Allan Ahlberg is a world-famous children’s writer. He has published over 100 books for children, including such award-winning titles as Each Peach Pear Plum, Burglar Bill, Peepo and The Jolly Postman, and has also written prize-winning poetry and fiction. Bruce Ingman published his first book, When Martha’s Away, in 1995. It went on to win the prestigious Mother Goose Award for Best British Newcomer to Children’s Picture Books and was the overall winner of the V&A Illustration Award 1996. Since then, Bruce has written several more books and for the past twelve years he has collaborated with Allan producing, among others, The Runaway Dinner and The Pencil.
Their latest title, My Worst Book Ever, is published by Thames and Hudson, and playfully tells the story of an author who faces an array of obstacles to getting his story published exactly as he’d like it. We spoke to them about their collaborative relationship, to Bruce about colour and the creative process and to Allan about what you learn when you’ve been writing extremely popular children’s books for over 40 years.
2018 is a very big year for both of you, the 12th anniversary of your collaborative work, how does is feel?
BRUCE: It feels like no time at all and a lifetime. Time is funny like that. The Pencil still feels young yet 10 years feels like a lovely achievement. My son turned 12 this month and for him 12 is major. So yes, in our house, 12 is a big number!
What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt about writing children’s books?
ALLAN: This is a difficult question. What I may possibly have learnt, or discovered, or maybe I knew it already, is that work is a good thing. At the age of 35 or thereabouts I discovered I could write. It was something I could do and wanted to do. No holidays required! And now a few more years down the road, fortunately for me, this is still the case.
How did you first meet and decide to work together?
ALLAN: (Dear Bruce) I seem to remember it was David (Lloyd, our Walker Books editor) who brought us together – it was David’s idea. Yes, his fault entirely.
BRUCE: I remember Walker sending me all of Allan’s books with the manuscript of The Runaway Dinner to see if I liked it and of course I loved it. Yes, David was the orchestra conductor.
Why do you think your collaboration is so successful?
ALLAN: I’m not so sure it is that successful, but I love it especially . . . The Runaway Dinner, Previously, The Pencil, Everybody was a Baby Once, Hooray for Bread…
BRUCE: I think we work well together because we share the same sense of the absurd. I remember Allan interrupting an intense conversation we were having to say, “Do you realise we are two grown men talking about which way a sausage should be running away!” Also, Allan has a great visual sense, a good eye. I’m lucky he thinks he can’t draw that well.
Can you tell us about what sparked the idea for My Worst Book Ever? Did it come fully formed or was it a gradual process?
ALLAN: It was a gradual process. It started fairly badly and slowly got worse until it became one of my worst books, then one of my bottom three worst books, until finally – Hooray (Boo!) – it achieved the pinnacle (nadir): My Worst Book Ever.
BRUCE: The idea was all Allan’s. What did he expect with a title like that? We certainly got a rollercoaster of a ride. It’s lucky I love drawing, and rollercoasters. But until the finished book was in my hands I never believed I’d see it published!
Do you have a favourite page or illustration in the book?
ALLAN: I have a favourite page more or less in the middle where – in big writing – it says (spoiler alert!) THE END. I like the idea of reaching the end of a book when you are hardly halfway through.
BRUCE: I do like the picture of Allan leaning back in his chair in his shed smiling benignly when above is a thought bubble of the crocodile about to come into the room; Mrs Brown is singing to the baby and the crocodile is possibly going to eat them alive! To think Allan can have those thoughts!
Bruce, can you talk about how you decided to use colour in My Worst Book Ever?
BRUCE: I thought the best way to differentiate between what Allan was writing and what he was imagining was to have the thought bubble in full colour and the rest of the illustration in a limited three colour palette. The full colour is where the focus should be – like a technicolour action movie scene.
Was it a lot of fun playing with the characters of Allan and Bruce and their work, and with the idea, as a whole, of a book about creating a book?
BRUCE: I think I would have loved this book as a child. It’s the only book where you get a gatefold of the layout of two books to pore over so it’s unique in that respect and hopefully inspiring! And hopefully, hopefully funny.
What’s the best part of being an author/illustrator?
ALLAN: For me, the best part is the very first bits of scribble – the first idea – the possibility of a book.
BRUCE: For me, it’s Allan’s jokes, his wit and warmth and his way with words. And the biscuits. The worst part: the crumbs, everywhere the crumbs.
There are so many wonderful details to the illustration, including biscuits that sporadically appear on Allan’s desk. In your expert opinions, what biscuit is the best accompaniment to writing and illustrating?
ALLAN: I struggle with this one. Bruce is really the biscuit expert – I’m more of a broccoli man myself.
BRUCE: All biscuits are welcome in my studio. I don’t like to discriminate against biscuits.