Helen Oxenbury's 2003 Boston Globe–Horn Book Picture Book Illustrator Award Acceptance

root_bigmamaBy Helen Oxenbury

I'd like to start by thanking the Boston Globe, the Horn Book, and the award judges for choosing Big Momma Makes the World for this wonderful prize. It is such an honor. I'd also like to thank my two publishers, Walker Books in England and Candlewick Press here in Massachusetts. And many, many thanks to Amy Ehrlich, Candlewick's editor-at-large, and, of course, Phyllis Root, the author, because without her there would be no Big Momma.

A few years ago, my editor at Walker Books, David Lloyd, invited me to lunch at a lovely little French restaurant just round the corner from my studio in Primrose Hill. You're probably thinking this sounds quite a promising start, but I've come to know David well over the years and I knew exactly what was coming...there is always an ulterior motive to these little rendezvous.

About three-quarters of the way through the meal, he paused, mid-crème brulée, and said, "Helen, I've brought along a text that I would like to read to you." Now, the last time he did this, he read me the text of So Much, to the great delight of the waiter and a few nearby customers. This time it was the text of Big Momma. Now I have to say, David has a way of telling stories that even Big Momma would approve of, and when he came to the end I looked at him and said, "Good — that's real good!"

I don't read many texts these days that excite me enough to want to spend at least a year illustrating them. When I think about the books I've illustrated in the past — We're Going on a Bear Hunt, So Much, The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, Farmer Duck, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland — each one has been very different from the others. And each presented me with new visual and anatomical problems to solve, such as: how to make a rather large pig, who has been a rotten bully all his life, suddenly look genteel and benign and daintily hold a tea cup? How to make a humble duck look tired and weepy? How to draw a group of farm animals sitting round listening to a cow holding forth? And how to make them convincing, without resorting to giving them human hands, legs, and facial features, and not dressing them in human clothes, which hides a multitude of sins and bad drawing? (Having said this, I have put some animals in clothes in Alice in Wonderland, but this is because Lewis Carroll has described their dress and there's no way out.)

So you can understand that the story of Big Momma made me sit bolt upright, for here again was something completely different. What a wonderfully imaginative story, unlike anything else I'd ever read! It was joyful, humorous, and thought-provoking. I immediately told David that I'd love to have a go at illustrating Big Momma. We clinked our glasses and the deal was done...

Wow! What had I done? What a challenge, portraying a female creator — with a baby, no less!

And it was so completely different from my own childhood images of God. I was convent-educated. God was definitely male — authoritative, judgmental, and dominating — and we young girls were surrounded by horrific images of suffering and sadness. There wasn't anything joyful about our scripture lessons — just learning the catechism from cover to cover without understanding a word of it. Thou shalt not commit adultery? What on earth was that? But I can still remember most of it to this day.

So there I was, raring to go, with my pencil poised, as it were, when reality hit. How on earth was I going to do it? I'd taken on a subject that was really difficult, if not impossible, to illustrate — unless, of course, you happened to be Michelangelo. How could I cope with painting these monumental scenes?

The vast scale of everything. How to convey the scale without making the wonderful characters insignificant?

After much thought and angst and planning how to tell David I couldn't do it after all, I decided I just had to concentrate on the two characters, especially the baby, and simplify the background right down to a scale that I could manage, and which would make it more accessible to young children.

•  •  •

Now, how did I decide what Big Momma would look like? She was quite a problem. There was, of course, the question of her color. I didn't want to, and indeed I couldn't, decide on any particular race or ethnic group.

Like many people, one of my greatest pleasures in life is people watching. I do this, weather permitting, in any pavement cafe. You're probably thinking, When on earth does she do any work? She seems to spend half her life in cafes and restaurants! But with a big mug of coffee beside me, I'm working hard: I wonder what he does for a living?...I wonder what the relationship is between those two? Is that her husband or lover? Is that his wife or his girlfriend?...and, What on earth was she thinking when she put that skirt on this morning? Dreadful thoughts that are totally based on appearance but are filed away for characters to come.

So Big Momma slowly emerged. I began to notice the strong, capable, down-to-earth young women coping with babies, pushchairs, shopping bags, and dogs, all pushing and pulling in different directions — and on top of all this, some of them were probably holding down demanding jobs and running a home as well. In fact, just like Big Momma.

Of course, sometimes there is a character that doesn't present a problem at all. They are just there and have been from the very beginning. This was the case with Big Momma's baby. Mind you, I am quite well practiced in drawing babies doing almost anything you could mention.

But again, with the baby, I came up against the problem of the color. So I decided the solution would be to let both of them take on the color of whatever Big Momma was creating at the time, so they became one with the water, or light, or mud, or grass, etc.

I felt it would be wrong to put the baby in clothes. I wanted him/her to look brand-new and innocent. Perhaps representing some hope for the future of Big Momma's world — because I do wonder what she would say, if she looked down now and saw what a dreadful mess we've made of her beautiful world. Half of all those wonderful creatures she created with the one big bang are now endangered or on the brink of extinction. We are warned about the dangers of her sun's rays. Her earth is becoming more and more polluted, and her people no longer have the time, inclination, or ability to tell stories. What would Big Momma say?

Probably, "Bad — that's real bad."

•  •  •

I'm always interested in the process illustrators go through prior to the finished book. My system is to sketch out the whole book in dummy form first, to get the feeling of how it's going to look when the pages are turned, and to get variety and tension in the pages. Then I start over again with the color illustrations.

It is only when I began finishing the color illustrations for Big Momma that I realized there were rather a lot of cold gray, blue, and white pictures in the beginning section of the book. This was because Big Momma was just taking too long to create the sun. So, with great trepidation, we asked Phyllis if she could possibly find a way to bring forward the creation of the sun. Phyllis, being Phyllis, agreed at once, and I was extremely grateful and relieved that I could, at last, start using warm earthy colors and vibrant oranges, pinks, and reds.

Before all this, though, I had to decide what medium to use. I mostly work in watercolor, but somehow this didn't seem appropriate for such a monumental subject. I wanted the color far more bold and intense. So, in the end, I used gouache paint, which I have, surprisingly, come to enjoy as much as watercolor. And, of course, the advantage of using gouache is that one can add and take away color at will. Watercolor allows only one shot, and if it doesn't work, forget it: you have to start all over again. Hence, I usually end up with a pile of rejects larger than the pile of artwork to be used.

The cover and inside of Big Momma was carefully and beautifully designed by Amelia Edwards from Walker's design department. She has always played a big part in the design of all my picture books, and I dread the day she retires.

•  •  •

Another joy of Phyllis's text is Big Momma's particular, lilting, rhythmic language, which I found utterly charming. But it was thought too different for the English market, so we have an English edition called Big Mama, and in our version she concludes each creation by saying, rather primly, "Good — that's very, very good," which is quite a relief for me, I must say, when I read it in schools and to groups of children, as I don't have to attempt any sort of accent. It is a lovely story to read out loud.

Thank goodness Phyllis Root has both the time and ability to tell such truly inspiring stories that give us all so much pleasure. It was great fun, if a bit nerve-wracking, working on Big Momma, and I'd like to thank Phyllis for giving me this wonderful opportunity.

And to emphasize the power of words, I'd just like to finish by reading you a verse from a beautiful poem called "Speak" by the Swedish artist and poet Helga Henschen. It was read at the memorial service for the Swedish foreign minister, Anna Lindh, who was assassinated in September.

words can become suns
words can become rivers
words can open gates
and build bridges
words can overthrow tyrants
if enough of us
arm ourselves with words

Thank you all very much.

From the January/February 2004 issue of The Horn Book Magazine
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