Michael Rosen was very surprised by my Bear Hunt illustrations – Helen Oxenbury

Illustrator Helen Oxenbury has said Michael Rosen was “very surprised” when he first saw her images for We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.

Oxenbury, 82, worked with author and poet Rosen, 74, on the classic 1989 children’s picture book, which won numerous awards and was recently adapted into an animation for Channel 4.

Speaking on Desert Island Discs, Oxenbury said she had worked on the art for more than a year without showing anything to Rosen.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt celebrity screening – London
Michael Rosen (Yui Mok/PA)

Recalling his initial reaction, she said: “He did tell me what he thought. He said, ‘I couldn’t relate it to the story’. In the end he came around to it and he liked it but he was very surprised.”

Oxenbury, originally from  Ipswich, Suffolk, said Rosen had imagined his characters as part of a royal procession instead of her eventual gang of children.

She said: “They could be anybody. In fact, Michael told me afterwards that he had thought of it as kings and queens and a line of historical figures.

“I had a go. I tried it. I did roughs to try it out but it just wasn’t right. I didn’t feel comfortable with it and I just thought it had to be brought much more simply, just with some children.”

Oxenbury told host Lauren Laverne it had always been important to her that she retained creative control over her illustrations.

She said: “I couldn’t do it with somebody saying, ‘Oh but I see it, she should wear a green dress.’ The author just has to have faith that the illustrator will come up with the goods.”

Oxenbury also credited her severe asthma, which left her bedbound as a child, as helping to inspire her creativity.

“I didn’t know anything else,” she said of that period.

“I was supplied with a lot of paper and pencils and marbles and all sorts of things to play with in bed, so I did a lot of drawing then.

“I drew my father and my grandfather and I have still got the painting of my grandfather with very odd fingers, but his actual face looks quite good.

“He loved cricket and used to listen to the cricket on the radio and I think I sketched him while I was listening.”

Her music choices on Desert Island Discs included America from West Side Story, Singin’ In The Rain from the 1952 film and Schubert’s Impromptu number three in G flat.

Desert Island Discs is on BBC Sounds and BBC Radio 4 on Sunday at 11am.

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