For lovers of literature, there is something inherently gratifying when book-making talent is passed down from one generation in a family to another. One recipient of a double creative inheritance is Jessica Ahlberg, daughter of author Allan Ahlberg and illustrator Janet Ahlberg, who created 37 books together (including Each Peach Pear Plum and The Jolly Postman) before Janet’s death in 1994 at the age of 50. Jessica has illustrated several books written by her father, including Half a Pig and The Goldilocks Variations, and now opens a new chapter in her publishing career with her first solo picture-book venture, Fairy Tales for Mr. Barker: A Peek-Through Story, due March 8 from Candlewick.
Fairy Tales for Mr. Barker, a Walker Books Group release, was first published in the U.K. in October 2015 by Walker Books, Candlewick’s sister company. In the cumulative tale, a girl and her dog leap through a variety of die-cut openings to land in a sequence of classic stories. Along the way, they accumulate a posse of fairy-tale characters, as their fictional adversaries give chase.
Ahlberg, who lives in Brighton, England, doesn’t recall exactly when she decided she wanted to follow a similar career path as her parents’, yet she credits them for the inspiration to do just that. “Seeing the happy life my parents led as I was growing up certainly inspired me to go into the same field, and I love picture books, thanks to them,” she said. “I adore their books. I look at them and marvel, and wonder how they did it. They were doing work they loved, creating worlds to imagine oneself into, and playing with the simple device of the book.”
The idea of creating a book of her own was sparked by Walker Books publisher and editorial director Denise Johnstone-Burt and art director Louise Jackson, with whom Ahlberg had worked on The Goldilocks Variations. “I was thrilled when they suggested it, as it’s something I’d thought about for a long time,” she recalled. “I took in a stack of ideas and they picked the one that became Fairy Tales for Mr. Barker, but at that point it was a really rough, tiny dummy with characters climbing through holes in the pages to get to the next part of the not-yet-written story. I went away and began a few different variations of the story, and Denise and Louise steered me towards the fairytale version.”
Johnstone-Burt noted that her experience working with Ahlberg on The Goldilocks Variations prompted the suggestion that she do a solo picture book. “Given her parents, Jessica has obviously been steeped in storytelling and illustration all her life, and she clearly understands at a high level what makes a children’s book,” she said. “Louise and I both realized while working with Jess on Goldilocks that she was interested and confident enough to write a story as well as illustrate.”
The editor and designer were not disappointed when Ahlberg shared her story ideas. “I could see that she is naturally a very good writer,” recalled Johnstone-Burt. “Jess writes precisely and also with great humor, which is no mean feat. She also has a great sense of rhythm and an ability to work on something until she has it just right. And she understands pacing, necessary in a book with holes in the pages!”
An Idea Takes Shape
The notion of a fairy-tale motif – familiar thematic turf for Jessica’s parents – suited the author, and her vision for the story, well. “I think fairy tales are a great shared knowledge, and so if you assume prior knowledge you can play with expectations or make it into a guessing game, as I did in Mr. Barker,” she explained. “I think the fact that the tales are ‘universal’ gives the child reader power. I think it can be fun for them to spot changes, or mistakes, or to know what’s going to happen next. It gives them a bit of control, perhaps. Similarly, my protagonist is able to help the fairy tale people she meets, because she knows their stories and knows what’s going to happen before they do.”
Ahlberg’s creation of Fairy Tales for Mr. Barker was enhanced by a formative experience: she was named a Sendak Fellow and participated in a four-week summer residency in 2013 with other illustrators on a farm in upstate New York near the late Maurice Sendak’s property. “It was a wonderful, inspiring time, and packed with influences that indirectly made it into the book,” said Ahlberg. “Later, when I was back home and doing the final artwork, I tried lots of new things – different watercolor techniques, new color palettes, perspective drawings. It was such a boost to be made a Sendak Fellow, and it made me want to raise my game.”
Striking out on her own after illustrating books by her father and other authors (including Toon Tellegen and Vivian French) presented Ahlberg with a creative challenge, one she described as “scary and liberating.” She spoke of some positives of collaboration (“I love exchanging ideas with my Dad when we work together, and I also love reading a text for the first time and letting the pictures grow in my mind”), but also cited the rewards of working on her own. “Starting from scratch is exciting in a different way – the possibilities seem limitless,” she observed. “The way of working can be quite different, starting with a visual idea perhaps, like characters climbing through holes, and growing the story from there. And putting heads together with Denise and Louise was really fruitful for me.”
Ahlberg experienced another monumental “first” during the past year: the birth of her daughter, Colette, who well may provide her mother with book ideas in the same way that Ahlberg inspired her parents. (Their daughter’s interest in catalogues as a child allegedly led the Ahlbergs to create The Baby’s Catalogue, and Jessica’s affinity for opening mail while sitting in her highchair sowed the seeds for The Jolly Postman.)
“It is a huge pleasure to think that as I as a baby prompted some of my parents’ books, and now Colette might do the same for her Grandad – and maybe for me too!” said Ahlberg, who is uncertain what her next venture will be. “I’ll be starting work later this year after having time off with Colette – project undecided,” she said. “It might be something with my Dad, who is currently having ideas for baby books left, right and center. Or it might be another solo project. I have ideas.”
Fairy Tales for Mr. Barker: A Peek-Through Story by Jessica Ahlberg. Candlewick, $15.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-7636-8124-1