The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 11, No 1 (2007)

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A Curious Mix: The Books of Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Tamsin Shute


Tamsin Shute received her BA in Film and Media Studies from the University of Alberta and loves Canadian cinema, 1950s melodramas and Hitchcock. Earlier this year she completed her MLIS at SLAIS and is currently working as a Children's Librarian for both Vancouver Public Library and Richmond Public Library. Despite what she claims is a lack in natural musical abilities, she is learning to play the ukulele. Growing up in her parents' publishing house, Tree Frog Press, Tamsin was literally surrounded by children's literature since her "jolly jumper days". As a child her favourite book was Each Peach Pear Plum.


As the rains and dull grey skies replace our sunny early autumn I was drawn to the cozy memories of sharing the books of the Ahlbergs with my children. With a new grandson in the family I look forward to sharing their dear books with a new generation as their good books have joined a bookshelf of classics for the very young.
(A note from Kathryn Shoemaker, column editor for Picture Window)

Janet and Allan Ahlberg, British husband and wife team, illustrated and wrote rich, multi-layered stories in which the text and illustrations interweave and complement each other. Their humorous stories playfully engage readers by borrowing characters and structures from traditional children's stories. The books in themselves are works of art: from cover to cover the illustrations add details to the stories, which can be appreciated by children and adults alike. Many of the Ahlbergs' books fall into one of two categories: the fairytale-inspired and the baby's day stories. By looking at three from each category, one can derive a sense of their common characteristics, motifs, themes and techniques present throughout their works and how they contribute to make the Ahlbergs' stories so appealing, popular and enduring.

The fairytale-inspired stories (Each Peach Pear Plum, Jeremiah in the Dark Woods, and The Jolly Postman) use traditional characters recognizable to adults and children familiar with classic tales and nursery rhymes. The use of built-in characterizations and histories allows the Ahlbergs to add depth to the story without needing to spend any time introducing the characters or creating background information. In Each Peach Pear Plum, one meets Tom Thumb, Mother Hubbard, Cinderella, the Three Bears and more. In The Jolly Postman, previous knowledge of the characters is essential for understanding the book's wit. For instance, Goldilocks' letter to the three bears is rich in humour which would be lost without previous knowledge: "Mummy says I am a bad girl. I hardly eat any porij when she cooks it she says." If a child has not yet learned about the characters, reading about them in the book allows for a valuable learning experience in which parents can pass on the traditional stories and rhymes. Jeremiah in the Dark Woods has a wider range of familiar characters such as the Mad Hatter, frog prince, sleeping beauties and the crocodile with a clock in it. Jeremiah also meets the Three Bears (the only characters to appear in all three of the selected books), as well as a steamboat, five gangster gorillas, firemen on a fire truck, and a dinosaur. By using characters from such a variety of non-related sources, the Ahlbergs create a hilarious and preposterous story.

The characters in the baby's day books (The Baby's Catalogue, Bye Bye Baby and Peepo!) are made up of stock family characters. No one is known by a name other than Baby, Mummy, Daddy, Grandma, Sister or Old Uncle. Bye Bye Baby uses the stock names most cleverly. Even though readers get to know the little baby quite well throughout the story, there is no attempt to give him or any of the other characters names, a practice which has amusing repetitive results: " 'I am a little baby,' said the little baby." The stock characters allow young readers to identify with characters who are also present in their own homes and lives. Babies can recognize aspects of their worlds in these books and, as they get older, they will be able to recognize aspects of the literary and fairytale world.

Each story has a journey in which the main character goes through a day, encounters new people and situations, but in the end winds up safely at home. This journey theme is most clearly found in Jeremiah in the Dark Woods in which he must go on a quest to find the tart thief and in Bye Bye Baby which sees the baby going off in a slow, but steady search of a mummy. The journey is a bit closer to home in Each Peach Pear Plum and The Jolly Postman. In the former, Baby Bunting goes on a trip down the river (caused by a stray bullet from Baby Bear's gun), the story of which is told through illustrations. Though we see all types of characters who also encounter interesting situations, it is only when Baby Bunting is brought home that the story is complete. In The Jolly Postman, the journey is essentially the postal route in which readers follow the postman completing his route and having different adventures before he goes home for tea. In the last two books, the journey element is a day in the life of a baby. For a baby, each day is a new, exciting, unpredictable place where strangers and the familiar intertwine. The babies in Peepo! and The Baby's Catalogue all end up warm and snug in bed after their day of adventure.

One of the unique aspects of the Ahlbergs' works is that the words and illustrations do not convey a universality of place and time which is often present in other picture books. British language is used ("prams," "nappies," "dustbins") and many of the illustrations are unique to or representative of British culture. The Ahlbergs celebrate the ordinary and use the objects of their lives as detailed aspects of their stories. Safety pins, clocks, brooms and knickknacks on the windowsill are to be expected when looking in the homes of the characters. Also frequently are either toy or live animals: most frequently chickens, dogs, cats, bunnies, ducks and birds—animals which are fairly universal, but also very much part of the daily life of children in the British countryside. Throughout their works, certain household motifs are prominently present throughout their works, such as mirrors, laundry and tea.

Mirrors are fascinating for a baby because they reflect a whole new world which looks surprisingly like the one she already knows. The mystery of the looking glass is not only highly entertaining for wee ones, but is important in a child's development, for it plays a role in the baby becoming able to recognize herself as being the reflected baby. In Peepo!, Allan writes: "He sees the landing mirror/ With its rainbow rim/ And a mother with a baby/ Just like him." The baby has not yet learned that the familiar strangers in the mirror are actually reflections. Janet's illustrations are rich with images of the mirror, which act as novelties for babies and for providing a new way of looking at things for older children and adults. The importance of the mirror in a baby's life is emphasized in The Baby's Catalogue, in which "Mirrors" is a category in the contents of the babies' lives. Mirrors also offer insight to areas outside of the illustration's frame, such as in Bye Bye Baby, in which one can see the bathroom door with a robe on it reflected in the mirror, or in Jeremiah in the Dark Woods where the crocodile's mirror takes up most of the page and all of the action thereon is shown in reflection.

Laundry is a never-ending presence in a family's life which parents expect and children recognize. In Each Peach Pear Plum and The Jolly Postman, there are images of clotheslines in the distance. The sad cover image on Bye Bye Baby shows the baby having to hang his laundry on the line all by himself. Not only is there an image of a clothesline on the "Contents" page in The Baby's Catalogue but there are also images of nappies on the clotheslines and of the washing hanging in the garden. The most vivid images of the laundry are in Peepo! which finds the Grandma frequently pictured, hanging ironing while surrounded by laundry. Tea, of course, is highly associated with British culture. In every book, the images of teacups and teapots are ubiquitous. Tea represents happy endings and notions of comfort. For instance, on the last page of Each Peach Pear Plum the adult women drink tea; in Bye Bye Baby the mummy and old uncle have tea to relax; and in Peepo! and The Baby's Catalogue, tea is pictured in warm, family images. The Jolly Postman has the most references to tea; not only does the postman drink tea at every house he stops at (except the Wicked Witch's house where it is green), but at the end of the day he goes home for tea.

The illustrations in the Ahlbergs' works succeed at both piquing and satisfying a child's natural curiosity, and creating anticipation from page to page. Also, the illustrations often give readers the character's perspectives to intensify the voyeuristic sense of curiosity. In Each Peach Pear Plum, the child's-eye view is emphasized in the text in that "I spy" is echoed throughout. The notion of spying on other characters is enticing for young readers who get to spot characters hidden on the page before the one on which they are prominently featured. Curiosity is also a main theme in The Baby's Catalogue as readers are given a glimpse into the lives of five families' public and private moments that encompass giggles and tears alike. Readers are given the opportunity to do a little "I spy" work in this book, as well, by piecing together the babies' lives and family members through snapshots of intimate moments. We see the babies' perspectives on the "Mirrors" page where instead of seeing each baby in front of a mirror, we see only the reflection each baby would see. In Bye Bye Baby, the baby's point of view is reinforced in the text in that the naïve viewpoint and repetitive structure of the language gives the readers a sense that the baby's cognitive processing abilities are still developing. The baby's viewpoint in Peepo! is also told through the text, which is based on "What does he see?" Not only do we share the baby's perspective in the rainbow- rimmed mirror, but we also get to play peek-a-boo alongside the baby by means of holes cut out of every second page. The holes create the curiosity and anticipation of the private image waiting to be revealed. Also, the illustrations of the family's house often have open doors, cupboards and closets in the background, allowing us a peek into other areas of their lives. This open-door technique is also done quite well in The Jolly Postman where we can see past "Grandma" (who is really the big bad wolf) into her bedroom. Also, the appeal of looking through other people's letters excites the voyeur in every reader who revels in being allowed to invade the privacy of others to learn a little bit more about their lives. Part of a child's development is to go beyond being focused only on oneself and to shift the focus to others in order to develop feelings of empathy and understanding. The Ahlbergs seem to acknowledge this stage and encourage natural curiosity by allowing readers access to intimate moments.

Allan's writing is simple, yet rich, and is easy to read aloud. The language structure borrows from traditional children's tales with rhyming prose as in Peepo!, The Jolly Postman and Each Peach Pear Plum; and Bye Bye Baby uses a repetitive narrative structure throughout the baby's quest to find a mummy. Only when this structure is broken will the baby find his mummy. Bye Bye Baby also begins with the fairytale beginning "There was once a baby..." evoking similar associations to the fairytales as do The Jolly Postman's introductory lines "Once upon a bicycle ... from over the hills and far away." Jeremiah in the Dark Woods has the most identifiably borrowed opening in that the story begins with "Once upon a time." Also, Jeremiah's full name, Jeremiah Obadiah Jackenory Jones, lends itself to the absurdity and hyperbole of tall tales. The Baby's Catalogue also borrows an established structure, literally from a catalogue. The contents pages, headings and subheadings give an official tone emphasizing the importance and validity of the parts of a baby's day. By using such recognizably established structures, the Ahlbergs not only pay homage to other forms of literature, but also create a playful atmosphere. By not spending time creating new structures, they can modify existing ones for more creative and humorous results.

In stories borrowing so much from traditional texts, the abundance of intertextuality comes at no surprise. Texts from outside the sphere of the story are illustrated and referred to within the story. In Peepo!, a Mickey Mouse comic book is clearly visible in a box on the kitchen floor. Mickey Mouse would have been a popular comic strip during the 1940s, the time period in which the story takes place. Mickey has the stylized look of how he was drawn at that time. Though text of Peepo! never reveals the time period of its story, the illustrations do so through drawings of a gas mask, buildings bombed in the Blitz, and clues such as the Mickey comic. Jeremiah in the Dark Woods features another old comic, Krazy Kat, which is not only is pictured and discussed in the text, but is also quoted at the beginning of the book. The references act as a signifier of nostalgia and give a nod to the enduring quality of past texts.

In Bye Bye Baby the intertextuality is more subtle. Readers cannot make out the title of the Old Uncle's book, but they can tell that the book was published by Penguin. The indication of the publisher brings about an awareness of books as a contrived form: something which has been created by someone. Children often have not learned the process of publishing books, so the presence of the Penguin logo opens up room for discussion about how a book is made. The Baby's Catalogue has a number of references to books with recognizable pictures and covers such as the Motor Engines book. As a detail for parents, a father holding a crying baby is pictured reading a book by Hugh Jolly, a doctor who writes about child care. Also, The Baby's Catalogue contains a couple of references to the Ahlbergs' own work; under the "Games" heading, Peepo! is listed and in the "Books" category a family is cleverly pictured reading a copy of The Baby's Catalogue. Parents reading this book to their children can flip back to the cover to show that the baby in the book is just like the baby reading it because they are looking at the same book. This visual game is helpful for relating a potentially abstract concept back to the baby's world and understanding. When the young reader makes the connection between herself and the baby in the book, she will understand that she can also relate to other pictures in the book.

The Jolly Postman is a book about intertextuality. All of the letters within the book are texts unto themselves, rich with literary references. The letters act as humorous follow-ups to fairytales, such as what happens after Cinderella gets back from her honeymoon. Cinderella's story seems to be a sensational media story: the paper the Postman reads at the Wicked Witch's house has the honeymooners on the front cover. As a celebration for the wedding, "Peter Piper Press" publishes Cinderella's condensed story, which readers can actually take out of the envelope and read. The little book within the book is a clever feature that helps engage readers in a new way. By including other texts within the stories, the Ahlbergs are able to ground their works in reality by adding realistic elements in the case of the baby's day stories and give added layers and background to the fairytale- inspired books. While the Ahlbergs borrow many traditional stories and concepts, they have modern views when it comes to men and women's roles. The illustrations are careful to depict both men and women equally engaging in family tasks, including those traditionally associated with women. In Peepo! the daddy is pictured bathing the baby, contributing to chores and making tea while mummy rests. The Baby's Catalogue has similar images, such as daddy changing the baby and doing laundry, while mummy goes off to work. The Ahlbergs even break some of the boundaries of gender roles of the fairytale characters. Usually in fairytales the witch is considered evil or mischievous and her downfall is the key to the protagonist's success. At the end of Each Peach Pear Plum the Wicked Witch shares a cup of tea and some pie with all the other characters, instead of being banished or killed. In The Jolly Postman, Papa Bear wears the apron and cooks while Mama Bear reads their letter. Jeremiah's Grandma in Jeremiah in the Dark Woods is renowned in the Dark Forest for her cleverness and her strength; even the Wolf has heard of her and respects her. Instead of trying to rewrite traditional stories to reflect current views, they simply borrow from the past, and extend and enrich those stories. Sadly, Janet passed away in 1994. Though Allan has a successful solo career, the stories they created together are so rich and filled with love and respect for their readers that it is a shame there will never be any more. Janet and Allan Ahlberg's work continues to be popular to this day, however, thanks to Allan's simple yet clever prose and Janet's detailed and expressive artwork and the way their efforts beautifully interweave. The themes of curiosity and perspective, the British motifs and the intertextuality represented throughout their texts create a specific Ahlberg atmosphere. By mixing fairytales with the ordinary, the Ahlbergs created worlds both extraordinary and recognizable.

 

Books Discussed

Ahlberg, Janet and Allan Ahlberg. The Baby's Catalogue. Harmondsworth: Kestrel Books, 1982.

Ahlberg, Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Bye Bye Baby. London: Heinemann, 1989.

Ahlberg, Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Each Peach Pear Plum. Harmondsworth: Viking Kestrel, 1978.

Ahlberg, Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Jeremiah in the Dark Woods. Harmondsworth: Kestrel Books, 1977.

Ahlberg, Janet and Allan Ahlberg. The Jolly Postman. London: Heinemann, 1986.

Ahlberg, Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Peepo! Harmondsworth: Viking Kestrel, 1981.

Tamsin Shute


Volume 11, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2 January, 2007

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"A Curious Mix: The Books of Janet and Allan Ahlberg"
© Tamsin Shute, 2007.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680