How Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman created the Worst Book Ever

Published on: 04 June 2018 Author: Bruce Ingman

When Allan Ahlberg told his collaborator and illustrator Bruce Ingman he wanted to write his Worst Book Ever, Bruce had no idea what would happen...

My Worst Book Ever

When I asked Allan Ahlberg where he got the idea for My Worst Book Ever he said that, as is often the case, the title came first. Once he has a title in his head, that's it - he takes the idea and sees how far he can run with it, like having a ball of string.

Jokingly - I think - he refused to tell me any more at the risk of 'putting him out of a job'. Some chance! He said that would 'really make it his worst book ever'.

But he certainly ran some distance with that string. The title... being in his shed... a series of disasters... Allan saw a tremendous opportunity and told me: 'It was an open goal!'

A few bumps in the road

A page from My Worst Book Ever

We did have a number of hiccups along the way - creating two books in one is asking for trouble, isn't it? In fact, the idea was too much of a challenge for one of our publishers.

Luckily, Allan is a veteran of this bumpy road - The Jolly Postman was rejected by publishers before it found a home - and he would not be deterred by the phrase 'doesn't fit into any category'! What? It's not like any other book? Isn't that a good thing? Fortunately, the publisher Thames and Hudson agreed.

Of course, creating a book like this takes time. We went through a number of versions of it before we were happy. Changes came. Changes went. As usual, we chatted on the phone regularly. There were meetings. The odd lunch. Work got done. More work got done.

The passing of time showed in the form of Toddler Ted who had to become 'muscular Ted' in the story because my real-life model wouldn't stop growing...

Making a book for children

A page from My Worst Book Ever

Along the way, we really focused on making sure My Worst Book Ever didn't ever stray away from being a children's book. As Allan's voice is so attuned to young people, this bit comes naturally to him. It is, however, why the picture book within the book had to work as a standalone story and why the double gatefold is so important to the book.

Thames and Hudson looked at several ways of making it a book-in-a-book-plus but we got so entangled in the need to package or shrink-wrap it to keep the book in place that it wasn't going to work.

But the book within a book was crucial. As well as sounding good, the benefit of the double gatefold was to juxtapose the correct and mixed up versions to better effect. I think it worked. Then Thames and Hudson tested the book on some actual young readers. One of their comments made me laugh, 'Why does Allan have to drink so much coffee?'

Why we work well together

A page from My Worst Book Ever

And so, to the sheer volume of artwork required. Two books in one. Oh boy - double the effort to make it look simple and effortless! But all the way through this process, the conversations continued. Our books are collaborative all the way through.

For example, I suggested putting a collage of the postcards on the wall of Allan's shed in the illustrations, something that represented him, but Allan thought it would be too distracting. He left the decision to me, so I did a rough sketch of them instead, which worked much better. Allan was right.

This may be a good example of why Allan and I continue to work together. We both believe very strongly that picture books are about teamwork. The editor and designer are as important as the writer and illustrator. It's not a conveyor belt of words, pictures, publisher.

He talks, I listen. I talk, he listens. I love his words, he seems to like my pictures. So we keep on going.

And the good news for me is that Allan has his teeth in that ball of string again. Got to go, I think that's my phone...

Topics: Features

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