Books For Children: Beatrix Potter's nemesis

Babette Cole knows what children like: farts, bottoms and bad manners. In fact she likes them herself. Sally Williams meets the real Princess Smartypants
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Babette Cole is as batty, rebellious and strange as her creations. Winni Allfours eats so many carrots she turns into a horse, Mum is really a witch, Gran an alien, and Babette is a stud-farmer who writes and illustrates children's books, spends her winters sailing in the Caribbean, her summers at home in Lincolnshire with her 10 horses, five dogs, three cats, has a name taken from a grave stone ("my mother spotted it") and a voice like Minnie Mouse. "I hate my voice," she squeals, hitting the sort of pitch that would stop a sheep dog in its tracks. "Sadly, my nephew has inherited it, too," she adds, falling in to one of the many uncontrollable bursts of laughter that punctuate our conversation. "It's bad enough being a girl and having a voice like a child, but he's a man of 27."

And Babette is 47. But she looks startingly young. Her skin is still smooth, her blonde hair playfully messy, she is small, curvy, groovily dressed in dark blue velvet trousers and fake-fur coat, and the subjects of her stories: farts, bottoms, intestinal worms, suggest that her voice isn't the only thing that's a childish about Babette Cole.

For the last 20 years she's been amusing children with her 30 or so picture books. They've laughed when Prince Cinders gets turned into a big hairy monkey, giggled as Super Moo and Calf Crypton attack the devilish Bots, and more recently, they've been having a good old snigger at some more unlikely picture book subjects: sex, disease, death and, now, divorce. For, along with some tips on manners in The Bad Manners Book ("Don't have a shampoo with a big tube of glue, and don't tell your mum she's fat"), in the last few years Babette has published a series of "issue" books. And it is these books that have really got Babette noticed.

First, four years ago, Mummy Laid An Egg, a picture book which says sex is fun and shows in graphic detail how "mummies and daddies fit together", landed Babette in the tabloids. "She has written", they thundered, "the Kama Sutra for kids aged three."

Fifteen American publishers turned it down. It is now a bestseller, available in 29 different languages, the most recent being Chinese and Taiwanese. Then there's Drop Dead, a book about ageing and death, which doesn't pussyfoot around with anthropomorphic animals or euphemisms. Gran and Grandad are actually pictured - well, their feet anyway - stone- cold, flat-out, feet-up dead. It won the 1996 Kurt Maschler Award given for a book which best combines text and pictures. Now, Two of Everything, a funny book about divorce, has already got Babette headlines in the Observer, a profile on BBC's Bookworm and Channel Five's Five's Company, a slot on Radio Four's Women's Hour and into an argument with a "stupid abusive man" from Greater Manchester Radio. "He hadn't even read the book," she shrieks. "He started by saying, how could divorce be jolly. I said, 'Excuse me, but have you had experience of it?' He said, 'I don't think that's relevant'. He was so bitter and awful, I put the phone down on him mid- interview. The others, though," she adds quickly, "have been super." And so they should, because it is a good book. It's funny, ground-breaking, brave and controversial. It makes great copy. And so does Babette.

Before we'd even had coffee, she'd told me about how Princess Smartypants was her autobiography ("I was feeling terrible because for the first time ever I didn't have a man in my life, then I created Princess Smartypants who enjoyed being a Ms and I felt much better"), how she'd fallen out with her agent over a publicity trip to Australia ("I'm not going unless I fly club class. I'm an old lady you know") and about her present "secret" love of 15 years. "It's a terrible relationship. I'm very good at hats. But men, I'm useless at." Before, adding, "He's a wonderful lover, though."

This tendency to blurt isn't put on. Anyone who wears hats decorated with plastic cherries, shepherdess-style dresses, or rides around in a pony and trap, as Babette is reputed to have done, has to not care that much about what people think. And as most children's books are published to a resounding silence, someone who can attract some attention has to be a good thing. Publisher Tom Maschler, the inspiration behind the issue books must think so. It was he who chose Babette over other arguably more talented illustrators to do the series. John Birningham and Anthony Browne may be better artists, but Babette is funny, unrestrained and totally unforgettable.

She is also extremely pushy. Born and raised in Jersey in the Channel Islands, she studied illustration and film at Canterbury College of Art. Graduating in 1974, she was determined to become a children's author. "There are only two things I can do in life. Ride horses and tell a good tale." She telephoned Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate, the distinguished illustrators of Bagpus and the Clangers, told them she was brilliant and invited them to her degree show. "If you don't think you're the bloody best, no one else will. It comes from learning to show ponies when I was little." They found she had illustrated a rather dull and serious art school project on woodworm liquid with enormous mushrooms and toadstools growing out of the windows and chimneys of a fairy-tale house. She was hired as a freelance illustrator. Her first book, Promise Solves the Problem, based on her pony, was published in 1976. Her hero is Quentin Blake, "the king"; her bete noir: Beatrix Potter. "I would rather shoot a rabbit and eat it than buy a book about one in a frock."

She now produces a book a year from her home in Lincolnshire or as she sees it "the land of the culturally dead". But nobody knows her, so she is happy. In Kent, where she lived until recently, everyone knew her, and "I had to go and open fetes", she says sulkily. "People would turn up at my house with hoards of children. If you write children's books people think you must love children, their children. But I don't. I don't mind looking at them occasionally, but as for having one, I'm far too selfish."

She may now be found in the Educational section, and lumped together with Clare Rayner, as someone to consult when it's time to tackle those difficult-to-talk-about subjects, but has the wild child turned into a middle-aged worthy? "No!", she protests, "I'm not a worthy sort of person at all. I'm just an entertainer. I like making people laugh. If you can't laugh at the world you might as well be dead."

8 Babette Cole's latest book, 'Two of Everything', is published by Random House, pounds 9.99.