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. Influences Janet 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 Working Allan 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.
'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
When did you start writing?
I have been writing, for a living, since about 1975 when I was 37 years old. One day Janet (who had already begun to be an illustrator) asked me to write a story for her to illustrate. I’d always wanted to be a writer – since I was about your age – but somehow I’d never been able to get stories finished. But once I started to write it was as though someone had turned a key in my back – it turned out to be the kind of writing I could do.
Where do you get your ideas and inspiration from?
I get my ideas from all the usual places – things I see and hear – things friends tell me – things I read. Sometimes ideas just pop into my head, come down my arm into the pen and onto the paper. In a way, I don’t really want to know where my ideas come from – it would be a bit like taking a watch to pieces in order to find out how it works – only to discover that you can’t get the pieces together again.
How long does each book take?
It can take a long time for a book to be written, illustrated and published. For example, The Jolly Postman took five years. Our daughter, Jessica, was only two years old when she gave us the idea, because she used to play with letters that the postman brought. By the time the book was published, Jessica was seven years old. I can write six to eight books a year if they are short ones – like those in the Funnybones and Happy Families series. If they are longer - novels – then it comes down to one or two. Each Peach Pear Plum took me one day to write, but Janet took six months to do the pictures. We split the money 50:50!
Advice on becoming a successful author or illustrator:
My advice to young writers and young illustrators is simply to write and to illustrate. It’s simple, really... if you want to be a cyclist – you have to ride a bike. If you want the world record for eating pork pies, you have to eat pork pies... But actually, now I think of it, this is more advice for older writers... with younger children it’s different – if you like writing or drawing pictures – then just do it – whenever you feel like it – just for the fun of it. One thing I would suggest is that you keep your stories and pictures – all of them, the good and the not so good – and store them away in a box. When you are older, whether you become a writer or an illustrator or not – I think you will enjoy taking them out and looking at them – and so will your children – and theirs!
Best thing about being an author:
Well, it’s not bad really. I just get up in the morning, go down into my little shed in the garden, sit there on my own and try to write stories. I write them, post them to my publisher, he sends me some money and I go out and spend it. So really I’ve got nothing to complain about. I used to be a teacher – and that was much harder.
If I hadn’t been a writer …
I would have been a footballer if I hadn’t been a writer. In fact, I would have been a footballer if I had been an author if I’d been good enough.
Reading, listening to music and eating and drinking with my family and friends. Doing a bit of ponderous running and walrus-like swimming from time to time – talking to the cat – and going to the movies.