In the early 1960s, Allan studied teacher training in Sunderland, where he also met Janet, his future wife. He had tackled a wide variety of jobs, ranging from postman to plumber’s mate before working as a primary teacher for ten years. Janet, however, discovering that she ‘couldn’t do the policing job’, went on to study graphic design, which led her to her vocation as an illustrator.
Several years later, bored with her then current job, and desperate for a creative opening, Janet asked Allan to write a children’s book for her to illustrate. Allan, having always wanted to write but being unable to find his niche, suddenly felt ‘as though [he] was a clockwork toy and she had turned the key’. So began the career which would later lead them to become one of Britain’s most successful author/illustrator teams, producing ingenious books of the highest quality.
Influenced by comics and cartoons, their perfect partnership went on to produce masterpieces including PEEPO!, which reflected Allan’s childhood (‘I am the Peepo! baby.’), EACH PEACH PEAR PLUM and THE BABY’S CATALOGUE. These books have all become children’s classics, with their ‘rhythmic prose, their mix of dottiness and sentiment appealing both to young children and to the parents who read them aloud’ (Louette Harding, The Daily Mail).
Working together, they saw their books as more than simply the combination of words and pictures – rather, a whole package which worked as a unity: ‘the tale is not in the typescript or in the pictures but in a way the two go together, a marriage of words and pictures’. Striving for perfection, their main aim was ‘to produce William Morris books at Penguin prices.’
Allan’s writing took less time than Janet’s illustration, so he also collaborated with other illustrators, such as Fritz Wegner, Andre Amstutz, Colin McNaughton, Faith Jaques, Joe Wright and Emma Chichester Clarke, thus creating the bestselling Happy Families series, which have been called ‘miniature masterpieces’. The series has sold in excess of 2.6 million copies since its launch in 1980.
1980 also saw the birth of their daughter, Jessica who was a great inspiration to their work.
Allan also went on to write a range of fiction titles for older children, including WOOF!, THE BEAR NOBODY WANTED, THE GIANT BABY and THE BETTER BROWN STORIES. He is also much loved by teachers throughout the country for his two phenomenally successful poetry collections, HEARD IT IN THE PLAYGROUND and PLEASE, MRS BUTLER, which look at the funny side of life at school.
Since Janet’s sadly premature death in 1994, Allan has continued to work, recently producing his beautiful tribute to her, JANET’S LAST BOOK, and continues to create wonderful books for children of all ages.
In April 1998, Allan moved to London.
The Story of Janet and Allan Ahlberg
Allan Ahlberg was born in Croydon in 1938, but grew up in Oldbury, near Birmingham. From the age of twelve, his dream was to be a writer. Before he fulfilled his ambition, he tried his hand at a variety of other jobs including postman, grave digger, plumber’s mate and teacher.
Janet Hall was born in 1944 and spent her childhood years in Leicester. She went to Sunderland to train to be a teacher. Allan Ahlberg had enrolled on the same course.
They married in 1969. Janet decided against teaching as a career and turned instead to graphic design. While Allan worked full time as a teacher, Janet’s first work was published. She began urging Allan to write a text for her to illustrate. Hard though it is to believe, their submissions to publishers were met with rejection slips. Then, in one week, Penguin took The Old Joke Book, A & C Black took The Vanishment of Thomas Tull and Heinemann took Burglar Bill. The Ahlbergs had arrived and there would be no looking back. In 1978, Janet’s artwork for Each Peach Pear Plum won her the Kate Greenaway Medal. The following year there were celebrations for an altogether different reason — the Ahlbergs’ daughter, Jessica, was born.
By the 1980s, the Ahlbergs were big news, not just in Britain but all around the world. Their books were translated into twenty-one languages – from Catalan to Finnish; from Hebrew to Japanese. But it was The Jolly Postman, published in 1986, that brought Janet and Allan their greatest success. The book was five years in the making but the effort paid off with awards, including the Kate Greenaway Medal and the Emil/Kurt Maschler Award, and sales of over five Million copies worldwide for The Jolly Postman and its successors, The Jolly Christmas Postman and The Jolly Pocket Postman.
InfluencesJanet and Allan Ahlberg fashioned their books from familiar ingredients: from folk and nursery tales; from the surrounding and activities of family life; from their own memories. Both Janet and Allan retained strong memories of growing up during the 1940’s and 1950’s. The affectionate references to that era in books like Peepo! And The Bear Nobody Wanted were not simply drawn from memory but meticulously researched. Janet Ahlberg was a collector of artefacts, from paintings to teapots to mechanical toys. As children, both Janet and Allan loved reading comics. Janet’s favourite books included Rupert Bear, Winnie the Pooh and The Famous Five. Books were more of a rarity in Allan’s childhood, although he does remember one very special story, The Bear Nobody Wanted!
Allan’s stories and Janet’s pictures demonstrate their ability to view the world through a child’s eyes. In Allan’s case, this perspective was sharpened by his years as a teacher. The couple’s daughter, Jessica, helped to inspire some of the Ahlbergs’ most successful books. Her passion for the Mothercare catalogue was one of the seeds for The Baby’s Catalogue. A few years later, Allan watched a slightly older Jessica play with a stack of envelopes and he began to evolve The Jolly Postman.
A Special Way of WorkingAllan once joked that it took him a day to do the words for a book and Janet six months to do the pictures, but this is to diminish the extent of his involvement. Generally, the initial idea for a book would be his, but he would quickly begin the process of ‘playing table tennis’ with Janet.
Often, Allan would pass visual suggestions and pictorial jokes on to Janet. Sometimes, he would provide her with a complete layout. Then it was Janet’s turn to assess the book in its entirety; the balance and rhythm of words and pictures, pages and spreads. Janet would then produce detailed layouts and dummies to prove to herself, Allan and their publishers that the idea worked. Janet also often undertook detailed research for her illustrations. This might involve visiting a school to sketch children for Starting School, taking photographs for landscapes for Bye Bye Baby or referring to a 1939 Army and Navy Stores’ catalogue for Peepo!
Allan once said that ‘it is vital to be aware of the book as a physical, bound object – that you hold, with pages that turn’. Both he and Janet remained involved throughout the publishing process – overseeing everything from type size and binding through to cover layout and paper quality. The result of their involvement is books that really work for their intended audience in every way.
What Makes Janet and Allan Ahlberg So Special?Janet and Allan Ahlberg are two of the most important names in children’s publishing.
‘The Ahlbergs belong with A. A. Milne and Lewis Caroll, to the greatest tradition of British children’s books, having the kind of genius that can dominate an era’ – Sunday Times