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Oakley was born on 27 August 1929 to Thomas and Flora Oakley in ShrewsburyShropshire, as their only child. Oakley grew up living above an electrical repair shop which his father ran before his family moved to Warrington. Oakley's studies at Warrington Art School were interrupted when he was called up for national military service in 1947, returning in 1950 to finish studies, and served two years at the headquarters of the British Army of the Rhine.

Oakley freelanced for London 
repertory theatre companies as a scenic artist from 1950 to 1955; as a design assistant at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, 1955 to 1957; at Crawford's Advertising Agency, 1960 to 1962; at BBC-TV as a set designer for films and series, 1962 to 1967. At BBC, Oakley worked on How Green Was My ValleyNicholas NicklebyTreasure Island, and Softly, Softly 

Oakley is best known for the 
Church Mice series of picture books (1970 to 2000), next for the Foxbury Force series (1994 to 1998). He also won a Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Special Citation in 1980 for the picture book Graham Oakley's Magical Changes. It features detailed scenes drawn on pages that are cut in half, permitting the user to "turn" the top and bottom halves separately. The combinations are surreal; the original whole-page drawings are already strange. In 2001 it was republished in France, entitled 512 for the number of different combinations possible.​ 

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