Written by Bertie Bowen

Arts

Introducing My Little One To… Janet & Allan Ahlberg

Our writers are (lovingly) foisting pop-culture favourites on their unsuspecting nippers. This week, Bertie Bowen ushers toddler Alma into a world of warmly chaotic domesticity.

Peepo! (Puffin Books)

Peepo! (Puffin Books)

A recent trip home to my mum’s brought with it a wave of nostalgia when I discovered a sack of old books she’d brought down from the loft. Books were everywhere when I was a kid. My parents used to tuck me and my younger sister in bed every night with a story. Sat in the middle of the big Victorian double bed we shared, my sister and I on either side of Mum or Dad, each tucked under an arm, we would beg for one more chapter ‘til we could barely keep our eyes open. I couldn’t wait to show my daughter the books I cherished as a child and I took as many as I could carry back with me on the train.

My daughter has loved books since she could focus her eyes. These days Alma likes to ‘read’ to herself by gabbling away at speed, changing the tone and pitch of her voice in order to mimic us when we read to her. I really go to town with the various voices, using accents I can’t quite pull off and over-acting ridiculously, something I’ve picked up from my parents’ reading sessions (I’ll blame them). Alma appreciates my efforts like nothing else. It’s bloody marvellous for my ego and I ham it up to the max. It also makes reading The Gruffalo for the 12th time that day slightly less tedious. (The Gruffalo has a Birmingham accent, obviously).

When I get home I realise I’ve chosen mainly books by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Each Peach Pear Plum is an instant hit. The small board book copy I have is the perfect size for Alma to hold and turn the pages herself. She mimics the intonation by chanting, “bah, bah, bah, bah”. I love the way Janet illustrates with minute detail – ideal for the “I spy” game within the book. Alma points out little details I’ve never even noticed before and greets the huge plum pie the characters share at the end with an enthusiastic “Hmmmmmm”.

Each Peach Pear Plum (Puffin Books)

Each Peach Pear Plum (Puffin Books)

Next is The Baby’s Catalogue – perfect for an 18-month-old. It portrays the lives of five families with a few words and illustrations. All the important aspects of a baby’s day are depicted: mornings, mealtimes, family and general domesticity. I’m particularly impressed with the inclusion of illustrations of breastfeeding. My favourite page is “Accidents”, which includes a baby falling down a loo and another drinking from what looks like a wine glass (we’ve all been there). The book keeps Alma absorbed. She also has a newfound fascination for babies (which is currently her favourite word).

Peepo! brings tears to my eyes when I first read it again after about 25 years. The poem is set in 1940s London and the intricate drawings of the family’s home are wonderfully warm and realistically chaotic. From the baby’s point of view we see an innocent and delightfully descriptive version of his world. I love that he notices tiny things that become beautiful: the shadows moving on the wall, the rainbow rim of the mirror. It’s the simplicity that makes it so poignant. This baby is teaching me to slow down and appreciate all the little things in life. I feel a melancholic longing for a time way before my earliest memory, when childhood innocence still protected me from my own self-consciousness. Alma, meanwhile, simply loves the singsong word “peepo”.

The Ahlbergs have written so many books (37, in fact, before Janet’s death from breast cancer, at the age of 50, in 1994) and these are just a few of my favourites. These are the ones that crept into my soul at an age before I could talk or read or understand anything much at all.

Alma has no idea how important these first few years are. The world is only just beginning to make sense to her, but something about these books seems to help. They bring her (and me) such joy. Next on the list is Burglar Bill and I can’t wait ‘til she’s old enough to appreciate The Jolly Postman. Now there’s a book that will show off my range of character voices…

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Written by Bertie Bowen

Stylist, writer and mother living in East London. A clompy shoed, curly haired, Radio 4 enthusiast. www.mothershoppers.com