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Allan Ahlberg

Allan Ahlberg

Cert Education 1966

Allan Ahlberg admits he grew up in “a house with no books, and very little conversation” – yet today is one of the most read children’s authors in the world. A former gravedigger and postman, Allan became a teacher after studying at the University’s predecessor Teacher Training College from 1963 to 1966.

“After my National Service I decided that I never wanted to wear a suit or work in an office,” says Allan Ahlberg. “I wanted to work outdoors, so I ended up working as a gravedigger.”

He credits his initial change in career to the Superintendant of Cemeteries and Parks in Oldbury, where Allan  was born and grew up, Mr McGibbon.

“He was my good Samaritan, really,” Allan remembers. “He took a decision about my life which made a huge difference.

“I was below ground digging a grave one day when Mr McGibbon leaned over the edge and told me he didn’t think I should be a gravedigger, I should be a teacher. I was in my early twenties at the time, and very shy, and I couldn’t imagine being a teacher.” 

In the early sixties it was possible to work in a school without any formal qualifications, and Mr McGibbon arranged for Allan to teach at Bleakhouse Junior School.

“Despite the name it was a delightful school. As it turned out I was the only male member of staff so the Head got me to run the football team, and we beat everyone, which he was very pleased about.

“For a whole year I taught at Bleakhouse. I don’t know what the parents thought about their children being taught by an unqualified ex-gravedigger. But once I got into the classroom I loved it. I was obsessed with becoming a teacher.

“The first morning the Headmaster, Mr Fellows, took me into a classroom, sat me at the teacher’s desk and said, “Call the register, I’ll be back in a minute.” And I didn’t see him until playtime!

“I had these kids all day. They were reception children, and they didn’t know that I wasn’t the greatest teacher on God’s earth! It was a magical day for me. I discovered quickly that I liked teaching, and I thought that potentially I could be good at it.”

Sunderland Teacher Training College was actually Allan’s second choice, but what swayed his decision was the thought of being beside the sea. It was, he says, a decision he never regretted.

After leaving in 1966 Allan taught for the next 10 years, marrying Janet, who he had met in Sunderland, in 1969. He became Deputy Head of a school in Leicestershire, then temporary Head of a tiny village school in Oxfordshire.

“I’d always wanted to write, but I could never finish anything. By this time Janet was working as an illustrator. She illustrated Tube cards, ads for the Radio Times, and then started doing little non-fiction books about how to make things out of yogurt pots. One day she got fed up with all of that, and asked me if I would write a story for her, so I did. I realised I had the capacity to write children’s books, but particularly to write text that could combine with pictures. Jan and I were quite good at that, so that’s what we did.”

Allan and Janet Ahlberg were considerably more than “quite good”. Over the next 20 years, until Janet’s untimely death, they created many classic children’s books together, including Burglar Bill, Each Peach Pear Plum, Funny Bones, Peepo and The Jolly Postman. Janet won two Kate Greenaway Medals (no one has ever won three) and together they won The Kurt Maschler Award and the Children’s Book Award for The Jolly Postman, which has to date sold over six million copies worldwide. 

“A children’s picture book is only 32 pages long. It’s more like a sonnet than a book, you only have a certain space and you want the reader to turn the page and not always be able to guess what’s coming. It’s a small art, but it is an art.

 “I worked with other people while Janet was alive. Each Peach Pear Plum, for instance, took me a day to write, but it took Janet six months to do the pictures. I did a whole series called Happy Families, there were about 20 books, but Janet only did two. She wanted to do them all, but if she had, she would never have illustrated anything else.”

Janet died of breast cancer in 1994, aged 50.

“When Janet died I didn’t really write anything for a year, but then I decided to write a little memoire of her with her drawings and pictures in it. That helped me, and I gradually began writing again.”

Allan and Janet’s daughter Jessica now works as an illustrator, and collaborated with her father on the recent books, The Goldilocks Variations and The Bucket, an autobiographical book for adult readers.

Allan has written around 140 books in his 40 plus years as a writer, and shows no signs of stopping.

“I still have plenty of ideas, but I’m getting older, and lately I’ve been working on narrowing down all of those ideas to a dozen or so I really like.

“I know there won’t be enough time to do all of them, but I’m quite happy with that. I’m not in a hurry.”

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