Interview with Helen Oxenbury for We're Going on a Bear Hunt
Helen, who illustrated the book, talks to us about the original inspiration for the kids - her own children - and reveals the locations that inspired the stunning British landscapes
You illustrated the iconic children’s book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, in 1989. How did you come to work on it?
Well, I was shown the text by an editor, who asked me what I thought of it. And I thought “My God, I know it!” Because before that, someone called Alison McMorland came to see me and asked me to design a record sleeve for her collection of songs. One of the songs was called We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, and she sang it with her son.
So it was a song before it was a book?
Oh yes, it was a sort of folk song, especially in America – they used to sing it around the campfire. So I knew it well.
So Michael adapted it?
That’s right, yes. My editor heard him reciting it to a class of children, and he said to him “Now look, Michael, you’ve got to write that down.” I get the impression Michael didn’t really want to, but in the end my editor bullied him, and he wrote it down. And that was his version.
So you were just sent the end product and left to get on with it?
That’s right. I couldn’t bear to have an author standing over me saying “No, I don’t see it like that.” I got the text, I said yes, and after that, you have to feel that, because they’ve asked you, they want you to do it, and think you will do it well. So I just got on with it, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ll tell you what was so good about it – when you read the words, nothing is described. So it gives an illustrator a completely free hand to choose the characters they want, and the landscapes they want, and it’s lovely to have that freedom.
So you basically created the characters?
Yes, that’s right.
We’re they based on anyone?
Oh absolutely. I think they were based on my kids. I couldn’t help but be influenced by them. The boy that everybody thinks is the father was my son, because there was quite a big gap between him and my youngest child. It was actually kids going off on an adventure without any adults. But a lot of people see him as the father, and the eldest girl as the mother! But that’s not how I imagined it.
And the locations were places you were familiar with?
Oh yes! I was brought up on the east coast, by an estuary, and when the tide goes out there are all these mud flats and wonderful great skies in East Anglia. So that was the mud scene. The forest was Hampstead Heath, which I know very well. The river I just made up. The field was near a little place we had in Dorset. And the beach with the cave came from when we used to have holidays in Wales. There was the most beautiful beach, and it did have rocks and caves and things, so that was my inspiration for that. Even the dog was my dog. It was lovely, I could do all of that without worrying that I wasn’t keeping to the text.
Did you ever have any inkling of what a success the book would become?
No, not at all. I find it amazing. One never knows what’s going to be a success and what isn’t. Lots of things I think should be just aren’t, and sometimes the other way around.
Why do you think it struck such a chord with readers?
I can only answer that from what people have told me. People are going back to letting their children have freedom, getting out with nature. I think there’s a feeling that children don’t get enough freedom, I suppose, and any stories that have that element seem to go down well.
It’s all illustrated in watercolours. Do you always work with watercolours?
No, not always. It really depends on the story. I think watercolors are lovely for English landscape. You don’t want hard, bright colours, that’s not what it’s about. I have done stories using gouache, because the stories and the characters suggested it should be much more strong and colourful. I did a book called So Much, about a British black family, and the colours that they wear would just be hopeless in watercolour.
Did you have reservations about this book being turned into an animation? It’s very dear to so many people, I’m sure it is to you.
I would have been worried about it, but I know that Lupus Films are so good. They did The Snowman, and other Raymond Briggs things. They are very, very good, so I wasn’t as worried as I would have been if it was someone I didn’t have that respect for.
How much input did you have into proceedings?
They’ve been marvellous. They’ve asked me in several times – I even went to Abbey Road the other day, to listen to the orchestra recording the background music. That was wonderful. And I met George Ezra, who’s written and recorded the theme song.
Was it important to you that the animation for the film still featured elements of watercolour?
Absolutely. And they’ve been marvellous in the way they’ve really tried to keep that feel in the film. I mean, obviously they’ve had to pad it out, because otherwise the whole thing would be over in five minutes. But it’s all dotted with bits of film that you recognise from the book, which is jolly nice. And they’ve really done it beautifully. For instance, the snowstorm, they’ve really got the atmosphere and the sparseness and the bleakness of it beautifully. They haven’t tried to pretty it up or anything like that. I have great respect for what they’ve done.
At the end of the book, the bear looks rather forlorn. Why did you decide to do that?
Well, when I got to the end of the book, I thought “That poor old bear!” The kids are all safe and back home and everything, and really, what was this bear up to? So on the end pages I thought I’d carry on the story a little bit, and give the impression that perhaps he was a pretty lonely old bear, really. I just wanted to show his story a little bit.
And they’ve sort of carried that over into the film, haven’t they?
Yes, and I thought they did that very well. I’m glad they’ve done that. It adds a bit of pathos.
Children actually quite like a bit of pathos in their books, don’t they?
I think everybody responds well to pathos, whether you’re a kid or an adult. We don’t want bland things. As an adult, you want to cry or laugh or get scared or something, and kids are no different.
What do you make of the film, from what you’ve seen?
I’m terribly impressed. I’m delighted. It’s been absolutely true to the spirit of the original, as much as they possibly can. It’s a half-hour film, and they’ve had to pad it out, but they’ve kept the spirit of adventure beautifully.
We’re Going On A Bear Hunt will be on Channel 4 this Christmas.