In 2009, Candlewick Press released a beautiful volume of the work of British author/illustrator John Burningham, which made Yours Truly, a huge fan of Burningham’s work, very happy. “Your work, John,” Maurice Sendak wrote in the book’s foreword, “is stunning, luscious, sexy, hilarious and mysterious and frequently just plain nuts.”
If you see as many picture books as I do in any given week, “just plain nuts” can be the best picture book descriptor you hear on just the right day. And, all in all, I was happy to read these words from Sendak. In fact, my deep and abiding love for Burningham’s books and illustrations is rivaled only by my love for Sendak’s when it comes to picture books.
This August, Candlewick released a retelling of one of the first picture books that Burningham illustrated. The Extraordinary Tug-of-War, retold by Letta Schatz, was released in 1968. This new version, called simply Tug-of-War, shows off Burningham’s original artwork but is paired with a new text—Burningham’s words this time.
The story is evidently based on a Nigerian folktale. I read that elsewhere; how I was hoping for a closing note in the book about that tale. But we get a small hint in the book’s dedication: “For my mother, who introduced me to African folktales.”
Essentially, it’s a trickster tale, this story of a hare repeatedly mocked by an elephant and a hippo. All three live together in the forest, and if there’s nothing else to do, Hippopotamus and Elephant will pass the time by telling Hare what an idiot he is, how ridiculous he looks and how incompetently he behaves. As with all trickster tales, though, the Hare overcomes his foes in the end. In this case, he challenges each mammoth animal to a tug-of-war contest. This, naturally, makes the creatures laugh in Hare’s face, knowing as they do that they will easily triumph over such a small, weak animal. Instead, Hare gives them a very long rope and sets Hippopotamus on one end and Elephant on the other so that they’re really competing against one another.
2013 marks the 50th year of John Burningham’s book-making career. His first picture book, Borka, was published in 1963, and since then he’s created more than 30 picture books. This 2013 retelling of Tug-of-War marks a good time to stop and celebrate his long, impressive career. He is one of those rare author-illustrators who can create a touching story and keep it from giving us a sickening-sweet sugar high. He’s always honest with readers, keeping it genuine. Best of all, I appreciate the terrifically spot-on childlike dialogue in his books. And it’s more than just dialogue. It’s the way he gets so easily into a child’s way of thinking. Clearly, he is on their side. 2009’s It’s a Secret!, which was awarded a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, is a thing of wonder in this particular regard. You will never, ever find Burningham talking down to children.
As for his illustration work, his style is terrifically original. You often see him going from sketchy-lined illustrations to highly textured, heavily saturated ones (with his distinctive brushstrokes) in the span of two spreads, always surprising readers. It’s what Brian Alderson calls his “diversity of style” in the 2009 volume that celebrates Burningham’s work.
Tug-of-War shows us an illustrator early in his career, on his way to coming into his own. It’s exciting to see Burningham here, playing with perspective and putting such energy onto paper. As the official Kirkus review for the book notes, the illustrations often look sketchy, “spattered, scribbly,” featuring vigorous lines and fuzzy details. He puts readers right into the battle; it’s almost as if we’re tugging right along with the large creatures, and he depicts Hare with such a wide-eyed look, making his deception all the more amusing.
Seven cheers to Candlewick for keeping Burningham’s work in print—and for these new surprises from one of children’s literature’s most distinguished illustrators.
TUG-OF-WAR. Text copyright © 2012 by John Burningham. Illustrations copyright © 1968 by John Burningham. Spread reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.