Allan Ahlberg is a children's book institution. A prolific writer, he is responsible for penning best-selling, award-winning books such as Each Peach Pear Plum, The Jolly Postman and Burglar Bill. His latest book Kicking A Ball contains Allan's characteristic rhymes and warm humour, combined with gorgeously detailed illustrations from talented children's picture book illustrator Sebastien Braun.
What inspired you to write Kicking A Ball? Did you play football a lot as a child?
I did, yes. For a good part of my childhood, from around the age of 8 or 9, it was my principle activity. I kicked a ball on the way to school, in the playground at school and after school I went to the park to play until it got dark. When I wasn’t playing games I was kicking a ball against a wall. There was a fish and chip shop just at the end of our road with a big wall at the side of it and I used kick a ball there for hours and hours. Kicking A Ball is the simple story of a boy playing football with his friends and then he grows up and becomes a man and teaches his children to play. Just like me!
Previously your late wife Janet and daughter Jessica illustrated your books, but you worked with French illustrator Sebastien Braun on Kicking A Ball. How did that come about?
My publisher showed me his pictures and I thought they were pretty good. They introduced me to him and we got on really well and so we decided to do the book together.
How important is it to you that the words and images compliment each other?
It’s inevitable with a picture book, because you are mixing words and pictures together to tell a story. The pictures can illustrate what the words are saying, but they can also contradict it or create a surprise when you turn the page. It’s nice because you can say a great deal in a picture when the words aren’t saying much at all – they sit together like two hands, one is the words and the other the images and the fingers are tightly laced together. Because of the nature of the poem in Kicking A Ball it’s not simple or straightforward to illustrate. But Sebastien was really inventive with it, for example by drawing these tiny illustrations of all the things one can do with a ball as opposed to just kicking it, on what looks like a sheet of graph paper.
You've written over 150 children's books. Where do you get all your ideas from?
Well things just pop into my head. Sometimes my ideas come from things I’ve seen, things I’ve heard, things that I’ve remembered from my childhood or adult life. Or sometimes I just make them up! Burglar Bill lives by himself in a tall house full of stolen property – I don’t know anyone who is a burglar, but it seemed like an amusing story to play around with. If you think of ideas like you would a watch, it tells the time, but if you take it apart to see how it works it doesn’t tell the time anymore. I feel the same way about ideas, if you look too much into the creation of them then you lose the ability to have them. Ideas are instinct mainly, you just go with it and hope that it’s good.
What have been your favourite and most enjoyable books to write?
It does vary – I seem to give a different answer every time I’m asked this question because I can name half a dozen, but that sounds terribly conceited. I think it’s probably a book of poems called The Mighty Slide containing five or six long narrative poems that I really like. Ask me tomorrow though and I’ll probably pick one of the Jolly Postman books because I like the way they work as well.
What advice would you give to a child who has aspirations of being an author one day?
I suppose the main thing would be just to enjoy writing. If you think you’d like to write then do it and make sure you keep copies of things. I would print copies off and put them away somewhere safe, like in a cardboard box in your bedroom. Find pleasure in telling stories and writing them down. Even if you don’t eventually become a writer, it will be interesting to look back and see the things you had to say at that age.
If you could be any one of your characters for the day, who would you be?
I would be Captain Jim, a character in The Mighty Slide. He’s tremendously brave man and intrepid explorer…
“You’ve heard the tales of Tarzan, Chinese Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes at Baker Street and ‘cow pie’ Desperate Dan; Well now I’m going to tell you of another kind of man. Yes, now I’m going to tell you as the light grows dim, and we sit here in the jungle at the wide world’s rim, of the man who matched them all, and his name was Captain Jim. Where he came from is mystery, Where he went to no one knows, but his talents were amazing (from his eyebrows to his toes!), and his brain was full of brainwaves, and his reputation grows.”
I’m more or less Captain Jim – this is a perfect description of me, really.