Sam McBratney, who has died aged 77, was a Northern Irish author whose 1994 picture book Guess How Much I Love You, a bedtime conversation between Little Nutbrown Hare and Big Nutbrown Hare, sold more than 50 million copies in 57 languages, and popularised the phrase: “I love you to the moon and back.”
The story is only 395 words long. McBratney, a schoolteacher who had already written more than 20 novels for young adults in his spare time, was given the idea by his editor Caroline Royd. At lunch, he had asked her why he was not as rich as his friend Martin Waddell, author of the Little Bear series.
“You need to write a picture book,” she replied. McBratney objected that he could not draw, but Royd said that finding an illustrator wasn’t the problem: “Sam, we haven’t got people who can write a powerful story using hardly any words at all.”
By the end of that day McBratney had turned “a little fragment of an idea” into a synopsis. The young hare, trying to express the scale of his love, leaps through analogies: “I love you as high as I can,” “I love you all the way down the lane, as far as the river,” and so on.
It is a story about wrestling with the ineffable, and the absurdity of our desire to quantify things – a theme McBratney returned to in a poem called “Fractions”: “How much of a giraffe / Is neck? / I’ve heard / Some say a third. / It might be hard to check …”
The stumbling block was what to call his hero. “I knew I didn’t want it to be bears,” he said, “because there were a lot of bear stories about at that time, and I was just sitting in the kitchen one day when from somewhere in that remote land between the ears out popped Little Nutbrown Hare.”
The illustrator Anita Jeram brought his character to life, beautifully capturing (in McBratney’s words) “the ugly, awkward gangly-ness of hares. I mean, they’re not bunnies.”
When Guess How Much I Love You was published, McBratney expected it to go like all his other books: “Might get five years out of it, might get six, then after that you’ll not be able to buy it in the shops any more.”
In fact, after a mere 10,000-copy first print run, it sold 150,000 copies in four months. The Daily Telegraph noted that “it seasons its sentimentality with humour, so that it is touching without being sickly. This slim tale … seems to have struck a universal chord, for it is already in its third reprint.
“The downside of it is that those unprecedented sales are partly down to infantilist lovesick adults buying it for each other – and that is sickly.”
A 2005 poll of parents’ favourite bedtime books put it ahead of Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat and The Tales of Peter Rabbit, behind only The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh. The Nutbrown Hares now count among their celebrity fans Melinda Gates, Princess Eugenie, Mylene Klass and the American rapper Cardi B.
McBratney himself, asked to explain his book’s broad appeal (it has sold 10 million copies in China), could only conclude, on the strength of his fan mail – which he answered assiduously – that the story was somehow “true. It describes what people feel, it describes a force.”
Sam McBratney was born on March 1 1943 in Belfast, though the family, worried about bombing, soon moved out to the nearby town of Lisburn. His parents were Verina and Samuel, a typesetter for the Belfast Telegraph. Young Sam and his brother, Jim, would scour the paper so they could say: “Look, daddy, you made a mistake there.”
McBratney was a hungry reader, but in wartime Northern Ireland “there were hardly bananas, much less books.” (In fact, he said, he did not eat a banana until he was about 11.) He read anything he could get his hands on: People’s Friend, romances, and the Westerns of Zane Grey, his “staple diet from nine onwards”.
McBratney was the first person in his family to go to grammar school, and the first to go to university, going from the Friends’ School, Lisburn, a Quaker foundation, to Trinity College, Dublin. There he read Modern History and Political Science, and began to “carry kind of a book about with me where I would record all my thoughts”. He first got his name in print while still a student, with a series of newspaper articles on the history of Lisburn, for which he was paid three guineas.
At Trinity, he met Maralyn Green, who, like him, would become a teacher; they were married in 1964. McBratney’s first job was at Limavady Grammar School, 16 miles from Londonderry; then he moved to Dunmurry High School, in a town on the edge of Belfast that straddled the sectarian divide.
In 1966 McBratney wrote his first novel, Mark Time, also one of the first children’s books to deal with the Troubles. A love story about an 11-year-old boy who falls for a girl at his school, it depicts the wastelands of Belfast, rival pre-teen gangs – one Catholic, one Protestant – and a terrifying child thug called “the Shampoo Kid”. The manuscript was rejected for a decade, but finally published in 1976. (The McBratney family’s closest brush with sectarian violence was living next door to a police superintendent who had a bomb put under his front window.)
McBratney published regularly after this, mainly young adult fiction. His 1982 novel Jimmy Zest was favourably reviewed in the Telegraph: “Although it is never stated that Ulster forms their background, the children in these tales, who are created with great skill and humour, have a stark consciousness of the world.”
Although Guess How Much I Love You was carefully universal, many of McBratney’s novels had a strong sense of Irishness: The Chieftain’s Daughter (1993), set in the fifth century, or The Lough Neagh Monster (1994), about Nessie’s visit to her Irish cousin. Although he loved sci fi, he never wrote horror: “I couldn’t see myself sitting there trying to squeeze out of my imagination something horrible.”
McBratney fitted in his writing after tea, staying up until late at night. At first, he wrote in a garden shed with camphor lights. Later, he upgraded to electricity, and heating, then finally an indoor study and computer. In 1990 he gave up teaching to write full time.
For his own children, he made up stories every night with a cast of characters that began with “Wise Eyes. And he had Coby, the Wolf, and there was Gormus, the Gorilla, and there was Rigamortis, he was a rat.”
He described himself as basically an introspective character who felt compelled to write because “I hardly know what I’m thinking until I see it written down.” He was an obsessive collector of books, going every year to the Trinity College book fair with two empty suitcases to fill, and accumulated a large number of hare ornaments.
He loved gardening, particularly growing red grapes, which he and his sons made into a wine they called Chateau McBratney or Esker Ridge Assemblage. He also loved music (from Scott Joplin and Bob Dylan to rap, which his grandson introduced him to), stubbornly sticking with his Walkman and cassettes until the end.
Sam McBratney is survived by his wife Maralyn, two sons and a daughter.
Sam McBratney, born March 1 1943, died September 18 2020