British illustrator says ‘Stories just happen’

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British illustrator says ‘Stories just happen’

Meeting John Burningham, one of Britain’s most distinguished illustrators, is nothing like reading one of his children’s books. Dressed in a dark suit with a striped tie, he rarely gives a lucid explanation of his works.
During his visit to Korea for an exhibit at Sungkok Museum, a little boy who visited the museum burst into tears when he was repeatedly asked by his mother to stand next to the author for a photograph.
Indeed, the 70-year-old Burningham doesn’t hide his frank character.
“If you want me to smile, you have to make me smile,” he says when asked to pose for a photograph.
Meanwhile his books “Borka,” “The Magic Bed” and “Aldo” are filled with elements that charm readers with fantasy and enchanting memories about childhood.
“Borka,” Burningham’s first book about the adventures of a young goose who is born without any feathers, is a classic picture book for children. It netted him the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal. He won the same award again later with another children’s book, “Mr. Grumpy’s Outing.”
In “Aldo,” he depicts the life of a lonely little girl who finds comfort as she befriends an imaginary rabbit.
For his exhibit in Seoul, he has selected images taken from “Granpa,” an intricate set of drawings in guache and ink made into a beautiful film by the producers of “The Snowman,” another animated adaptation from a children’s book by Dianne Jackson.
In “Granpa,” Burningham brings to light a little girl’s imaginative interpretation of her grandpa’s words.
Browsing through his books, one can’t help but wonder where his ideas come from. An easy guess would be that they are from the author’s personal experiences. (He is married to Helen Oxenbury, another popular children’s illustrator). But that might be a lazy assumption.
“That’s [being a grandfather] got nothing to do with my works,” he says. “There are well-known artists who write books for children who never had families. Stories just happen.”
Whether related to his story or not, there is something unusual about Burningham’s profile that reveals his artistic eccentricity.
At the age 17, he became a conscientious objector by refusing to join the military service and instead worked with the Friends Ambulance Unit. Then he got involved in forestry work, farming, slum clearance and demolition work in various parts of the world, including Israel and Italy.
After graduating from the Central School of Art in London in 1956, he went back to Israel to work on models and puppets for a film company until the publication of his first book in 1963. Recently, The New Yorker magazine praised him as one of the most original writers still working.
His interest, though, seems to focus more on the audience’s response to his works. Before the opening of his exhibit at Sungkok, he took out a postcard from his pocket, a drawing from one of his books that was recently exhibited at the Tate Modern. The image depicts an obscured view of a city enveloped in mist with a train passing by, quite reminiscent of the scene of children traveling from the animated film “My Neighbor Totoro,” by Miyazaki Hayao. After the drawing was displayed, the museum received over 50 e-mails from people who were inspired after viewing his work and wanted to related their own stories pertaining to it.
“It tells you that you are doing something right,” he says. “ But I just work. I do what I do.”

by Park Soo-mee

His works are on display now at Sungkok Museum through Sept. 4 along with works from British children’s illustrator Anthony Brown. For more information, call (02) 737-7650.
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