Saturday, February 20, 2010

Author Focus: Janet & Allen Ahlberg

Beginning of the partnership

Janet and Allen Ahlberg are amongst my all time favourite author/illustrator partnerships. For almost 20 years they created wonderful picture books for younger readers until Janet's untimely death from cancer in 1994 aged just 50. While Allan has continued to write good books, his best work was with Janet who was a masterful illustrator.

Allan was born in Croydon (England) in 1938, but grew up in Oldbury just outside Birmingham. Even as a child of 12 years he wanted to be a writer. He trained to become a teacher in Sunderland in the 1960s, where he met Janet who he eventually married in 1969. Allan tackled a wide variety of jobs, ranging from postman to plumber's mate before serving as a primary teacher for ten years. Janet studied graphic design, which led her to become an illustrator. In the midst of an uninspiring job Janet asked Allan (a frustrated writer) to write a children's book for her to illustrate. This was to lead them to become one of most successful author/illustrator teams in the United Kingdom.

The uniqueness of their work

What sets Allan and Janet Ahlberg's books apart are the ingeniousness of their design, the simplicity of their story lines and their engaging qualities. Their early manuscripts were met with rejection slips from many publishers. Then in the one week, Penguin accepted 'The Old Joke Book', A & C Black took 'The Vanishment of Thomas Tull' and Heinemann accepted 'Burglar Bill'.

In 1978, just three years after their first book was published Janet's artwork won her the Kate Greenaway Medal for the brilliant book 'Each Peach Pear Plum'.

Their books were influenced strongly by comics and cartoons, which led to some of the most creative picture books seen. These include 'Peepo!', 'Each Peach Pear Plum', 'The Baby's Catalogue' and the 'Jolly Postman'. What characterises these and their other books is:
  • The rhythm of the writing,
  • Their ability to engage little children while capturing the interest of the adult reader (and buyer of books),
  • A beautiful unity between word and picture,
  • Clever use of intertextuality where their own narratives often wove their way in and out of well-known rhymes and stories (e.g. 'The Jolly Postman').
Allan also collaborated with other illustrators because his writing took less time than Janet's illustrating. Some of these other illustrators included Fritz Wegner, Andre Amstutz, Colin McNaughton, Faith Jaques, Joe Wright and Emma Chichester Clarke. One of his most successful collaborations was the creating of the 'Happy Families series' that have sold approximately 3 million copies. With titles like 'Mrs Wobble the Waitress', 'Mr Tick the Teacher' and 'Mrs Plug the Plumber' they capture the imagination of children. I can't help but wonder whether Allan's early life moving in and out of various jobs prepared him well for this series.

Their daughter, Jessica was born in 1980 the year the 'Happy Families' book series was released. She was to become a great inspiration to their work. I can recall Allan sharing in the early 1990s at a conference how the inspiration for the 'Jolly Postman' was the fact that Jessica was always upset when they went to the mailbox and none of the letters were for her. So they wrote her a book that was full of letters. The text brilliantly weaves together various fairytale characters in a continuous narrative, while introducing readers to varied written genres - letters, a postcard, birthday card, letter from a solicitor etc. The book took five years to make but it won many awards, including the Kate Greenaway Medal and the Emil/Kurt Maschler Award. The sales of 'The Jolly Postman' and its successors, 'The Jolly Christmas Postman' and 'The Jolly Pocket Postman', have reached over six Million copies.

Jessica also helped to inspire 'The Baby Catalogue' which reflected their daughter's fascination with the Mothercare catalogue. This was how it was created, Jessica's had her own Baby Catalogue that she could read and re-read as many times as she wanted.

Allan and Janet also collaborated on books for older readers such as 'Burglar Bill', 'Cops and Robbers', and 'Funnybones'. Allan also wrote two very popular books of verse, 'Heard it in the Playground' and 'Please, Mrs Butler'.

After Janet's premature death in 1994, Allan produced a beautiful tribute to her in 1997, 'Janet's Last Book'.

In April 1998, Allan moved to London. He continues to create wonderful books for children of all ages.

The complete list of Janet & Allan Ahlberg's books (1975-1994)

'Brick Street Boys' (1975)
'The Old Joke Book' (1976)
'Burglar Bill' (1977)
'Jeremiah in the Dark Woods' (1977)
'The Vanishment of Thomas Tull' (1977)
'Cops and Robbers' (1978)
'Each Peach Pear Plum' (1978)
'The One and Only Two Heads' (1979)
'Son of a Gun' (1979)
'The Little Worm Book' (1979)
'Two Wheels Two Heads' (1979)
'Funny Bones' (1980)
'A Pair of Sinners' (1980)
'Happy Families Series' (1980 till 1988)
'Peepo' (1981)
'The Ha Ha Bonk Book' (1982)
'Help Your Child to Read' (1982)
'The Baby's Catalogue' (1982)
'Frieze' (1982)
'Ten in a Bed' (1983)
'Please Mrs Butler' (1983)
'Daisychains Series' (1983-1985)
'Yum Yum' (1984)
'Playmates' (1984)
'Foldaways' (1984)
'Red Nose Readers' (1985-1986
'Woof' (1986)
'The Cinderella Show' (1986)
'The Jolly Postman' (1986)
'The Clothes Horse' (1987)
'The Mighty Slide' (1988)
'Starting School' (1988)
'Heard it in the Playground' (1989)
'Bye Bye Baby' (1989)
'Funny Bones Early Readers' (1990-1993)
'The Jolly Christmas Postman' (1991)
'The Bear Nobody Wanted' (1992)
'Mrs Butler Songbook' (1992)
'It was a Dark and Stormy Night' (1993)
'The Giant Baby' (1994)
'The Jolly Pocket Postman' (1999)

Related Posts

All posts in the Author Focus series (here)


Erin said...

I LOVE Janet and Allen Ahlberg - their books were amoungst my favourites growing up (particulary Peepbo, The Jolly Postman and Starting School).
Perhaps I enjoyed them so much because my parents enjoyed reading and rereading them to me, unlike some books they could get tired of.
The pictures are delightful and the interplay between the words and the pictures is beautiful.

Keith Schoch said...

Jolly Postman is an all-time fave of mine! Nice to see that some husbands and wives can actually work together! Not sure that my dear wife and I could pull that one off...

Catherine said...

I love Janet and Allan Ahlberg too. The Baby's Catalogue was the first book my oldest son fell in love with (and that I had to read over and over).

BookChook said...

I think it was that delightful sense of humour that resonates with me about their books. Boglaboll, and witchy catalogues spring to mind.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks everyone, I'm glad that there are plenty of other people who like the work of the Ahlberg's.


Rebecca said...

We love the Ahlberg's work. I had Peepo memorised for telling my daughter as she went off to sleep when she was rising 2. Her current favourite is Bye Bye Baby. How absurd, a baby who has no mother! This story has jumped from storytime to playtime as she acts out the drama with her toys.

Great article :)

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Rebecca,

Nice to hear from you. I love the fact that you had memorised Peepo. There is an incredible power in being able to 'tell' a story not just read it. Thanks for your comment.


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