Local kids’ author Jez Alborough talks to Catherine Whyte about his career and why feelings matter
Jez Alborough opens the door and gives me a hug. It takes me by surprise but, on reflection, the gesture is entirely appropriate. For back in 2000, Jez won the Children’s Book of the Year award – with a book called Hug. It went on to sell over a million copies and has been named as a personal favourite by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Richard Curtis.
Jez is something of a superstar in the pre-school book world. I’d be willing to bet that every family with young children owns one of his picture books. If not Hug, then Duck in the Truck, or possibly my own favourite, Some Dogs Do: a charming story of a self-doubting canine with covert flying skills.
Kingston born and bred, Jez is one of Surrey’s more discreet persons of note. You won’t find him at charity balls or switching on the Christmas lights. Yet despite his low public profile, he is anything but guarded in private. On the contrary – as evidenced by the hug – he welcomes me warmly into his Surrey home that he shares with his Danish wife.
“We’ve been in this house for 15 years,” he says. “When we lived in Chelsea, we always came to Richmond at the weekends to get our nature fix, so it made sense to move here. I used to walk in the Park with my family when I was younger. In fact, I have a picture of us all by Pen Ponds. The area is in my blood.”
Jez has been writing kids’ books for 30 years. There is, of course, a presumption that children’s authors start by writing for their offspring. In this case, however, the theory falters: Jez has never had children.
Having studied art at university, he was searching for a niche when a publisher happened upon one of his drawings of a polar bear and thought he could be onto something. Tasked with developing the idea further, Jez set to work – with unexpected results.
“It sounds like a fairy tale, but I actually had a eureka moment in the bath. The first two lines of a book just came to me: ‘To keep warm in the arctic air, a polar bear wears polar wear.’ Needless to say, I leapt out and wrote it all down, and that was the start of my first book, Bare Bear.”
This was in 1983, when the market for pre-school books was beginning to flourish.
“Children are spoilt for choice these days,” he says.
I agree. Thinking back to my 70s childhood, the only picture book I recall is Janet and John.
“Well, exactly!” he exclaims. “Imagine the mind that came up with that! Those books were so dry. Janet and John typified a square approach to picture book-making. It was forced and stiff; no rapport with the child. Engage children and they’ll learn without realising.”
Jez plainly adores his work, creating characters that bounce about the page and words that tickle the senses.
“I’m always searching for the comedy in a story,” he says. “It’s a big part of life. I loved Laurel and Hardy as a child – all the gags and that impeccable timing.
“Feelings are an important part of children’s education,” he adds. “As human beings, we need to be aware of our emotions. Life becomes very difficult otherwise.
“I’m in the adult world, with all the experience that life has given me, and I feel I’m communicating some of that knowledge back to these kids who are still so full of wonder, innocence and freedom.”
Jez is a bit of a free spirit himself. Clad from head to toe in white, and with a mane of long grey hair tumbling to his shoulders, he wouldn’t look out of place in an ashram.
We head off to look at his studio. Climbing the stairs, I notice a little stuffed toy of Bobo, Hug’s central character, perched on a bookshelf. So far, it’s the only indication I’ve seen that there’s a children’s author in the house.
Producing both words and illustrations, Jez can take up to a year to complete one book.
“You have to find the spirit of the book. It’s a gradual process. When I’m in the initial stages, I’m cutting and sticking bits of paper like a big kid and I just can’t wait to go back to it,” he says, pointing to some dummy pages he has on the go. “However, the artwork stage demands so much concentration. It can take around four to five months.
“I go for a walk every day, either along the river to Ham House or to the Park, and then I head for my studio at the top of my house and do what I have to do. That’s why I don’t like too many festivals and talks: I don’t want distractions.”
Time, I feel, to take my leave. But not before I’ve heard about Jez’s other great loves: his guitar and the blues band, Midnight River, which he has recently joined.
“You must come to one of our gigs,” he says.
“I will,” I reply.
And with that we say our goodbyes. With another hug.
Jez Alborough’s new book Billy The Goat’s Big Breakfast is out now, published by Random House, £11.99