It is eight years since the last title appeared in the hugely successful ‘Happy Families’ series. With a staggering 2½ million copies sold in the UK since 1980, the series is therefore a piece of publishing worthy of further investigation. We asked Jeff Hynds to take a look at
Master Allan the Ahlberg
I’ve just read all eighteen titles in the ‘Happy Families’ series. Even though I’d read most of them before, I nevertheless had a good laugh and really enjoyed myself. Such a variety of characters and ingenious situations! One moment I found myself chortling at the hilarious Brick family, builders for generations, with famous ancestors like Archimedes Brick and Isambard Kingdom Brick. The next minute I savoured the elaborate subterfuge played on the visiting inspector by the Tick family, thereby saving their school. (OFSTED foiled again!) As I read on I continued to be diverted by extended jokes and unlikely tales about beekeeping, kidnapping and sailing the seven seas.
But something else was running through my head. There was a strange familiarity about these unnaturally short lines of print, this rather stilted and repetitive style, the sparseness of the language. What did it remind me of? Something I’d recently read, was it? Then I realised. Not long ago I had been going through a reading scheme. (I will not name it but it was one of the six or seven new schemes which have lately hit the market.) This too had short lines of print, and was similarly stilted, repetitive and sparse, not to say denuded. But in this case I hadn’t enjoyed it at all. I hadn’t felt a bit like laughing. In fact, tears would have been more appropriate as I thought of the children who might be unfortunate enough to meet this pathetic stuff.
I was really quite surprised at my different reactions. How was it that Allan Ahlberg could write books like those in reading schemes and yet, unlike the schemes, be so entertaining? The answer, of course, is not far to seek and I expect has been obvious to everyone (except me) for years. For this is Ahlberg in satiric vein – Ahlberg the arch-parodist. You have only to recall his poems, years ago, in Please Mrs Butler (‘Slow Reader’, ‘Reading Test’) to realise that he regards, quite rightly, the flummery surrounding ‘the teaching of reading’ as a suitable case for treatment. ‘Happy Families’ is not a reading scheme but a wonderful parody of one.
The first batch of eleven titles, inspired originally by the characters in the well-known card game, appeared in 1980-81. A further five were brought out in 1988. Now, eight years later, a further two titles have been published, and two more are projected for next year, thus making twenty in total. In all these books, as is the way with parodists, Ahlberg caricatures by means of exaggeration. He is, for example, adept at using the jerky language of reading schemes for comic effect:
Now Mr and Mrs Hay
had not always been a horse.
When they first met,
Mr Hay was a tree,
and Mrs Hay a chicken.
But soon they fell in love,
got married –
and bought a horse-suit
He pokes fun, equally amusingly, at the over-use of repetition so common in schemes. When a ransom is paid for Master Money’s safe return, the kidnapper Mr Creep crept out, crept up and crept off with it!
But of course the books have other, even stronger qualities than these. Not least is the consistently excellent interplay, as in all true picture books, between text and illustration, notwithstanding the fact that the series has already had eight different, though first rate, illustrators. Quite often, as in Mrs Jolly’s Joke Shop, the illustrations carry much of the narrative. At other times they cleverly act as a commentary on the text as in Mr Biff the Boxer.
There are puns and bad jokes galore. Strange how we groan but enjoy them. Afters years of acting as delivery boy at the bakery, Master Bun finds himself ‘browned off with bread’. Later, his father is pleased to find him ‘using his loaf’. Mrs Lather, irritated by the demands made on her by socks, vests, shirts and the like, feels compelled to put up a notice: WE WASH ANYTHING EXCEPT LAUNDRY. All in all, considering the way these books work, it is evident that they require a particular kind of sophistication, even adult sophistication, to appreciate them fully. To the uninitiated they might seem like simple stories in simple language, but those who think like this are missing the parody and underestimating the linguistic tricks that Ahlberg plays continuously on his readers. To some extent, this sophistication has increased with each wave of the stories. One of his latest, Mrs Vole the Vet, is a quite complex interweaving of the themes of divorce, work and family responsibility. But it still retains the verbal ironies. As Mrs Vole laboriously climbs the stairs to visit her new lighthouse-keeper boyfriend, she thinks ‘What’s a few steps between friends’. Miss Dirt the Dustman’s Daughter, another recent addition, is reminiscent of the classic poor little rich girl. Just to complicate matters, however, she is also a rich little poor girl! Her life is, as she observes, in a whirl. Rushing from mother to father and back again, she never knows if ‘she’s coming or going’. With all the ‘Happy Families’ series, it’s a bit like this for readers too! Like Miss Dirt, you need your wits about you all the time.
A reviewer has called these books ‘miniature masterpieces’. I agree. However, there is something with which I cannot agree on page 21 of the current Puffin (1996) catalogue. Here the ‘Happy Families’ series is judged to be suitable for five-year-olds, and described as ‘perfect for bridging the gap between picture books and early reading books’ (sic!). Apart from the fact that this begs so many questions about reading that I would hardly know where to begin (e.g. what ‘gap’ are we talking about?), this well and truly underestimates the creative talents of Allan Ahlberg and the illustrators he worked with. I hope Puffin will not mind if I suggest an alternative description:
While five-year-olds, and perhaps even younger children, will enjoy some aspects of these stories, they are particularly appropriate for older, more sophisticated readers who enjoy double meanings, innuendoes, and wry commentary on the ups and downs of life. Or, to put it another way, nudge, nudge, wink wink, say no more.
Jeff Hynds has run Reading and Writing Roadshows for some years. They’ve now been attended by over 20,000 teachers. More recently he’s formed a book-supplying organization known as Jeff Hynds Books, which aims to select and categorize only the very best children’s books that help with the teaching of reading and writing. If you’d like to organise a Roadshow in your area, or would like to know more about Jeff Hynds Books, write to 6 Alexandra Road, Biggin Hill, Kent TN16 3NY or fax 01959 540162.
The ‘Happy Families’ series by Allan Ahlberg is published by Viking in hardback at £6.99 each and by Puffin in paperback at £3.25 each (recent titles £3.50 each).
Published in 1980:
Mr Biff the Boxer, ill. Janet Ahlberg, 0 670 80574 2 hbk, 0 14 031236 6 pbk
Mr Cosmo the Conjuror, ill. Joe Wright, 0 670 80575 0 hbk, 0 14 031237 4 pbk
Mrs Plug the Plumber, ill. Joe Wright, 0 670 80576 9 hbk, 0 14 031238 2 pbk
Master Salt the Sailors’ Son, ill. André Amstutz, 0 670 80578 5 hbk, 0 14 031240 4 pbk
Miss Jump the Jockey, ill. André Amstutz, 0 670 80579 3 hbk, 0 14 031241 2 pbk
Mr Tick the Teacher, ill. Faith Jaques, 0 670 80583 1 hbk, 0 14 031245 5 pbk
Published in 1981:
Miss Brick the Builders’ Baby, ill. Colin McNaughton, 0 670 80580 7 hbk, 0 14 031242 0 pbk
Mrs Lather’s Laundry, ill. André Amstutz, 0 670 80581 5 hbk, 0 14 031243 9 pbk
Mr Buzz the Beeman, ill. Faith Jaques, 0 670 80582 3 hbk, 0 14 031244 7 pbk
Master Money the Millionaire, ill. André Amstutz, 0 670 80584 X hbk, 0 14 031246 3 pbk
Mr and Mrs Hay the Horse, ill. Colin McNaughton, 0 670 80573 4 hbk, 0 14 031247 1 pbk
Published in 1988:
Mrs Wobble the Waitress, ill. Janet Ahlberg, 0 670 80577 7 hbk, 0 14 031239 0 pbk
Master Bun the Bakers’ Boy, ill. Fritz Wegner, 0 670 81690 6 hbk, 0 14 032344 9 pbk
Mr Creep the Crook, ill. André Amstutz, 0 670 81691 4 hbk, 0 14 032345 7 pbk
Miss Dose the Doctors’ Daughter, ill. Faith Jaques, 0 670 81692 2 hbk, 0 14 032346 5 pbk
Mrs Jolly’s Joke Shop, ill. Colin McNaughton, 0 670 81693 0 hbk, 0 14 032347 3 pbk
Published in 1996:
Mrs Vole the Vet, ill. Emma Chichester Clark, 0 670 86592 3 hbk, 0 14 037880 4 pbk
Miss Dirt the Dustman’s Daughter, ill. Tony Ross, 0 670 86594 X hbk, 0 14 037882 0 pbk
Master Track’s Train
Ms Cliff the Climber