Alison Hubble by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman

Alison Hubble

What makes a good picture book? It’s a question that plagues writers, illustrators and publishers of course. Unlike a novel, where it might take me some time to work out if I’m going to review it favourably and what it is that grabs me, with picture books that drop through my post box, it tends to be an instantaneous reaction.

Is it the concept, the re-readability, the illustrations, the characters, the rhythm, the humour? Whatever magic wielded here by experienced writer and illustrator duo Ahlberg and Ingman, this picture book worked from the moment I saw the cover.

The concept of Alison Hubble is, in itself, fairly genius – partly because the concept feeds into the rhythm of the book – the two are inseparable, full title being: This is the story of Alison Hubble who went to bed single and woke up double.

The story begins in the endpapers – Alison, a delightfully ordinary little girl with pink pyjamas and blonde hair kisses her mother goodnight whilst the cat looks on mischievously – told only through illustration. The title then kicks off the text – and Alison Hubble wakes up double. The cleverness of the rhyme sells the title straight away:

“Woke up with a twin
In her single bed.
“Who are you?” “Who are you?”
She said, she said.”

The cleverness of course is Ahlberg’s play with words throughout – from the use of numerical words, to the use of double entendres within the English language, from the mother describing what has happened to Alison as a very ‘singular’ event, to Alison’s speech:

“But what to wear?
Yes, that’s the trouble.
I’m in two minds,
said Alison Hubble.”

I can’t resist a rhyming picture book – they are a pleasure to read aloud and enable the listener or reader to guess what is coming next with ease. There is fun too, with the illustrations showing Alison’s delight at what has occurred and then the slight doubt as the two Alisons squabble over who is really Alison. But then, to the reader’s surprise, Ahlberg takes his joke to the next level by doubling Alison again…and again. And then it becomes as much a book about numbers and maths as it does about humour, fun, and cleverness.

Ingman is also let loose – with his subtle drawings of multiple Alisons and her environment, especially when multiple Alisons set off and off and off etc for school – each Alison the same and yet dressed slightly differently, and then answering the register call at school from all over the classroom.

His illustrations are reminiscent of those in The Pencil, where the world grew exponentially during the story, in the same way that Alison grows (in an unusual way) here. There is so much detail to take in on each page – from the other schoolchildren gawping at Alisons, to the cut-through of her house, and of course the many many Alisons, all the same and yet individuals too – and it is this subtle rendering of ‘clones’ all with their own personalities, that makes the book so clever, and so interesting.

Ahlberg has great fun with the ending too, along the way involving press, football team analogies and the hilarious despair of her parents. It’s all rather amusing.

And clever at the same time – Alison does her doubling wrong, and the reader must spot the mathematical error – and there is a cheeky school boy who answers to Alison’s name too, as well as some funny placards, and more play on words with newspaper headlines.

The last double page illustration is ripe for counting Alisons – my test child readers all did this – before demanding re-reads.

A new classic – a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek and smart picture book.

You can buy it here.