Talking to Althea is like talking to the best kind of teacher – information, ideas, invitations to think come with an engaging enthusiasm and energy which is irresistible. A passing fire-engine brings a brief run-down on the number and variety of fire-fighting appliances involved in the average call out. ‘I learnt that doing research for Fighting Fires.’
The interest is still fresh; the drive to – share and communicate ever strong. It is exactly this blend that makes Althea such a successful creator of information books for young children. She brings a directness and thoroughness to this notoriously difficult area and, refusing to condescend, avoids the mistakes others are unaware they are making. There are currently upwards of 120 ‘Althea books’ in print; that distinctive first name is now synonymous with a particular kind of publishing, for many parents and teachers a guarantee of quality and reliability.
The woman behind this famous ‘brand name’ is lively with a bubbling, fine-tuned sense of humour but she is also quietly-spoken, level-headed; someone who knows precisely what she is doing. Her coppery hair and fondness for many coloured clothes make an appropriate outward form for such a multi-talented person. Apart from her writing she is, or has been, an illustrator, designer, publisher, bookseller, sales rep. for her own books, and printer.
Althea Braithwaite was born in 1940 and has lived in East Anglia for most of her life. In her twenties she was asked, as part of a job scheme in which she was involved, if she would like to manage a printing works: ‘I said yes, I would.’ Did she know anything about printing? ‘Absolutely nothing. So I set out to learn as I went on.’ A prime example of the empirical way in which she does a lot of her work. If she is writing a book about a factory, she is down there on the factory-floor, scribbling away. Her research for Growing Plants at Home required all the plants to be grown, studied and then written about.
In 1967, having mastered the printing process, she produced the, first Dinosaur titles, though the name of the imprint – called after one of her characters, Desmond the Dinosaur – came later. She has said that she recognised a need for simple story and information books for young children when her son was born. In the first year three titles were published; small landscape volumes, measuring something like three inches deep by seven inches wide, printed on plain coloured paper. The very first – Cuthbert and Bimbo – was on yellow paper, ‘because there happened to be a pile of yellow paper in the print shop’. The black line drawings were, like the text, by Althea herself. Needless to say, she had taught herself to draw; apart form O-level Art, she had acquired no formal training. ‘But I firmly believed that everyone can draw. All it needs is encouragement. But, after the early years, what is there…?’
Because this by now author/illustrator/ printer/publisher found that the most tricky part of the whole production process was the actual binding, literally sticking the spine into the covers, an ingenious method of lightening the burden was devised. Four copies of each book were printed in a single operation, one above the other; the whole was bound as one, and then cut into four separate books. It was at this stage of her life that Althea found herself hawking her wares around department stores and bookshops: ‘A necessary job, but not one I’d wish on anybody.’
The rest, as they say, is history. From this modest, though vastly enterprising, beginning grew the extensive series of small, compact books, on an awesomely wide range of subjects. Many of the books are expressly designed to help children cope with new or difficult problems. All the titles in the ‘Talk it Over’ series are carefully researched with the help of the children involved, as well as the specialists who treat them. Of this series, she says that ‘for most of us, if we can know about a new situation before it happens, then we are not so fearful or worried about it.’
Althea is firmly convinced that children should not only be informed about their fears, problems and illnesses, but that they also want to know about them. On her frequent visits to schools and hospitals for handicapped children, she is constantly made aware of the children’s need to know They don’t always want to be cushioned from reality; they don’t always want to hide behind the fears -’no matter how well-intentioned’ – of their parents. But it is not only children directly affected by illness or disability that she has in mind. So-called ‘normal’ children without knowledge or understanding run the risk of developing harmful prejudices. By lifting the curtain and letting in a little light, the fears, mysteries, doubts can be dissolved. She recalls, when she was researching I Have a Mental Handicap, a conversation with a child who, understanding at last, exclaimed triumphantly: ‘Oh! – so it’s physical handicap below the glasses, and mental handicap above!’
Talking to children who are representative of those who will eventually read the book is as important as meeting those people who will appear in it. It is here she discovers the barriers she will need to overcome as a writer. Many children were resistant to What is a Union?, reiterating the received attitudes and opinions of their parents. (And not only children it seems. ‘Some booksellers refused to take it,’ she reflects sadly but without rancour.)
Althea, though, is not seeking to make party political points – rather to do the much more difficult thing of removing the ignorance that breeds political prejudice. She was named one of the winners of the Other Award for What is a Union? and at the ceremony enjoyed redressing the balance by announcing that she had just been commissioned to do a similar book on the Stock Exchange. (‘I’m revising that now to take account of the “Big Bang”.’)
Althea’s books are all written for children, not at them or down to them. Children’s books, in her view, should help children to define their place in the world; to give assurance and, where necessary, reassurance. Asked if she considers, as much of the media seems to, children’s books to be on a lower rung of some sort of literary ladder, her reply is swift and sure: ‘No, I don’t.’
In 1984 Althea sold the Dinosaur imprint to Collins, where she is now an editorial consultant for the Dinosaur list. What differences had this made to her? ‘Well, in the old days I had strict control over, for example, who would illustrate my books. I enjoyed a very close working relationship with each of my illustrators. Now, inevitably, this cannot always be the case. And working for a large company – well, it tends to be a little amorphous; but then large companies can’t help but be, can they? And, anyway, there are compensating factors.’ She hopes Collins would never commission a book in the Dinosaur series of which she did not approve.
Her consultancy work does not mean that she has given up writing and illustrating. Her freelance activities keep her as busy as ever. (Recently she even travelled to the Far East to teach the rudiments of design and illustration – ‘Just the rudiments; I don’t know anything about the latest printing techniques’ – to the emergent industry there.) Last year, as well as her Dinosaur titles, there was the first in a new series for Orchard Books, Hippos at Home. ‘There’s an awful lot going on in that book,’ she says. ‘At first glance it seems not to be the case, but once you start looking you find lots to spot and talk about.’ And Longmans published the first four titles in a handsome new ‘Save our Wildlife’ series. For 1988 there are at least a dozen projects in the pipeline – so it looks like being another prolific year. But it will always be that way, for the ideas never seem to stop coming.
The problem for the writer is how to turn ideas into books. ‘What is most difficult is to strike the right balance. Take the question of child abuse. It is so difficult to stop reactions from getting out of control. To temper caution with sense. If all you say is “Don’t talk to strangers” the most dreadful situation can arise. And it’s sheer nonsense, too. For while the parent is saying “Don’t” they’re probably talking to the bus conductor, or the milkman, or the bank manager. It is a most difficult balance to keep.’ Would she consider tackling that other difficult subject which publishers are struggling with? ‘AIDS. Yes. I shall have to do a book about it. I’m always being asked. Though how to approach it… ? I’ve no idea. How to tell the truth, as far as is possible, and at the same time dispel all the ignorance and the lies, and the myths – and yet make it hopeful. Yes, I shall have to do it … sometime.’
Her answer shows how well she already understands what is involved and when the time comes she is most likely to find the way, to strike the right balance. Meanwhile there is the book she is currently working on, Farm Crops. ‘Did you know,’ she asks, ‘that the majority of red lettuce you find in supermarkets is now grown in this country? The trouble is that, so far, the amount grown far exceeds the demand for it.’ And she’d been to visit a camomile farmer – camomile juice, extracted from the flowers, is sold to make expensive perfume. The juice is so valuable that when some of it splashed on the farmer’s jacket he put the jacket through the extracting process so as not to waste it. Never mind what else might have been extracted along with it!
The anecdotes flow; the listener is interested, entertained and informed. And that is what matters, for, Althea insists, her books are above all intended ‘to be useful’.
Photographs courtesy of Orchard Books.
Althea’s books are too numerous to mention but are published as follows:
Under the Dinosaur imprint from Collins (hbk and pbk):
‘First Books and Stories’ including Cuthbert and Bimbo
‘Talk It Over Series’ including I Have a Mental Handicap
‘Nature Series’ including Growing Plants at Home, and Farm Crops (September 1988)
From Cambridge Books for Children (hbk and pbk):
Information, History and Natural History titles including What is a Union?, Fighting Fires and The Stock Exchange.
From Longman (hbk):
‘Save Our Wildlife Series’ – Gorillas, Leopards, Parrots and Whales, £3.95 each
From Souvenir Press (hbk):
‘The Althea Books’ including Information. Natural History and ‘problems’ titles, £2.50 each
From Orchard Books (hbk):
Hippos at Home, 1 85213 014 8, £5.95
Hippos Go Out, 1 85213 015 6, £5.95 (September 1988)