Everybody Was a Baby Once and other poems by Allan Ahlberg, illustrated by Bruce Ingman

Maybe it is because I have worked as a children's bookseller for so long, or maybe it is because I have loved children's books for even longer, but somehow, when I sit down to write about a book it often grows into a larger creation, like bread dough rising in a bowl. I really did intend to write a short review of Allan Ahlberg's latest book, but, I have loved his work for so long and he has contributed so many wonderful books to the (mostly British) bookshelves, as well as a daughter who now illustrates children's books, that I have to let this review rise, so to speak.

You may know Allan Ahlberg as the author of The Jolly Postman, which, since it was published in 1986, has sold over 6 million copies. I think I owned a copy of this book before I even had kids. It is beautifully and delicately illustrated by his wife, Janet and, with letter (and more) filled pockets, it is more than just a book. Over the course of twenty years, Janet and Allan Ahlberg created 37 children's books before Janet's death in 1994 at the very young age of fifty. The Jolly Postman was inspired by their daughter Jessica's love of playing with the post and took years to publish because of the Ahlbergs' attention to detail and determination that the book should have miniature envelopes and letters. As Ahlberg says in an interview from 2006, "We drove our publishers nuts - wanting the right paper, the right printing. I risk being pretentious," he adds, "but just because a book is tiny and its readers are little doesn't mean it can't be perfect. On its own scale, it can be as good as Tolstoy or Jane Austen." 

Janet and Allan Ahlberg also wrote two of my all-time favorite picture books, Starting School and The Baby's Catalog, which was also inspired by their infant daughter who loved paging through the MotherCare catalog when she was young. Sadly, neither of these books are available new in America. However, two of their books remain on the shelves here in board book form, Peek-A-Boo! and Each Peach Pear Plum, both of which have I-Spy themes. Peek-A-Boo! is set in a 1940's era home and is a rhyming story. Every other right hand page has a hole cut out that lets you see a portion of the picture as you read the accompanying rhyme. When the page is turned the whole scene of family life, of which the baby is often the center, is revealed. Each Peach Pear Plum is a brilliant rhyming story in which fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters are hidden on each page, the rhyme revealing the character. Both make excellent baby shower gifts.

Allan Ahlberg has continued to write since his wife's death. He has worked with an amazing group of illustrators, including Gillian Tyler, who's work is reminiscent of Janet Ahlberg's. Tyler illustrated The Snail House and Treasure Hunt, both of which are amazing stories. Treasure Hunt revisits the realm of the baby. This time, Tillie plays hide and seek with her parents, with her stuffed toy and with her breakfast banana!
The adventures of BertA Bit More Bert by Allan Ahlberg: Book CoverSnowman by Raymond Briggs: Book Cover

Allan Ahlberg even collaborated on two books with Raymond Briggs, creator of the classic picture book, The Snowman. The Adventures of Bert and A Bit More Bert tells the stories of clumsy Bert, father and husband but also suspiciously like a five-year-old in his actions... Bert tries to dress himself and ends up in Scotland, is chased by a giant sausage and discovers that there are many other Berts in the world.

Allan Ahlberg's most recent collaborator is Bruce IngmanPreviously, which is like a backward telling of fairy tales and nursery rhymes that connects up quite nicely. The Runaway Dinner finds a boy, Banjo, about to cut into his sausage when it up and runs off. The rest of the food follows and things are never the same again. In The Pencil, the story starts with a pencil drawing a boy (Banjo, from The Runaway Dinner) and a dog and cat. As the world the pencil creates expands, complaints arise. The pencil draws an eraser to take care of things and chaos ensues.

Ahlberg and Ingman's antic partnership continues in Everybody was a Baby Once and Other Poems. Ahlberg's poerty is a bit like a cross between Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky - playfully rhyming but sometimes deeply thoughtful and occasionally a little twisted, but always for the 7 and under crowd.  

Here is one of my favorites from the book:

When I Was Just a Little Child

When I was just a little child
The world seemed wide to me.
My Mom was like a featherbed
My bath was like the sea.

My high chair was a mighty tower
The view I had was grand
With cups and plates stretched out for miles
Across the tableland.

When I was just a little child
The world looked tall to me.
The stairs rose to the mountaintops
My Dad was like a tree.

My dog was like a big brown horse
With bits of white and gray
And sometimes with a little help
He'd gallop me away.

And, finally, the Ahlberg's daughter Jessica, who is can be seen on the back cover of Peepo!, drawn in the arms of her parents when she was an infant, has grown up and is a wonderful illustrator in her own right. She has illustrated a book written by her father, as well as Yucky Worms by Vivian French and the absolutely charming, perfect bedtime books by Dutch author Toon Tellgen, The Squirrel's Birthday and Other Stories, Letters to Anyone and Everyone and Far Away and Across the Sea. Click on the author's name for my reviews.

And now, Ahlberg and Ahlberg have teamed up again to bring us the absolutely fantastic and, I hate to say this but I just have to, the closest we can ever hope to get to another Jolly Postman book, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the 33 Bears and the Bliim and the Furniture and Lots More Variations. Written in Alan Ahlberg's silly, slightly absurd style of writing is perfectly complimented by Jessica Ahlberg's delightful illustrations filled with minute details and YES! This book is part pop-up, part paper-engingeering and comes with a book-within-a-book! I hope this father and daughter team have a few more books like this in them!

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