Puffin Books. First published by William Heinemann 1977
Janet and Allan Ahlberg
If you are a little po-faced and believe all storybook robbers need to be taught a lesson, don’t bother with this superb children’s classic. It won’t suit you.
If, on the other hand, you are blessed with a sense of humour and relish whimsy, you should be thinking ‘I’ll have that,’ before you ‘alf-inch’ it (cockney rhyming slang for ‘pinch’) and stuff it in your swag bag.
I stumbled across this book during my teacher training degree course in 1990 and fell in love with it.
As the years passed and I had my own children, they loved it too but more so than I could ever have imagined when I first read it as an adult.
On some nights my children would be rolling in their beds, helplessly laughing at Bill’s antics and his cockney turn of phrase.
The comedic moments when Bill tries to teach a baby to repeat his name ‘Burglar Bill’ (Boglaboll says the baby) and yell ‘Run For It’ (Runfrit), always elicited huge giggles and cries of “Read it again, Mummy.” My eldest son would be writhing in his bed with tears of laughter streaming down his face.
In short, “Burglar Bill” is a gleefully subversive book about a loveable burgling rogue, Bill, who eventually mends his ways. He isn’t punished for his misdeeds but grows to learn it’s wrong to steal.
He’s introduced to the reader as a character who sleeps all day and thieves all night.
“Burglar Bill lives by himself in a tall house full of stolen property. Every night he has stolen fish and chips and a cup of stolen tea for supper. Then he swings a big stolen sack over his shoulder and goes off to work, stealing things. Every morning Burglar Bill comes home from work and has stolen toast and marmalade and a cup of stolen coffee for breakfast. Then he goes upstairs and sleeps all day in a comfortable stolen bed.”
One evening, Burglar Bill steals a nice-looking brown box with his familiar cry ‘I’ll have that!’ only to discover he’s stolen a baby.
But, in a reversal of fortunes when he catches another robber trying to steal from his house at midnight, he finally discovers who the baby belongs to…Burglar Betty.
Widow Betty is reunited with her stolen baby and both Bill and Betty realise their error of their criminal ways.
“You know, Betty,” he says, “getting burgled like that give me a fright.”
“I know what you mean,” says Burglar Betty. “Losing my baby like that gave ME a fright.”
“I can see the error of my ways,” says Burglar Bill. “I’ve been a bad man.”
“Me too,” says Burglar Betty. “I’ve been a bad woman – I’ve been a TERRIBLE woman!”
Both characters fall in love, reform and return all their stolen goods before marrying and leading honest lives. Bill becomes a baker and soon teaches the baby to say ‘Bakery Bill.’
At 1, 570 words “Burglar Bill” deserves its place as a children’s classic for 4-7-year-olds and is, in my opinion, the perfect length for Key Stage One pupils.
Unlike some of the shorter 500 word picture books which publishers seem fashionably intent on producing today, “Burglar Bill” is produced over 15 page double spreads, not the usual 12, and provides a feel-good bedtime read for parents who can happily read one story, rather than three or four short ones.
The characterisation is deftly written and Bill’s lack of grammatical prowess and kindly nature looking after ‘a orphan’- including changing its nappy and making a new one from a towel – add to the charm and whimsy of this light-hearted story.
The late Janet Ahlberg’s illustrations have a timeless charm in subtle pastel hues and the humorous pictures support the tongue-in-cheek tale of robbers who ‘come good’ in the end.
Trust me when I say ‘This book’s a steal!’