Why Sam McBratney, author of 'Guess How Much I Love You', always remained a true Lisburn man at heart

Why author of ‘Guess How Much I Love You’ remained a true Lisburn man at heart - despite his extraordinary literary success.

Thursday, 27th May 2021, 11:58 am
Husband and wife Sam and Maralyn McBratney on Sam’s book tour in Washington

Guess How Much I Love You, is the much-cherished children’s picture book beloved by many, which adorns the bookshelves of families across the world.

The renowned picture book follows the story of Little Nutbrown Hare, who is going to bed and is eager to tell Big Nutbrown Hare just how much he loves him.

Thus ensues the poignant back and forth as the parent and child lovingly compete to tell each other exactly how much they love one another.

Guess How Much I Love You, by Sam McBratney and illustrated by Anita Jeram

First published in 1994, illustrated with Anita Jeram’s watercolours, the children’s classic has sold more than 50m copies worldwide, and has been translated into 57 languages, with the heart-warming book continuing to captivate both children and parents alike.

What some people may not realise however, is that the man behind the touching words, author Sam McBratney, was born in Belfast but lived in Lisburn throughout his life, having moved here when he was just six months old.

Down-to-earth Sam was humbled by the popularity of ‘‘Guess How Much I Love You,’’ and characteristically never failed to credit illustrator Anita Jeram for the watercolours which so perfectly compliment his delicate prose:

‘‘There’s a gangly awkwardness, a boneyness, about hares, that she has captured, and with such a lovely soft palette,’’ he said previously.

Author Sam McBratney and Lisburn Lady Captain, Margaret Boyd pictured with Joy Hall and Sylvia Carr who finished in first place in the Sam McBratney Greensomes Competition held at Lisburn GC. They were presented with a 20th Anniversary Edition of Sam’s famous book, ‘Guess How Much I Love You’.

Speaking two years ago, ahead of the 25th anniversary of its publication, Sam said: ‘‘You turn the pages, you read the words, you do the actions and you play the game.

‘‘This evening, somewhere in the world, a mum or dad will be reading ‘‘Guess How Much I Love You’’ with someone special.

‘‘I’d like to share with you one comment a father sent me. He wrote: ‘On good nights my little girl loves me all the way to the moon, but on bad nights she only loves me to the door.’

‘‘If you’re a parent (or a grandparent like myself), here’s hoping that you mostly make it to the moon. And back!’’

Sam is pictured during a ‘‘wonderful’’ book tour in China - where ‘‘Guess How Much I Love You’’ had been translated and remains extremely popular

Sam, who once said: ‘‘It’s as difficult to write a fine picture book, one that stands out from the crowd, as it is to write a fine novel,’’ took early retirement to focus on his career as an author, travelling the world to share his books with readers and was the author of more than 50 books and scripts.

Tragically, Sam passed away in September 2020 at the age of 77, survived by his wife of 56 years, Maralyn whom he met during their time at school, their three children, and six grandchildren.

Donna Cassanova at Walker Books said at the time of Sam’s passing: ‘‘As Guess How Much I Love You,’’ achieved great success and acclaim, Sam never failed to express his profound surprise at the power of the message within his text.

‘‘The joy he felt at knowing so many people around the globe connected with the gentle celebration of unconditional love was ever palpable.’’

Lisburn's Sam McBratney, author of 'Guess How Much I Love You'

Walker, Sam’s publishing company, added that Sam’s phrase, ‘‘I love you to the moon and back,’’ had ‘‘taken on iconic status,’’ and whilst the book had sparked an animated TV show, a stage play and all kinds of merchandise for Sam, the book was just ‘‘a light-hearted little story designed to help a big one and a wee one enjoy the pleasure of being together.’’

Indeed, this seems to be the reason why so many parents and children alike enjoy the timeless book with its perfectly chosen words, because they so accurately articulate the love we have for one another, expertly encapsulated by Sam’s loving phrase, ‘‘right up to the moon - and back.’’

Karen Lotz, president and publisher of Candlewick Publishing, said previously that she believes the secret to the book’s staying power is its ‘‘heart.’’

For that reason, ‘‘Guess How Much I Love You’’ has become a gift frequently given on the occasion of welcoming a new baby, marriage, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and many other life events.

‘‘I believed it was something that adults would want to read and children would want to hear,’’ Sam previously told Publishers Weekly.

‘‘To me, it’s a happy little story written for a big one to share with a little one.’’

Author of the famed children's picture book, Lisburn's Sam McBratney

It seemed Sam’s literary success was written in the stars, as his wife Maralyn explains: ‘‘Sam went to Lisburn Central Primary School in Lisburn where one of his early teachers assured his mother that ‘‘he would go far.’’

‘‘He was a bit anxious about that! One of his classmates, Sylvia (Briggs) Cassells remembers that the teacher always read Sam’s essays out to the class.’’

Sam went on to Friends’ School in Lisburn, where he ‘‘would never have seen himself as one of the clever ones.’’

It wasn’t until Sam’s A-Level year when he began to show a ‘‘real understanding of English and History,’’ Maralyn explains.

Sam, alongside two other Friends’ pupils, went onto study at Trinity College, Dublin.

It was during this time that Sam made his first appearance in the Ulster Star, in a Belfast to Dublin walk organised by the university.

‘‘Over 100 students started off enthusiastically - but 36 hours later, only five of them made it through the Trinity Gates,’’ remembers Maralyn fondly. ‘‘Sam was one of them.’’

Indeed, Maralyn tells of how Sam was often asked about the first thing he ever published.

‘‘In 1964, when Lisburn became a borough, the Ulster Star produced a supplement to mark the occasion and they paid Sam the grand sum of three guineas for an article about George Rawdon and the early history of the town,’’ she reveals.

‘‘Later the Ulster Star asked him to write a series of similar articles.’’

Whilst this was the beginning of Sam’s writing career, for a long time Sam earned his living by teaching, at first in Limavady Grammar School, before moving to Belfast Technology College and Larkfield Secondary School.

‘‘He won the Bass Ireland Award which allowed him to take a break from teaching to concentrate on writing, but although Sam achieved considerable success, there was not sufficient financial reward to feed his family, so he retrained as a primary school teacher,’’ Maralyn tells the Ulster Star.

‘‘By the time he retired from Crumlin Primary School he had several books published and had done a lot of work for BBC Northern Ireland.

‘‘The Lough Neagh Monster was a successful little book with a local theme but The Chieftain’s Daughter, set in early Christian Ireland, was highly acclaimed and he himself considered it to be one of his best pieces of work.

‘‘Then in 1994, ‘‘Guess How Much I Love You,’’ was published - Sam’s first picture book.

‘‘His agent said, ‘‘Sam, this book is going to change your life!’’ - and in many ways, it did. But in many ways, it did not,’’ Maralyn says.

‘‘Is there any other picture book which has sold over 53 million copies in as many languages in so few years?

‘‘He toured the world, but he was always a Lisburn man at heart, and every year as he sponsored the Lisburn Ladies’ Open Golf Tournament, they smiled and said: ‘‘He hasn’t changed a bit since I knew him at school.’’’’

During the years 1995 - 2020, and following the international success of his picture books, Sam made promotional tours across Europe, Asia, Australia and the USA.

When visiting his publishers at Candlewick in Boston, staff asked Sam to read one of his stories and ‘‘much to his surprise, some members of that small audience ended up in tears,’’ wrote Sam shortly after in a touring summary for the publicity department.

‘‘This was not quite what I expected, but a hint of the emotional power that this simple story would evoke.’’

While in Savannah during his tour, Sam received news from his publisher that ‘‘Guess How Much I Love You’’ had won the 1996 American Bookseller’s Book of the Year Award - which is voted on by booksellers nationwide as the title they most enjoyed selling in 1995.

‘‘Nothing boosts an author more than having the booksellers behind you,’’ smiles Maralyn. ‘‘The ceremony was attended by 150 booksellers, publishers and librarians.

‘‘Luckily, Sam didn’t see the size of the crowd before he went on stage!

‘‘He didn’t realise that more of this lay ahead and that he would have to get used to it.’’

Over the next few years, ‘‘Guess How Much I Love You,’’ became a genuine bestseller, usually reaching one million copies per year.

‘‘Sam would frequently wear a tie, hand-painted on silk for him by Anita Jeram, which became part of the touring uniform,’’ recalls Maralyn.

In the spring of 2011, Sam was invited to participate in the National Book Festival in Washington, the premier book festival in America with over 150,000 attendees.

‘‘On the descent into Reagan you could see the Monument, the Mall, the Capitol and all the tents ready to be set up for the festival to begin.

‘‘Sam was heard to mutter, ‘‘I need my wee head examined!’’ - no doubt daunted by the thought of what lay ahead,’’ smiles Maralyn good-humouredly.

Sam signed for hours - but in a sign of his popularity, the queue never shortened: ‘‘People had to be restricted to one book only for signing,’’ Marayln explains.

‘‘There were many moments of extraordinary conversation.’’

Maralyn recalls in the spring of 2014 attending a ‘‘very special dinner’ in the city of Bologna celebrating 20 years of ‘‘Guess How Much I Love You.’’

‘‘For Sam, this event at the famous book fair was truly one of the highlights in the evolving story of ‘‘Guess How Much I Love You.’’

‘‘By now, this well-loved picture book had been translated into more than 53 languages. And here, gathered in one place, were many of the people responsible for the international co-editions.

‘‘During his speech, Sam took his listeners back to the year 1976, when his first book, ‘‘Mark Time’’ was published.

‘‘One day in his mail he found a foreign edition of the story. It had been translated into Danish. Alas, 18 years were to pass before any of Sam’s other books became a co-edition,’’ Maralyn adds.

‘‘But then, 53 co-editions appeared within a few years of each other!

‘‘The explosion of international interest in Sam’s work was not confined to ‘‘Guess How Much I Love You.’’ ‘‘You’re All My Favourites’’ and other titles were bought by many foreign companies.’’

Sam and Maralyn bid a fond farewell to touring in Sam’s 78th year and on the 25th anniversary of ‘‘Guess How Much I Love You.’’

Maralyn quoted Sam: ‘‘To meet all those people through the years, to hear their personal stories of reading Guess, shows that a picture book can be used in many ways.

‘‘It has been read aloud at weddings and funerals, in cathedrals and town halls, and of course a baby shower wouldn’t be complete without a gift of copy of ‘‘Guess How Much I Love You.’’

‘‘But Sam never failed to point out that ‘‘Guess How Much I Love You’’ is a light-hearted little story, designed to help a big one and a wee one enjoy the pleasure of being together.’’