By Phoebe Vreeland, The Children’s Book Review
Published: December 18, 2010
by John Burningham
Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover: 56 pages
Publisher: Candlewick (June 9, 2009)
John Burningham knows what intrigues children, and not from the grandfatherly distance of an armchair. I get the sense that part of Mr. Burningham has stayed in close touch with his inner five year-old. Who else would understand how the idea of accompanying the family cat on his nighttime escapades would appeal to a child (especially if you had to “get small” and jump through the cat door)?
Mr. Burningham has been hitting the right note with children and parents for decades. He has published over fifty books, nearly one every year, since his first book Borka: the Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers in 1963. It won The Kate Greenaway Medal, the British equivalent of the Caldecott. His most well loved book, Mr. Gumpy’s Outing, won The Kate Greenaway Medal in 1970.
In his recent book It’s a Secret, young Marie Elaine is curious about where her cat Malcolm goes at night. One night, while coming downstairs to get a drink of water, she catches Malcolm, dressed to the nines, ready to slip out for the evening. She begs him to take her along. The cat agrees—as long as she changes into party clothes and “gets small.” The neighbor boy, Norman Kowalski, is not asleep either and spies the pair walking past his house. He wants to go too and blackmails them into bringing him along. What happens afterwards is the secret.
All the necessary elements are there in this delightful fantasy: adventure, midnight festivities, and feline royalty. This author is well known for his ability to take children on fantasy journeys. His book Come Away from the Water, Shirley is a prime example.
Burningham has been quoted saying, “People need fantasy. If you were to deprive them of it, they would go completely bonkers.”
The book’s illustrations have been achieved by a variety of mediums. Ink sketches of the characters are filled by simple crosshatching, water color, or crayon. Burningham’s characters may have the look of being quickly sketched, but he has said that they have been well rehearsed before the final execution. He knows them well and thus is able to use minimal lines to achieve maximum effect. The trio on the book’s cover is a fine example: loosely sketched, yet full of tension, excitement, personality and movement.
Burningham has expressed his dislike for what he calls a “party food approach” to books for children, that is, the belief that “lots of colours and pretty pictures will do when there’s no content. Children get very quickly bored. Colour means absolutely nothing unless it is used to some effect.”
In It’s a Secret!, he has created dramatic skies, thick with color and interesting texture, behind a simple cityscape. As the dawn’s light begins to overtake the darkness of night, we see the artist’s use of color to great effect. Burningham’s interest in light and landscape is apparent in many of his picture books. His landscapes and skies are painterly and dramatic. This is one of the reasons his books appeal to adults as well as children.
The text is minimal, simple, and full of charm. My favorite line comes at the end of the book when Marie Elaine’s mother, finding her stretched out on the living room couch the next morning says, “You look as if you were out all night with the cat.” Marie Elaine answers truthfully but doesn’t divulge any details … and neither will I. It’s a secret!
John Burningham is married to Helen Oxenbury, also an award-winning and much loved children’s book illustrator and pioneer in the design of board books. They have recently collaborated on a picture book for families who are expecting: There’s Going to Be a Baby. The depictions of baby and his imagined antics are so delightful, even the most threatened sibling will be won over.
Add this book to your collection: It’s a Secret
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