08 October 2007
John Burningham is one of those authors that I did not discover until I was an adult. Had I grown up in his native England, it would have been a completely different story. But here in the States he's just another respected import. His classic, Mr. Gumpy's Outing, is listed by Anita Silvey (talk about gurus!) as one of the 100 best books for children, but other than that his droll little windows into a child's psyche seem to come and go. A quick search on Amazon.com shows that of three pages of titles, only half a dozen or so are still in print. Again, it's a different story in the UK, but American fans need to catch his books in the initial print run.
John Patrick Norman McHennessy-the boy who was always late (we'll call it JPNM for short) is a frequent bedtime favorite at our house. It's the simple story of a boy making his way "along the road to learn." Each day he meets seemingly insurmountable hurdles (a crocodile leaping out of a drain, a lion sneaking out of the bushes, a tidal wave washing over a bridge) yet he vanquishes them all, only to come up against a higher hurdle--his teacher's disbelief. The teacher is straight out of the Oxford Don book of fashion, with a log black coat, four-point cap, and a total lack of imagination. Various punishments are meted out to JPNM--standing in the corner, writing out "I must not tell lies" 500 times, solitary confinement, and even the threat of a good thrashing. The teacher not only discredits JPNM's stories, but he gets unreasonably irate about the loss of a glove, torn trousers, and the fact that the boy arrives sopping wet (which is to be expected when you've nearly been washed away by an unexpected tidal wave!) But revenge is sweet, and by the end of the story we see that JPNM has not been traveling along the road to learn for nothing.
I find that children have an amazing capacity for magic while understanding the world in completely literal terms. If JPNM said a lion sprang out of the bushes, well of course it did, even if that's not supposed to happen. John Burningham's books wonderfully capture this dichotomy, and it makes them great fun for the adult reader.