
Thank you very much for letting us share your Desert Island Discs. Thank you. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Helen, I'm delighted to think of her playing with all the friendly animals on the island.
You'll have heard her talk about her friends and fellow illustrators, Quentin Blake, Raymond Briggs and Shirley Hughes. Well, they've all been cast away. And you can hear their programs on BBC Sands. Next time, my guest will be the medical scientist, Professor Sir Jeremy Fårö. I do hope you'll join us.
From BBC Radio for a new series From Intrigue May Day on November the 11th, 2019, James Le Mesurier was found dead in Istanbul. He was the British army officer who helped set up the White Helmets in Syria.
Ordinary people trained to save civilians in the aftermath of bomb attacks. The biggest heroes in an ugly war. But lots of people here in the UK say all the White Helmets videos staged part of the greatest hoax in history by Loman's.
I'm Chloe Hedgepeth and I've spent the last year investigating the White Helmets and James Le Mesurier, who they are, who he was and why he died. Subscribe to Intrade now and BBC Sounds.