Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury


  • Happy birthday William Loren Katz (Black Women of the Old West), Helen Oxenbury (We’re Going on a Bear Hunt), Jack Gantos (Joey Pigza series), and Michael Emberley (It’s Perfectly Normal).
  • It’s the birth date of Paul Galdone (1914-1986), The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Martha Washington (1731-1802), the first First Lady of the United States, was born on this day. Read The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington’s Slave Finds Freedom by Emily Arnold McCully.

Today I’d like to wish a very happy birthday to Helen Oxenbury, one of our most accomplished children’s book illustrators. Helen turned to illustration as a second career when her own child was born. An accomplished set designer for theater, television, and film, she had already observed the pleasure her husband, John Burningham (whom she met at London’s Central School of Art and Craft), took in crafting picture books.

Then, while Helen was in the hospital after the birth of their child, she received a visit from Sebastian Walker, the keen mastermind who set up Walker Books in England, parent company of Candlewick in the United States. They began to talk about the books that Helen might create herself. American editor May Massee was famous for nabbing illustrators at public lunch places and dinner parties, but Helen’s story is the only one I know of someone being recruited for the field in a hospital.

As the mother of young children, she wasn’t finding the kind of quality picture books that she admired. In 1967 she began working in this area, becoming a specialist in books for babies and toddlers in the 1980s. These titles, such as I Can, I See, and I Touch, all highlight the actions and objects of a young child’s world.

On the Almanac, I’ve already presented one of Helen’s finest creations for the younger set, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Today, on her birthday, let’s look at another signature Oxenbury book, Martin Waddell’s Farmer Duck. Poor Duck; he works tirelessly for a lazy, good-for-nothing farmer who spends all day in bed eating bonbons and reading the newspaper. Every now and then the man yells at duck, “How goes the work?” Duck takes care of the farm animals, washes dishes, irons. But no praise for duck. And then one day, his barnyard friends unite behind him—and the animals take over the farm. Ultimately the book explores the idea of fairness and can be paired with Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type to talk about power dynamics and taking control.

Above all, Helen Oxenbury’s artwork has made this book so successful over the last twenty years. A master at creating character and landscape, she knows how to move a story along seamlessly. With fine draftsmanship, a controlled use of color, and energetic black line, each one of her drawings combines humor and heart. In concert with the text, Helen creates a hero readers can cheer for, and a picture book that young children beg for again and again.

So today on your birthday, Helen Oxenbury, we ask, “How goes the work?” And in honor of all you have done, we want to send a big cheer from your American fans for this book and all the others you’ve made over the years.


Here’s a page from Farmer Duck:



Originally posted June 2, 2014. Updated for .

Tags: Animals, Ducks, Politics, Social Conscience
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Farmer Duck


  1. It has fascinating reading the history of authors and illustrators, thanks so much for sharing!

  2. G. Perry says:

    I love new buried treasure (new to me anyways) when I find it!

    Of the find and read this one ASAP!

    Thanks Anita

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