Despite some 140 children’s books and more to his name, Allan Ahlberg, a British writer is not perhaps as well known here as his talents warrant. It is quite remarkable when you think about it: how does such a damp island with grey overcast skies produce so many dry-witted people with such sunny good humor?
Allan Ahlberg was born June 5, 1938, and raised in England’s Black Country, the area north and west of Birmingham, so called, depending on your choice, either for its rich coal resources or for the smoke and smog prevalent in the area owing to its being an early location of industrialization in the 1800s, an early prototype of William Blake’s dark Satanic Mills.
Ahlberg was adopted and grew up in a working class family in very straightened circumstances. In his early years he had a variety of jobs including mailman, grave-digger, soldier, and plumber’s mate. He attended Sunderland College of Education to earn his teaching degree. It was while attending Sunderland that he met his future wife, Janet Hall. After graduating and marrying, Ahlberg did become a teacher for a number of years, stockpiling experiences that inform a good number of his stories and poems. Janet decided that classroom management was not her cup of tea and, instead, undertook studies in art and pursued a career in illustration.
Janet wanted a story to illustrate and it was at her prompting that Allan wrote his first tale, turning on a tap that has flowed continuously since then. He has been a fulltime author since 1975. Janet and Allan wrote thirty-seven stories together in a style noted for the close integration between text and illustrations. Having turned on the tap, Allan’s volume of writing was so great that he also worked with numerous other illustrators in those years.
In 1980, the Ahlberg’s daughter, Jessica, was born, providing further inspiration and material for incorporation into the flow of tales. Sadly, Janet Ahlberg died of cancer in 1994. Allan has continued writing for children working with a wide range of illustrators including his daughter who has taken to the arts as well.
Ahlberg’s books have received much attention in Britain and many awards. While he has ventured as far up the ladder as Young Adult, the preponderance of his stories are picture books for young children and stories for independent readers. His style is most notable for generally positive, cheery stories without a trace of saccharine and for taking an odd perspective or having a twist that makes you think about something in a different way than you are accustomed to.
One thing to note is that, thankfully from my perspective, Ahlberg’s stories are not “translated” from English to American idiom as some author’s have been. Consequently you will come across “lorry” for truck, a “plimsol” for a tennis shoe, “bin” for trash can and similar phrases. I think this is actually a valuable exercise for expanding children’s vocabulary as well as planting early the idea that things are not the same everywhere. Beyond language terms, there are also differences in cultural references. In England, schools, both public and private, used corporal punishment up into the sixties at least. So the reference to a cane or caning as a school punishment is still a very familiar one in England in a way that is not the case in America.
I happened to be living in England in the mid to late sixties and attended the local state school. I well recall the awe and fear established amongst the student body (this was essentially an elementary school going up to perhaps fifth grade) by the existence in Mr. Grey’s office (the Principal) of a dreaded Plimsol which was used instead of a cane. Monthly, we had to go in groups of four or five and read to Mr. Grey to demonstrate our reading comprehension and we would march in and line up in front of his desk. It was so terribly difficult not to glance backwards and stare at the lower cupboard door behind which, according to school lore, Mr. Grey kept The Plimsol. I never saw The Plimsol though my best friend testified to having been paddled by it for some infraction or other. Whether it was just talk or if The Plimsol even existed, I cannot testify. I do know that the idea of it was very effective in maintaining discipline.
While our children have especially enjoyed Allen Ahlberg’s books from Each Peach Pear Plum, a picture book for the very young, to Woof!, a fantasy story for independent readers, I have particularly enjoyed his poetry. I think the following poem from Please Mrs. Butler, captures his style of writing well: the story hung upon a few well chosen concrete observations, a deep understanding of the child’s world view, the spry humor, the little twist.
Please Mrs. Butler
had some thin springy sticks
for making kites.
of the old days, he said;
and swished one.
near his desk laughed nervously,
and pushed closer.
A cheeky girl
held out her cheeky hand.
Go on, Sir!
said her friends.
Give her the stick, she’s always
paused, and then did as he was told.
Just a tap.
We’re going to tell on you,
The children said.
left their seats and crowded around
the teacher’s desk.
went out. Making kites was soon
My turn next!
He’s had one go already!
That’s not fair!
Soon the teacher,
to save himself from the crush,
called a halt.
either that or use the cane
the children did as they were told
and sat down.
If you behave
yourselves, the teacher said,
I’ll cane you later.
From another collection of his poetry, Heard it in the Playground, is this poem that I cannot help but add given that we had our own Billy McBone in the house to whom this was recited reprovingly for a number of years. Whenever he absent mindedly neglected some blindingly obvious task, this unnamed son was addressed as Billy McBone to alert him to the fact that he had overlooked something critical, perhaps not having on shoes as he went out the door to go to school, perhaps heading out to play tennis with a friend but without his tennis racket. Hearing the tales Sally tells from her scout troop, I know there are still lots of Billy McBones out there – perhaps you have one of your own.
Heard it in the Playground
had a mind of his own,
which he mostly kept under his hat.
The teachers all thought
that he couldn't be taught,
but Bill didn't seem to mind that.
had a mind of his own,
which the teachers had searched for for years.
Trying test after test,
they still never guessed
it was hidden between his ears.
had a mind of his own,
which only his friends ever saw.
When the teacher said, 'Bill,
whereabouts is Brazil?'
He just shuffled and stared at the floor.
had a mind of his own,
which he kept under lock and key.
While the teachers in vain
tried to burgle his brain,
Bill's thoughts were off wandering free.
Unfortunately many of my favorite Ahlberg books, notably his poetry collections, are not in print in the US but there are some good ones here. I hope you will try some of his works. I think you will find his writing refreshing and charming and, more critically, that your children will enjoy them.
Half a Pig by Allan Ahlberg and illustrated by Jessica Ahlberg
Peek-a-Boo by Allan Ahlberg and illustrated by Janet Ahlberg
Previously by Allan Ahlberg and illustrated by Bruce Ingman
The Runaway Dinner by Allan Ahlberg and illustrated by Bruce Ingman (not to be read in conjunction with the Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown)