The bedtime millionaires

This weekend, the Queen's birthday party will celebrate Britain's storytellers and the literature of childhood. Jonathan Brown looks at the creative minds behind some of the best-loved characters
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Lucy Cousins Maisy the Mouse

The adventures of Maisy adventures are scarcely what you might call adventurous. But while mixing gingerbread, taking a bath, going to the shops may not be white-knuckle rides, they have resulted in book sales of 12 million with around 20 million spin-off products in circulation.

Maisy's creator is Lucy Cousins, a trained artist who says the little mouse "drew herself" one day while she was doodling various animals on a piece of paper in search of inspiration. The first Maisy book was published in 1990, soon after Cousins left college with a degree in graphic design. With a postgraduate degree from the Royal College of Art, Cousins says illustration comes much more easily to her than story-telling.

"I draw by heart," she says. "I think about what children would like by going back to my own childlike instincts." These instincts have proved spectacularly sound, and she now has picture books, sticker books, cloth books, colouring books, shaped board books, pull-the-tab and lift-the-flap books, three-dimensional play sets, and even a clock book, in print

Maisy appeals to very young children as she sets out to explore her world and learn about growing up. Friendly and good-natured but also a little naïve, she is joined in her low-impact pursuits by animal friends Charlie the Crocodile, Tallulah the Baby Chicken, Cyril the Squirrel and Eddie the Elephant. The Bafta-award winning television series Maisy was developed by the children's broadcaster Nickelodeon and narrated by Neil Morrissey, the voice of Bob the Builder (see below).

The author, said to have amassed a personal fortune in excess of £6.5m thanks to her creation, believes the appeal of Maisy and her mates lies in their very ordinariness. "Maisy does things that children all over the world do," says Cousins, a mother of four who lives in the South Downs in Hampshire. "The way she dresses, the way she acts, is typical of children all over the world."

Since her first casual doodle, the prizes and accolades have rolled in. Cousins picked up the Bologna Ragazzi Non-fiction Prize 1997 for Maisy's House and was highly commended for the National Art Illustration Award 1997 for Za Za's Baby Brother, images from which were also used in a publicity campaign by Tommy's, the baby's charity.


Judith Kerr was leaving the cinema after watching The Sound of Music when her nine-year-old son asked her whether what he had just sat through was an accurate depiction of life under the Nazis. Astonished at the gulf in understanding, she decided to write the story of her own childhood.

The Kerrs were forced to flee Germany in 1933. Judith's father, Albert, was one of the most influential critics of his day, a friend of Albert Einstein and Alexander Korda. He had sensed the coming storm when the Nazis added his books to the bonfire of other "undesirable" authors - writers such as Mann, Proust and Freud.

The family arrived in Britain when Judith was 13, their journey having taken them through Switzerland and France. But relief was short-lived. The shabby Bloomsbury hotel where they made their new home was destroyed by a German bomb aimed at Euston station, near by. They had left their Berlin home in such a hurry that Judith left behind her favourite toy - a pink rabbit. When she came to write about her childhood, she used the image of the toy, writing When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit to widespread acclaim. After wartime service with the Red Cross, Kerr worked as a scriptwriter. It was during this time that she met her future husband Nigel Kneale, who wrote the BBC's groundbreaking Quatermass Experiment. Husband and wife worked together in separate rooms at their family home in Barnes, south-west London. Both an artist and a writer, Kerr modelled many of her pictures for the 18-part Mog series on the interior of the house - a fact that delighted visitors.

The inspiration for the lovable cat, which effortlessly rules over the Thomas family who mistakenly think they own her, is itself buried in the back garden. Mog finally flew "up and up into the sun" in 2002 - more than three decades after the first in the series, Mog the Forgetful Cat, was published in 1970. The Thomases' son, Nicolas, is based on the couple's own son, Matthew Kneale. He has continued the family tradition, winning the Whitbread Book Award in 2000 for his novel English Passengers.

During her long career Judith Kerr has sold more than six million books, including two million copies of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, first published in 1968. Her story of the scrupulously polite predator who drops in for a bite to eat at a suburban home before promptly scoffing everything in the house - including drinking all the water in the tap - remains a stalwart of pre-school reading lists.

Lauren Child Charlie and Lola, Clarice Bean

As a former painter of spots for Damien Hirst, Lauren Child could be expected to veer towards the racy, funkier side of the children's book world. And her tales of Charlie and his sister Lola are set in an engagingly zany world of cut-outs and crazy wallpaper.

The one-time art-school dropout and chandelier maker initially attracted attention for her creation Clarice Bean. But it was when she was awarded the Kate Greenaway medal for I Will Not Ever Never Eat a Tomato that she was hailed as a new creative force of the world of modern children's writing. The book tells the story of seven-year-old Charlie's entertaining ploys to convince his four-year-old sister to tuck into some healthy fruit and vegetables. In a series of cunning re-brandings, he convinces her that carrots are "orange twiglets", mashed potato is "cloud fluff" while the dreaded tomato is the altogether more alluring "moonsquirter". Child's greatest strength, say her admirers, is her ability to think like a child - despite having no children of her own. "I'd never say I love children because it's really patronising. It's like saying 'I love people'," she says.

Lola was inspired by a girl on a train in Denmark. Charlie and Lola have since made the transition to television.

Katherine Holabird Angelina Ballerina

What little girl has not yearned to be a ballerina in a sparkly pink tutu? Katharine Holabird, and her three sisters spent hours pretending to be just that during their childhood in Chicago. Each year Katharine's grandmother would take her to the ballet where she was held spellbound by performances of Cinderella, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. But it wasn't until she had two daughters of her own that she created her determined little dancer, Angelina Ballerina.

Holabird worked as a journalist in the US before moving to London in 1974. Initially, Angelina was not a mouse nor was she called Angelina. She was a little girl called Primrose until the publisher suggested a change of name. She was transformed into a rodent by illustrator Helen Craig, who enjoyed drawing mice. It was a highly lucrative decision: a mouse looks the same all over the world, while little girls do not.

Angelina has become a phenomenon and celebrated her twentieth birthday in January this year. Demand for new adventures is so great that Holabird and Craig have had to license other people to write and illustrate.

Three and a half million copies of Angelina books have been sold in the UK alone and are now available in 18 countries in 19 languages. Cartoons, voiced by Dame Judi Dench, have become a fixture on television schedules and are broadcast in 10 countries. There are dolls, backpacks, jigsaws and dozens of other toys. There are even Angelina Ballerina dance classes.

Roger and Adam Hargreaves The Mr Men Stories

When in 1971, a young Adam Hargreaves asked his father, Roger, "What does a tickle look like?" over breakfast one morning, little could he have imagined that this innocent question would unleash a multimillion-pound industry.

Roger Hargreaves, born in 1935, had been a successful advertising copywriter and creative director but his childhood ambition was always to be a cartoonist. Mr Tickle, with his impossibly long arms, was the first of a seemingly inexhaustible line of Mr Men - each aimed at encapsulating a human characteristic easily recognisable to a juvenile reading public.

The books have sold some 100 million copies worldwide, and have been translated into 22 different languages. Hargreaves, who provided his own illustrations, had to fight for his success: the first six - Mr Tickle, Mr Happy, Mr Bump, Mr Sneeze, Mr Nosey and Mr Greedy - were all rejected by the major publishing houses.

Once they found their way into the shops, the distinctive little square books were an immediate success and sold more than a million copies in the first three years. In 1975 a BBC television Mr Men series aired, narrated by the Dad's Army star Arthur Lowe - further fuelling demand. The following year Hargreaves was able to give up his day job and concentrate on his family of Mr Men.

In 1981 sexual equality arrived in the form of the now equally successful Little Miss books. The bold and simple style, with the use of strong colours, has made the characters perfect for merchandising. Licensed products range from Mr Messy baby bibs to Little Miss Naughty lingerie. When Hargreaves died in 1988, it was appropriate that his son Adam, should assume control of the empire.

Keith Chapman Bob the Builder, Fifi and the Flowertots

Few have managed to turn a storybook character into a global brand as effectively as Keith Chapman. The foundation stone for Bob the Builder was laid in the late 1980s when he told stories to his own children inspired by a mechanical digger working near his home.

Chapman introduced a series of other machines - Scoop, Muck and Dizzy - before deciding that what was really needed was a foreman to keep them all in order. The foreman, Bob, has since earned millions for his creator. Chapman pitched the idea to the BBC and with a voiceover supplied by the Men Behaving Badly star Neil Morrissey, and a pounding soundtrack which took Bob to the Christmas number one in 2000, the corporation had a runaway hit on its hands. Seven series later, the show is popular all over the world.

Subsequently, Chapman has produced Fifi and the Flowertots, about a forget-me-not who forgets a lot.

Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler The Gruffalo

There can be few modern parents who have not had the question "A Gruffalo? What's a Gruffalo?" seared into their memory after countless repetition. For the Gruffalo, which has orange eyes, purple prickles and terrible tusks, is the picture-book publishing phenomenon of our time.

The 700-word story of a mouse's stroll through the deep dark wood, published in 1999, was created by the former Playschool songwriter Julia Donaldson. It could have been quite different. It was originally going to be about a tiger but this limited the rhyming possibilities, and, so legend has it, The Gruffalo was born.

The author and the illustrator, German-born artist Axel Scheffler, were brought together by the publisher Macmillan and the two are said to meet only at the increasingly regular awards ceremony they attend. It may have spawned a musical, a DVD and a number of exhibitions but mass marketing à la Noddy has mercifully been avoided. The follow-up to the Gruffalo, The Gruffalo's Child, in which the lumpy monster's offspring sets out in search of a Big Bad Mouse, has also proved a runaway success, winning Best Children's Book at the 2005 British Book Awards. Both original and sequel are essentially dark tales - about fear, trickery, and monsters engaged in a perpetual battle to consume each other in ever more entertaining ways. Donaldson's other works include A Squash and a Squeeze, Room on the Broom and Monkey Puzzle.