The last four years have seen a steady stream of successful Ahlberg books including Funnybones, Peepo!, the Happy Families series and The Ha Ha Bonk Book. During that time too, their daughter, Jessica, now two years old, was born. Last year they moved to another larger house in Leicester (where they have lived for some years) and are clearly enjoying being a family and a successful partnership able to concentrate on creating books.
Janet and Allan met each other at a teacher training college in Sunderland, where Janet was training for a career she wasn’t to enjoy. ‘I found teaching so awful that I switched to art college in Leicester. Teaching’s all right, if you’re not shy line I am. Otherwise it’s like having to go on stage every day. I hated it.’
Allan, however, enjoyed teaching, and carried on for ten years at infant and junior level. ‘But I did a lot of other jobs before that, too. I was one of the last to get caught for national service, but I was a postman, a plumber’s mate and a gravedigger as well at odd times.’
Allan’s experience of teaching paid off. Now Janet and he make a book first and find out later who else likes it. ‘But with Burglar Bill I had a fair idea children would line it, even before I’d written it. It grew out of a game I used to play with a class of infants.
‘At the end of the day there would often be five minutes to fill. I got the habit of telling them about Burglar Bill, who walked the local streets looking for houses to burgle. I’d use the names of local streets and the kids’ actual houses. They loved it, wondering whose house would be next.’
When Janet and Allan married they moved to London, where Allan taught and Janet became a freelance illustrator. She did a lot of work on non-fiction books, but what she really wanted to do was illustrate stories for children.
Allan was also discovering his true calling. ‘I suppose from the age of 12 I always wanted to be a writer, but for 20 years I couldn’t actually finish anything. Janet hadn’t been offered any stories to illustrate, so she asked me to write one. I discovered that I could do it. I found I liked it too – so I kept at it.
‘I suppose that if we hadn’t met neither of us might have got the chance to do what we really wanted. It’s like a lyricist meeting a composer. Put them together and they can make songs, but apart they can’t make anything.’
It wasn’t too long before success came knocking on their door, ‘although we did have a bad one and a half years. In the early years our work was often rejected. Jeremiah in the Dark Woods, for example, was turned down half a dozen times. At one point we had four or five packages of words and pictures going the rounds, like messages in bottles. Then, suddenly, three were taken – which explains why we worn with more than one publisher even now.’
So now they’re living ‘the life of Riley’, as Allan says, only it’s unlikely that Riley would work quite so hard, ‘We don’t work together,’ says Allan. ‘That would drive us both crazy. I need silence when I’m working, for example, and Janet likes having the radio on.’
In the new house Allan is able to find peace from Janet’s radio in ‘a small room behind the loft above an old coach-house at the side of the house. In the old days this room was known as “the bothy”, and was where the groom hung out in his spare time.’
Their daily work routine also takes into account the fact that Allan is a ‘day person’ and Janet a ‘night bird’. Allan rises at about 6.00 and works till around 11 a.m. Janet sleeps later. Jessica wakes at around 6.30, and obligingly plays in her cot until about nine when she has breakfast with Janet who leads a ‘very domestic life in the mornings’. In the afternoon, Allan takes a nap, while Janet gets down to some work. One of two nice ‘ladies’ comes in to look after Jessica. ‘They usually arrive after lunch. I have a cup of tea then go into my studio – and come out again half an hour later for another cup!’
When Allan wakes up he feels like ‘a zombie for a while’, then pulls himself together. ‘I often do another hour’s writing in the late afternoon, and usually take Jessica out to the park, until six.’ The family gets together again until Jessica’s bed time. ‘Janet often works in the evenings, while I either go out to play badminton or down to the pub for a pint. Sometimes I just sit and read the papers. We haven’t got a television.’
So what’s going on in those two separate rooms? Allan and Janet stress that they’re ‘picture book makers’ rather than an author and an illustrator who work together. ‘The whole book interests us – the balance, the design, the rhythm of words and pictures, the type, the paper, the end papers, even the blurb.
‘We’re making a book, and when we’ve finished the manuscript and painted the pictures, it doesn’t end there. We work together, and we also like to work with the publisher and the printer. It’s no good just ignoring that process. If there’s a mistake and the printer doesn’t get the colour right, for example, then people will see something that we didn’t intend. People see the finished, printed, bound object – they don’t see the artwork in the drawer.’
But where do the ideas come from? ‘We start with words, an idea. Janet does a few roughs and we knock it around. It’s all give and take, and everything eventually gives way to what looks – and sounds best. I just sit at a desk and write and cross out and re-write until I’m sick of it. If I’m not sick of it, I know it could be better, so I keep on until I am.’
As with all picture books, control slips away from the creators the further the book progresses down the chain of production. The Ahlbergs would like more control over every detail, but realise it’s difficult. ‘We don’t get that much say over paperback or foreign editions, for example. Anyway, we’d go crazy if we tried to retain that sort of control. There simply isn’t enough time.
‘There’s always an urge to try and cap what you’ve already done, to put in that something extra. Better picture, better words, better paper – it’s like trying to knock down skittles. One skittle is design, one is printing, and so on. And the game is to knock them all down at once.
‘We fuss and pester over our work, but in the end we suspect it’s light, trivial, a bit like candyfloss. It would probably be more valuable to be a gravedigger. So to a certain extent you have to become schizophrenic. You know that what you’re doing is trivial, but you still have to treat it as if it’s the most important thing in the world, otherwise you don’t get the best results.’
Like many writers for children, Allan doesn’t think of his audience when he puts pen to paper. ‘You set out to please yourself, first of all. You don’t really think about the kids. We hope that if we like what we’ve done, there’s a fair chance others will.’
One exception to that was Happy Families. ‘I got the idea from the old card game, and I thought it would be fun to write 12 variations on a theme. As I’ve said, I usually write first and then find out later if anyone else likes it. But with Happy Families I thought it would be pleasing to make a set of books which could be used in schools as well as having a general sale. So I got children to read the manuscripts and rewrote wherever necessary. In the future we hope to get ideas from our own audience research – that’s Jessica.’
Janet illustrated only two of the Happy Families set of a dozen. Allan worked with some of the best of the rest on the others, illustrators like Andre Amstutz and Colin McNaughton. Allan had only six weeks to finish the final draft of the second six stories, and this period coincided with Jessica’s early days when she hadn’t settled down.
‘I just had to get the stories finished, and I had to sleep downstairs in the end so that I wouldn’t be disturbed. We did both stop work for a while after Jessica was born, and I don’t think we’ll work as hard as we used to ever again.’
Allan’s now working on a new series of books with another top illustrator – Eric (‘Where’s Spot?’) Hill. It’s a set of six little books called Help Your Child to Read. ‘If you’ve ever been a teacher, you’ll have met some children who are completely unaware of books. I wanted to make books that parents could share with their pre-school children.
‘I didn’t want the books to be heavily educational. Each title has stories and verses threaded like beads on a string. I spent a lot of time in a nursery school observing the kids to get ideas. One little girl came up to me and showed me a graze on her knee and said “I’ve got a poorly knee.” It’s a big thing when you’re three or four to have a plaster on your knee. So after that, one of the characters became Poorly Pig who gets a plaster on pretty well every page.’ Allan’s enjoyed working with Eric Hill. ‘I like Eric’s work a lot. It’s simple and warm-hearted – a rare combination.’
Janet has recently completed the artwork for their latest joint project, The Baby’s Catalogue, which will be giving everyone from babies up much pleasure this autumn.
And that, it seems, is what the future holds for the Ahlbergs as a team, too – more pleasure in what they’re doing. ‘We never had any conscious plan for our lives. The whole thing has been bits of luck. But we’re getting paid for what we absolutely love doing. If we didn’t get paid we’d still be doing it as a hobby.’
Burglar Bill Heinemann, 0 434 92500 4, £3.50 Picture Lions, 0 00 661486 8, 90p
Cops and Robbers Heinemann, 0 434 92501 2, £3.95 Picture Lions, 0 00 661681 X, 90p
Jeremiah in the Dark Woods Kestrel, 0 7226 5357 3, £3.95 Fontana Lions, 0 00 671640 7, 75p
The Old Joke Book Kestrel, 0 7226 5237 2, £2.95 Picture Lions, 0 00 661409 4, 85p
Each Peach Pear Plum Kestrel, 0 7226 5335 2, £4.50 Picture Lions, 0 00 661678 X, 90p
Funnybones Heinemann, 0 434 92503 9, £3.95 Picture Lions, 0 00 661953 3, 95p
Peepo! Kestrel, 0 7226 5707 2, £4.95
The Ha Ha Bonk Book Kestrel, 0 7226 5745 5, £3.95 Young Puffin, 0 14 03.1412 1, 85p
Happy Families series Twelve books – Kestrel, £2.25 each Puffin, 60-75p each
Fred’s Dream Picture Lions, 0 00 661930 4, 90p
The Great Marathon Football Match Picture Lions, 0 00 661931 2, 90p
The Baby’s Catalogue Kestrel, 0 7226 5777 3, £4.95 (this autumn)