Obituary: Dame Babette Cole, writer and illustrator of anarchic children's books tackling difficult subjects

Dame Babette Cole, author and illustrator. Born: 10 September, 1950 in Jersey. Died: 14 January, 2017 in Devon, aged 66.

Dame Babette Cole has died at the age of 66
Dame Babette Cole has died at the age of 66

Babette Cole was a writer and illustrator willing to challenge the established conventions on children’s storybooks with her alternative, anarchic and irrepressibly humorous approach to storytelling for which she won critical acclaim, producing more than 150 picture books and selling over 3.5 million copies worldwide, despite disapproval in some quarters.

Among her best known works were the Princess Smartypants series, which was a feminist retelling of a traditional fairy tale with the heroine as a motorbiking ‘Ms’ – describing it as “her autobiography”; it had its 30-year anniversary last year with Princess Smartypants and the Missing Princes; books about Dr Dog followed a family pet that dispensed medical advice; it was adapted into a successful cartoon series; and The Trouble With Mum and its sequels.

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She readily and happily tackled subjects that parents found awkward, such as sex, death, divorce, gender and puberty and produced a series tackling these delicate areas. Mummy Laid an Egg! (1993) was the first.

In the book a couple of parents attempt to explain the facts of life to their two children, who respond to their apparently ignorant parents by explaining matters most honestly to them, with stick-figure illustrations dubbed “the Kama Sutra spread” by some concerned parents’ groups. Witty and honest, it was seen as was a godsend to parents and won the British Book Awards’ 1994 Best Illustrated Book of the Year, and was translated into 73 languages.

Drop Dead, which won the 1996 Kurt Maschler award, told the story of an elderly couple from birth to death. Despite “the odd bit of abuse,” she tackled the difficulties for children of divorce and having a split home in Two of Everything (1997), which featured an “unwedding” ceremony and upset members of the clergy, and of puberty in Hair in Funny Places (1999).

Although already published, Cole’s wacky sense of humour first burst on to the scene with Beware of the Vet (1982) in which a vet unwittingly mistakes cow hormones for aspirin and grows horns and a tail, leading to much mayhem.

This was followed by The Trouble with Mum (1983); she is a witch and the story follows her mishaps and the hilarious embarrassment that this causes at the school gates. This success led to a series, The Trouble with Dad (1985), …with Gran (1987) and …with Grandad (1988).

She created books on the kinds of disgusting topics that children adore and most adults abhor. The Hairy Book (1984), The Slimy Book (1985) and The Smelly Book (1987) tapped into the childish preoccupation with everything off-putting; while every page of The Bad Good Manners Book (1999) was illustrated with a youngster merrily engaged in a proscribed activity – “Don’t have a shampoo with a big tube of glue/And don’t tell your Mum that’s she’s fat”.

Cole delighted in subverting the moralistic elements found in many stories for young children and during this period retold Cinderella with Prince Cinders (1987) as a “scruffy and skinny” youth, who is bullied by his three hairy brothers and who is turned into a gorilla by an inept fairy.

In 1986 Cole received the Kate Greenaway medal for Princess Smartypants, an honour she repeated with Prince Cinders in 1987. She went on to gain a reputation as the doyen of rule-breaking characters in children’s publishing and no matter what the subject, her stories were clever and captivating, often covering important topics with accessible ease.

Born in 1950 in Jersey in the Channel Islands, Babbette Cole had an idyllic childhood riding her ponies, drawing pictures and making up stories. She explained, “I could always draw, my dad was a painter. I used to rip out all the pictures from my pony books and do all the illustrations again. I did my first book when I was seven.”

Educated at the local convent school her talent for drawing was put to use making Harvest Festival, Easter and Christmas cards. “The school only offered a choice of three careers,” she recalled. “You could be a nun, a wife and mother, or you could go off the rails.”

Bored and frustrated, she left Jersey for England and studied illustration at Canterbury College of Art, which she chose mainly because it allowed her to rent a field in which her pony could graze. Despite her maverick tendencies and ‘brushes’ with the college authorities, she graduated in 1973 with a first-class degree and a distinction in animation, after which she spent a year living in the Okavango swamps of Botswana with her anthropologist boyfriend. This experience later inspired a trio of books based on African myths.

Cole’s first book, Promise Solves the Problem, about her childhood pony Promise, depicts unhappy farmyard animals threatening to go on strike. A second quickly followed. Thereafter, she produced at least one book a year. She also got a job in children’s television, and became friends with Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, the creators of Bagpuss, for whom she did work and was an illustrator on the BBC’s Jackanory and worked on The Clangers. She designed greetings cards and illustrated stories by authors, including Joan Tate and Annabel Farjeon, before she produced her own first picture book, Basil Brush of the Yard (1977). She later did work for C4 and Sky. In recent years, Cole grew disaffected by mainstream publishers and found their encouragement and advances were not what they used to be. Never one to rest on her laurels, she fortuitously met Ron Johns of Mabecron Books, at the Plymouth Book Festival and decided to go into collaboration.

In 2014 she released The Wild West Country Tale of James Rabbit and the Giggleberries, which was based on her “muse” James Gutans, 40 years her junior, with Johns’ publishing imprint. Gutans featured as the animal hero of James Rabbit, his dreadlocks transformed into long rabbit’s ears. The book was deeply inspired by Beatrix Potter.

Cole saw the most important message as James Rabbit not needing his loan and lots of money. She added, “Money does not always make us happy but if you can make people laugh and forget their worries for a moment that is worth more than anything money can buy! I try to do this in all my books because I like to make people laugh!” Further books were scheduled.

Cole had also been facing the future with digital versions of existing books, produced under her own Inky Sprat label. Her e-picturebook of one of her old favourites, The Trouble with Dad, won Apple’s “best book produced for iPad” recently, after more than 17,000 people downloaded it for their little ones.

In 2015 she was commissioned to illustrate a 70th-anniversary edition of Enid Blyton’s classic The Famous Five: Five on a Treasure Island.

In her freetime, Cole continued her childhood passion for horses and ran a stud farm in Lincolnshire before selling up and running Holnest Park Stud near Sherborne, where she bred show hunters and was a regular presence, riding side-saddle, at hunt meets. She later owned a small stud farm in Devon, which bred multi-award winning show ponies, hunters and cobs. Her love of horses eventually spawned her Fetlocks Hall titles, about a magical pony school in Dorset, published from 2010 onwards.

Cole died in hospital after a short illness that led to a collapsed lung. She is survived by her husband James, whom she married a few days before her death.