Janet Ahlberg (21 October 1944 – 13 November 1994), née Janet Hall, and Allan Ahlberg (born 5 June 1938) were a British married couple who created many children's books, including picture books that regularly appear at the top of “most popular” lists for public libraries. They worked together for 20 years until Janet died of cancer in 1994. Allan wrote the books and Janet illustrated them. Allan Ahlberg has also written dozens of books with other illustrators.
Janet Ahlberg won two Kate Greenaway Medals for illustrating their books and the 1978 winner Each Peach Pear Plum was named one of the top ten winning works for the 50th anniversary of the Medal (1955–2005). In the U.S. it was published by Viking Press in 1979 as Each Peach Pear Plum: an “I Spy” story; the national library catalogue summary explains, “Rhymed text and illustrations invite the reader to play 'I spy' with a variety of Mother Goose and other folklore characters.”
Allan Ahlberg was born 5 June 1938 in Croydon. An illegitimate child, he was adopted and brought up in Oldbury in the Black Country. He has called it “a very poor working-class family” and identified himself as the baby in Peepo! (1981). He grew up with “no books and not much conversation”.
Janet Hall was born 21 October 1944 in Yorkshire and brought up in Leicester. The Ahlbergs met while enrolled in a teacher training course at Sunderland Technical College and married in 1969.
Janet illustrated My Growing Up Book by Bernard Garfinkel (New York: Platt & Munk, 1972), which the U.S. Library of Congress calls “A child's record of the things he has learned and done from the time of birth through age five. Also provides a place to paste photographs.”
Their joint work began when she asked him, a primary school teacher, to write a story. The first three published Ahlberg collaborations appeared in 1976 and 1977, The Old Joke Book, The Vanishment of Thomas Tull, and Burglar Bill (1977). Vanishment was bound in hardcover with a dustjacket, while many of their early works were “pictorial laminated boards”. For Each Peach Pear Plum (Kestrel), Janet won the 1978 Kate Greenaway Medal from the British Library Association, recognising the year's best children's book illustration by a British subject. For the 50th anniversary of the Medal, a 2007 panel named it one of the top ten winning works, which composed the ballot for a public election of the nation's favourite. Each Peach Pear Plum finished a close second to the 1977 medalist, Dogger by Shirley Hughes; the margin was 1% of the vote.
Probably their greatest success was The Jolly Postman, published by Heinemann in 1986; Allan Ahlberg told The Guardian in 2006 that it had sold over six million copies. It made innovative use of envelopes to include letters, cards, games and a tiny book. According to one WorldCat library record, “A Jolly Postman delivers letters to several famous fairy-tale characters such as the Big Bad Wolf, Cinderella, and the Three Bears. Twelve of the pages have been made into six envelopes and contain eight letters and cards. Each letter may be removed from its envelope page and read separately.” Its first-listed Library of Congress Subject Heading (U.S.) is “Toy and movable books”.
The Jolly Postman required five years to make, and much discussion with the Heinemann and the printer before it was issued in 1986. It won many awards including the Kurt Maschler Award for integrated writing and illustration. There were two sequels, The Jolly Christmas Postman (1991), for which Janet won her second Greenaway Medal, and The Jolly Pocket Postman (1995).
Working together, the Allbergs produced many popular books for a range of ages. Some, such as Peepo! and The Baby's Catalogue are aimed at babies and toddlers. For older children, they wrote books such as Burglar Bill, Cops and Robbers, Funnybones and the Happy Families series. Allan also wrote two books of verses, Heard it in the Playground and Please, Mrs Butler, which Janet illustrated, and more text-heavy books such as Woof!.
Janet died of breast cancer in 1994 at the age of 50, when their daughter Jessica was almost fifteen. Allan Ahlberg says with regret that they “made an absolute fortune” but “never really had holidays”.
Allan later married his editor, Vanessa Clarke of Walker Books, his new publisher. As of 2006, he is the author of more than 140 published books, including two in 2004 illustrated by Jessica, who now creates picture books with other writers including Toon Tellegen. Father and daughter have recently collaborated again, completing a movable picture book published late in 2012, The Goldilocks Variations (Walker), “a new twist in an old fairy tale”.
Allan Ahlberg supports West Bromwich Albion F.C.
Beside the two Greenaway Medals, Janet Ahlberg was a “Commended” runner up three times, for Burglar Bill (1977), The Baby's Catalogue (1982), and The Jolly Postman (1986). According to Allan, their daughter Jessica inspired the latter two, and his own “Burglar Bill” book is autobiographical, The Boyhood of Burglar Bill (Puffin, 2007). A football story set in war-ravaged England, Boyhood made the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize shortlist.
Allan appeared as a “castaway” on the BBC Radio programme Desert Island Discs on 14 November 2008. He described their work together, her illness and death, and the creation of Janet's Last Book.
From July to September 2011, Janet and Allan's work was celebrated at The Public arts centre in Sandwell (which encompasses Allan's hometown Oldbury). The exhibition included works by schoolchildren with local artists “in response to” Ahlberg stories.
In July 2014, Allan Ahlberg declined the (inaugural) Booktrust Best Book Awards 'Lifetime Achievement Award' (which has a 5000 GBP prize attached). He cited ethical grounds related to the award's principal sponsor Amazon.com. In a letter to The Bookseller he stated that “Booktrust does good work and has a well-deserved reputation … For my part, the idea that my “lifetime achievement”— i.e. the books (and all of Janet's work too)—should have the Amazon tag attached to it is unacceptable.”
Allan Ahlberg sits on the Council of the Society of Authors.