Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Books

A turnip for the books as kids’ novel set in veg garden published after 40-year wait

By Leona O'Neill

Two pensioners who wrote and illustrated a charming children's book over 40 years ago have finally seen it published.

Lifelong friends - actress and writer Sybil Allen (76) from Antrim town and artist and illustrator Anne Montgomery (72) from Eglinton - will see Mixed Veg hit the bookshelves this week.

It is the story of a little boy who goes on an epic adventure around a beautiful walled garden brimming with vibrant vegetable characters.

The pair finished the book in the mid-1970s and, having been turned down by a publisher in London, shelved it as life got in the way.

Forty years on, Anne unearthed it in her attic, and the women are now able to see their work finally come to fruition.

Children across the world will be able to follow the adventure of Tom as he journeys with Murphy the potato, Boris Beetroot, Sir Arthur Artichoke, peas-in-a-pod twins Celia and Amelia, and Belle the Broad Bean, among many others in their garden city.

Sybil, already a children's novelist, says this special book was a long time coming.

"Anne and I have been friends since our student days in the Seventies," she said. "I was living in London and Anne was lecturing in textiles at the Belfast Art School.

"I remember her saying: 'I simply love drawing peas'. And she was so serious about it, I said that I would write something for her to play with.

"At the time I was very interested in National Trust gardens and there were huge vegetable gardens there. I remember standing in one with cross-paths, like little crossroads, and it looked like a miniature city in a way. And that is where the story started from for me.

"There is a little boy Tom, who doesn't like vegetables. He declares war on them. He finds himself being dragged into their world, within a walled garden, and he has an adventure, meeting all different characters. They are people in vegetable form. It's like an odyssey around the walled garden."

The walled garden in Mixed Veg mirrors the one outside Anne's window in her Eglinton home.

"I grew up in a home with a walled garden with vegetable rows all in lines," she explained.

"My parents grew all the vegetables that are in the book in their garden. I would, as a child, look at all the onions and little carrots and things, and think that it was like a city. It was almost like Alice In Wonderland, I'd walk through the gate and this sight would be before me. So when I got Sybil's script I totally identified with it.

"I did sketches and drawings. Then I was heading off to Papua New Guinea to do voluntary service. I flew to Heathrow, met Sybil in the airport and handed over the completed illustrations."

Sybil says she took the drawings to a publisher in London, who told her that it would be expensive to reproduce the illustrations.

Before they knew it, 40 years had passed. Then in 2013 Anne unearthed the illustrations and showed them to a few friends, who reached out to publisher Whittick Press.

"There is a biography at the end of the book which sums up perfectly the journey we have been on," said Anne. "It explains the gap between the work being completed and being published.

"It is classic book, the artwork really reflects its time, which was the 1970s. It is totally authentic, nothing has been tampered with.Even the dungarees the young man is wearing are of that age. In a modern age of graphic design, with hand-drawn artwork it stands out. I'm delighted to see it in print. It is a book to be read. It really is a companion book."

Sybil says the book might have been finished four decades ago, but it carries a moral lesson that is timeless.

"It's meant to be fun," she said.

"But there are little gems of wisdom in there and some moral lessons, too, which are timeless, about accepting people who are different to you - and perhaps along the way learning the secret of life and to appreciate a little of what's good for you."

Mixed Veg is published by Whittrick Press (www.whittrickpress.com).

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