Fulfilling the roles of author, illustrator and publisher as well as printer and bookseller, Althea Braithwaite, who has died aged 80, wrote more than 200 titles and created a distinctive brand of children’s books.
Lively, uncondescending and information rich, these non-fiction books covered familiar subjects such as fire engines and nature, but it was Althea’s Talk It Over series, later updated and reissued as Talking It Through, that gave the list its individual feel. Based on her premise that everyone copes better with the unexpected if they know something about it beforehand – and well-researched, with Althea taking notice of the opinions of both children and subject specialists – the books were designed to help children navigate new or difficult situations.
As an author-illustrator, Althea – who published many books under her first name only – found her greatest success with Desmond the Dinosaur, a charming character whose experiences were told in titles including Desmond and the Monsters (1975) and Desmond and the Stranger 1979), as well as through more “issue” based topics including starting school, going to the vet and feeling lonely. Desmond’s universal appeal was confirmed by the adaption of some of the stories for TV, and several books were reissued 30 years after their original publication.
Braithwaite was born in Pinner, Middlesex, the younger daughter of Rosemary (nee Harris) and Francis Braithwaite. Her father’s postings as an air vice-marshal in the RAF meant the family moved frequently and Althea’s earliest schooling was in Malta. There she first became absorbed in nature, which was to be a source of inspiration in her work.
Returning to the UK when she was nine, she went to school in London before joining her sister, Gillian, at Felixstowe college, a girls’ boarding school in Suffolk, in 1951. She hated the lack of privacy and was not a natural conformist, but holidays in Southwold, with great freedom to explore, were a consolation.
At 16, Althea left school and went to join her parents in Singapore, but her father was killed in a flying accident soon afterwards. Althea had hoped to study photography but there was no funding. Instead, she did a secretarial course while also developing her interest in painting.
In 1960 she moved to Cambridge and picked up administrative work for Cambridge Consultants, an agency placing bright graduates in industry jobs. When the firm bought up a building complete with a printing company in financial difficulties, Althea was offered the chance to run it. She knew nothing about printing but was sure she could learn.
Althea quickly turned Polyhedron into a viable business. She found she had a good eye for design and began to think about creating her own books. Encouraged by her husband, Mike Graham-Cameron, whom she had married in 1964, Althea wrote and illustrated some stories, which were the original drafts for the Desmond the Dinosaur titles.
Polyhedron became increasingly profitable and the couple bought it from Cambridge Consultants. Moving the company to their home in a village outside Cambridge, they expanded by setting up Dinosaur Publications specifically to publish Althea’s books. Good review coverage of the new titles also brought commissions for Althea from other publishers, including the National Trust, for whom she created nature guides.
Never traditional in either format or look, Althea’s illustrations were bold in line and colour. Her style of writing and illustrating was simple and direct and had a ready magnetism for children.
Dinosaur Publications grew too big for Althea to manage on her own. Collins offered to buy it and Althea regretfully decided to let it go as she had become more interested in creating her own books than running the business. She remained as a consultant to the list for four years but gradually withdrew.
Following divorce from Graham-Cameron, in 1979 Althea married Edward Parker and together they set up a mobile children’s bookshop, which they took around East Anglia. The idea was very well received but sales were small and after a couple of years they abandoned the project and instead travelled the world in a camper van.
Althea continued to write and republished some of her titles through digital media. At the same time, she moved to painting, starting initially with painting furniture and then painting on glass before acquiring a kiln and working on fused glass works. With vivid reds and electric blues, her glass art was visually totally different from her illustrations but equally striking. Her work sold well in galleries across the UK and she was particularly involved with the Stained Glass Museum at Ely Cathedral.
She is survived by Edward, her son, Duncan, from her first marriage, and stepson, Stuart, and by Gillian.
• Althea Mary Braithwaite, author, illustrator, publisher and glass artist, born 20 June 1940; died 27 August 2020