The Janet and Alan Ahlberg product portfolio teardown
What makes great kids picture books quite so great?
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and planning around the product portfolio at Lost My Name recently.
We’ve got one very successful book, which has been translated into lots of languages, and we’ve just launched our second super ambitious title.
Going forward we want to increase the reach of Lost My Name and The Incredible Intergalactic Journey Home, dial up the magic in the product and continue to develop incredible new books.
I’ve been looking at our portfolio grid and the vectors beyond language we have to play with — things like price, age of the child, occasion for the gift and so forth.
But I’ve also been looking at how other people do it.
The best example I’ve found so far, and thanks to Alex Fleetwood for bringing it to my attention as a subject to study, is the Janet and Alan Ahlberg children’s book series of Each Peach Pear Plum, Peepo and The Jolly Postman.
I own all these books, read them to my kids, and had them read to me as a child. They are utterly charming as products and book reading experiences. But it’s only recently I’ve noticed the incredibly clever product design.
In this post I’m going to geek out a bit and consider them as products and explain why they are so clever as a portfolio.
If you have any other examples of brilliant book portfolios I’m all ears!
I’m going to start by outlining the plot of each book first. Skip this first bit if you know the stories well.
Each Peach Pear Plum
Each Peach Pear Plum is an ‘eye spy’ rhyming story for very young children — 6 months to around 2 years old. The story is told from the perspective of the narrator and child.
On each spread a simple verse references a character from the previous spread and then ‘spies’ a new character.
Each Peach Pear Plum
I spy Tom Thumb
Tom Thumb in the Cupboard
I spy Mother Hubbard
Mother Hubbard on the Stairs
I spy the Three Bears
And so on.
The story begins with Tom Thumb in an orchard, and ends back in the orchard with all the characters you’ve seen throughout the story having a picnic and sharing some plum pie.
The characters are all tropes from traditional western nursery stories, rhymes and folk tales — the Three Bears, the Wicked Witch, Jack and Jill, Robin Hood and so forth.
But, crucially, many have a tiny little adult twists — Robin Hood is washing his underpants, the Three Bears wear tweeds and carry shotguns… I’ll come back to why this is great later.
Peepo builds on the eye spy concept and introduces a new game mechanic — a hole cut in the blank second page of each segment, revealing a portion of the illustration on the next page.
When the page is turned, the hole then frames the picture of the baby on the previous spread.
Here’s a little baby one two three, stands in his cot, what does he see?
Peepo! [page turn]
He see’s his father sleeping, in the big brass bed, and his mother too, with a hair net on her head.
He sees the shadows moving, on the bedroom wall, and the sun at the window, and his teddy, and his ball.
As with EPPP Peepo has a beautiful rhyming rhythm. It’s a pleasure to say the words out loud. But, it pushes the reading age up a notch. There are more two syllable words and subtler rhymes, so it’s better for children aged one and half to three-ish.
The story arc follows a baby’s journey throughout the day, peepo-ing in on key activities — morning, breakfast, a trip to the park, nap time, bath time and bed time.
This time the cast of characters is the standard nuclear family — mummy, daddy, sisters, grandma, family dog.
The setting is different to EPPP though. It’s a second world war era British working class family (the men are in uniform and there’s barrage balloons in the sky) and the illustrations evoke a peaceful British nostalgia, but, despite the period setting, the story and themes are utterly timeless.
It’s somewhat autobiographical for Alan Ahlberg, based on his childhood in Oldbury.
As with EPPP the illustrations are utterly charming and perfect for young children.
They are detailed, colourful with low depth of field and clear outlines of objects with expressive characters.
The Jolly Postman
The Jolly Postman takes ideas from the previous two books and ratchets them up yet another notch.
This book is aimed at children aged three to maybe six or seven. In this story we meet the Jolly Postman who is off on his rounds in a nursery land similar to EPPP. He has a letter to deliver to each character — the journey follows a gentle narrative arc whereby Baby Bear invites Goldilocks to his party and it ends at the party.
A Jolly Postman came one day,
From over the hills and far Away,
With a letter for … The Three Bears.
As with Peepo and EPPP it uses the exact same hybrid narrative/game structure — but this takes it to another level as each story segment contains an actual letter, held within a ‘envelope’ on the page. The reader has to take each mini letter out and explore it with the child.
Each encounter and letter follows the same format. The Postman arrives at the address and has tea with the character that lives there — the Wicked Witch, The Giant (Mr V.Bigg), The Big Bad Wolf and so on.
Each physical letter and mini story is also a tiny piece of joy. The Big Bad Wolf, who is currently occupying Grandma’s Cottage gets a letter from lawyers representing the Three Little Pigs, the witch gets a catalogue of witchy products (including Little Boy Pie Mix!)
As with EPPP there are gags for the adults, lots of tiny details for the kids and a super simple, super enjoyable game mechanic — taking the letters out and reading them. The rhyming meter is spot on in each segment, and delivers a beautiful interlinked cadence to the interrupted letter segments.
Product and story structure
Individually each of these stories is charming and are deserved best sellers.
But when you look at them as a set, or portfolio, you start to see these deeper elements to the structure of each book that remains consistent throughout. It’s this formula, combined with the execution that makes them so great.
I’m going to do a story teardown now and pull out these elements.
Consistent, self contained worlds
First, each book exists perfectly within a tiny world that the parent and child can understand.
This is especially so in EPPP and TJP which borrow from the rich heritage of nursery rhymes and folk tales. With EPPP and TJP this is made even more explicit at the start and end of each story which contain visual expositions in the form of small map like representations of the key locations within the world.
These mini maps allow the parent and child to see the whole story in one picture and they act like an overture and finale, summing up the whole story in one glance.
One story arc with systematic story segments
Within these worlds the stories follow pleasingly simple narrative arcs with clearly defined beginnings, middle and ends.
There is very little conflict, instead the stories are really just variations on the Comedic or perhaps Voyage and Return tropes — the Postman leaves home and returns, the Baby wakes up, goes out and comes back to go to bed, Tom Thumb starts in the Orchard, we return there to have some pie.
Things get more interesting when you start considering the narratives at an individual story spread level. Each book is essentially a collection of mini stories, with bookends to create the overall arc described above.
Each mini story follows the same pattern. In EPPP we leave a character and find a new one on each double spread, in Peepo the baby sees something through the hole and it is revealed in more detail on the next spread, in TJP the postman arrives at a house, we read a letter, he has a cup of tea, then leaves.
I’ve visualised this below and it’s really key to understanding why the books are a pleasure to read to young children. Every segment is bound within the same number of pages and the same combination of words and pictures. This allows children to grasp each mini story as a complete moment.
The dynamics of each act gets progressively more complex, along with the language from EPPP to TJP, but they all follow the same structural formula.
This formula allows children to indulge their love of repetition and take pleasure in understanding what is supposed to happen next. The content changes — Tom Thumb / Mother Hubbard or In the Park, At Home — but the rhythm remains.
Finally, there is a very tight bond between text, image and interactivity. The words and pictures go together hand in glove and have perfect balance. There’s not a whiff of a rogue word or syllable, and each drawing is delightfully composed to complement the story.
He sees his mother dozing, in the easy chair
And a dog, in the doorway, who shouldn’t be there
Charming games and interactivity
Beyond the clear rhythmic progression of the story lies the killer feature of the Ahlberg books — they are actually tiny games disguised as books that take advantage of the ‘two player’ format of kids picture books.
When an adult reads a picture book to a child a special thing is happening. It’s kind of a three way dialogue between the story, the adult and the child. The adult controls the pace of the narrative, but the child can interrupt, and both are involved in the story.
When you bring in the dynamic interplay of pictures and words you have all sorts of possibilities for play, learning and theatre.
The adult can pause and ask questions of the child — ‘why do you think the character is doing that?’ The child can show off their knowledge ‘like in the other story!’ The adult can start to link text and images for the child. Pacing can be explored and played with. The adult gets to ‘act’ — doing funny voices or embellishing certain points with sound effects or movement.
The Ahlberg books explicitly recognise this fact by introducing charming micro games to each segment of the book, which the adult and child can explore together. Spot the character, guess what’s behind the hole, open the envelope and unfold the letters.
Vitally, each of the games within these books doesn’t interrupt — they actually drive the narrative forward.
There are also several tiny little motifs that appear in the different stories for the child, and adult, to spot — a recurring cheeky dog, a tiny elf living in a tree.
It’s perfectly judged.
In fact, it’s bloody genius.
Finally, as with the best Disney and Pixar films, the Ahlbergs recognise that picture books are in fact family entertainment. The adult is reading too and thinking about the story as much as the child. Which is why, in a final layer of genius, each of these stories contains lots of gags and moments for adults.
Robin Hood washing his pants or the Three Bears dear stalker hats in EPPP. The Big Bad Wolf getting a letter from the little pig law firm or Cinderella and the Prince getting ready for their package holiday in TJP. The eternal family chaos in the kitchen or Mum passing out on the easy chair in Peepo.
Gold. Solid gold.
So each story is individually excellent, but follows the same ingenious structural pattern.
However the cleverness doesn’t end there because the books all fit together into a brilliant commercial product portfolio matrix.
This matrix has several different vectors that allows the publisher to get the biggest sale from the customer. I’ll explore them briefly below.
Vector one — Age
The first vector is the age of the child. The three books fit neatly onto a clear timeline that follows the developmental stages of a young child. EPPP is aimed at very young children who are just starting to appreciate books, Peepo is for the next stage up once the children can really concentrate on a narrative and turn the pages and then TJP is for kids on the verge of learning to read themselves.
Vector two — Format and price
The second vector is format. The publisher offers the books in a range of physical formats to suit different wallets — slim paper backs, premium jacket bound hardbacks and board books.
Vector three — Seasonal edition
In a final stroke of genius, the Ahlbergs spotted that kids books are gifts, and that a popular time for gift giving is … christmas. So they re-wrote TJP with a christmas edition.
The same characters, the same mechanic with a christmas twist — and a twist in the tale whereby the Postman gets given a special letter by all the characters at the end. They’ve also released a pocket edition called The Jolly Pocket Postman.
What can we learn?
Hopefully I’ve outlined some of the most inspiring elements of the Ahlberg portfolio here and there’s some inspiration for your product management practice.
At the end of the day Janet and Allan Ahlberg are creative geniuses. The balance, humour, sensitivity and timelessness of their stories shines through the clever concepts of these and their other books.
There are many similarities between these books and Lost My Name that we can be encouraged by. The segment driven approach to narrative within a simple arc, the timeless characters, the secret adult gags, some of the ‘game’ elements.
But there’s also much to be inspired by and learn from — recurring motifs, the product matrix, the deep interplay between words and pictures.
Taking a step back from the books and the portfolio, the most inspiring thing for me is that 30 odd years ago I was read the Ahlberg books as a child by my parents.
And, right now I’m sitting here in my kitchen writing a blog post deconstructing the same books after reading The Jolly Postman to my older daughter this evening and Peepo to my youngest this morning.
Intergenerational endurance. Now that’s a sign of a great product.
If we can create stories that survive for decades and inspire other creators in the way the Ahlbergs have at Lost My Name … well, that would be quite a thing wouldn’t it.
P.S — Obligatory recruiting message. If you want to come and help create enduring things like this with us, we’re hiring all kinds of roles at Lost My Name and we’d love to hear from you.