There’s a handful of children’s books that appear on most kids’ bookshelves, and Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s The Jolly Postman is one of them. The British duo spent 20 years creating some of the best-loved children’s books in recent history, including Burglar Bill, Funnybones, Happy Families and Each Peach Pear Plum, known for their subtle comedy and endearing characters. Janet illustrated Allan’s stories, but sadly died in 1994, and since then Allan has continued to write stories working with other illustrators to bring them to life, including a 12-year collaboration with Bruce Ingman.
The latest from Bruce and Allan takes a step sideways from storybook creation, with a meta look at the process of creating one. My Worst Book Ever! is about a “doomed” book where everything that could possibly go wrong, goes wrong. It didn’t start out that way though, Bruce explains to It’s Nice That. “In many ways, it began the same way as previous books with Allan. He comes up with the story and we bat ideas back and forth. It began life as a story called Crocodile Snap and turned itself into a metabook, a book about books. We share a sense of the absurd. It seemed a good idea to let kids in on a few secrets about the process of making a picture book.”
In the book, Allan has an idea for a book about a crocodile, but every time he sits down to write it he gets distracted. Then, when he finally does, the manuscript gets soaked in tea. Bruce gets over-excited when starting the illustrations and draws a hippo instead of a crocodile. The publishers meddle in the font decisions and ask for a dinosaur instead of a crocodile. Then there are problems at the printers, with pages getting mixed up to comical effect. After decades in publishing, we can’t help but wonder if some elements draw from Allan’s own experience.
“We weren’t trying to satirise other books. It’s more of a personal look at how a story goes from an idea in an author’s head to a bookshop, following the process. ‘Once upon a time, there was a story called Crocodile Snap…’ Children are savvy and we thought they’d love to know about the story of a picture book. Hopefully, it’s funny and entertaining. We focus on the potential disasters of publishing but of course, plenty of things worked out fine making this book, there are just no jokes in that.”
Bruce explains his process for illustrating storybooks with Allan begins the minute the story arrives. He goes straight into developing a rough dummy of the book, as opposed to a storyboard, “to get a sense of the book straight away”. He cuts down a sketchbook to size, works out pagination and text placement, and scribbles visual responses to the text as they pop into his head. “The most important thing I think about when illustrating is to bring something new to the story and not merely add pictures to the words.”
In this book, Bruce aimed for a pared-down illustration style, to emulate the beginnings of the process, building on the colour as other team members come to the development process. In My Worst Book Ever!, the desk is based on the one in Allan’s own writing shed. Similarly, like life imitating art, Bruce says he makes a few versions of the dummy so he’s “not precious about messing up… accidents often lead to something new or better. The skill is spotting the potential in mistakes. It can be a bit of a tightrope walk, not knowing from one minute to the next how it’s going to turn out but I like it that way. It keeps me interested.”
Overall his aim is to keep a sense of directness and simplicity, he says. “It may seem that my work has a casual and informal look but it takes a lot of planning and work to look effortless!”
My Worst Book Ever is out today in the UK, published by Thames and Hudson.
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