The piglet squealed, the mini pony and donkey baulked, the goose and duck squawked, the chooks clucked, the goat and sheep bleated.

We giggling back-stage helpers were pleased the rabbits were obliging. They quietly nibbled grass ahead of their performance at last weekend's Whangārei A&P Show.

All were to star alongside the much-loved children's book character Mrs Wishy Washy, who really did have her work cut out.

This bustling woman, created by children's author Dame Joy Cowley, is so obsessed with cleanliness she's been washing animals for almost 40 years and shows no sign of slowing down. About 40 million copies of Mrs Wishy Washy books have sold worldwide.

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With Dame Joy's blessing, Mrs Wishy Washy has leapt into real life thanks to Sara Ball, a Ruawai woman with an abundance of critters, a passion for story telling and a devotion to children.

Busloads have rolled up to her farm for Mrs Wishy Washy shows and sometimes she's loaded up her horse float with birds and animals and performed at schools and preschools.

This was her first public event and the organisation involved was immense. There were five of us lining up animals and birds so they'd hit the stage on cue.

This is how things rolled: Mrs Wishy Washy was dressed to story book perfection in a blue smock which was a snug fit over what could never ever be defined as an undergarment. To be an authentic Mrs Wishy Washy, one must be trussed up in thick foam.

A bristly hair curler hanging over her forehead was held firm by a fetching purple scarf. It's not a look that suits everyone. Or anyone, actually.

As she takes centre stage, three cages of exotic poultry and a cage of rabbits wait backstage.

Someone holds Cameo the mini pony and a sweet young goat, another holds a sheep and Candy the donkey, while yet another holds the kunekune piglet who's mastered the knack of slipping from his harness.

Others clutch the duck and goose, but they're such squawking handfuls they are returned to their pen to await curtain call.

On stage, Mrs Wishy Washy welcomes the crowd and encourages kids to play along. First, one brave child selects a card which identifies which animal opens the show.

The piglet wins. Fearing it will slip to freedom, I carry the squealing bundle to Mrs Wishy Washy. The instant he's back on the ground, the piglet shuts up and allows himself to be washed by several children.

Then Mrs Wishy Washy has the kids guess what the pig eats - which is just about everything - and the shape of its footprint. As well as entertainment, she brings an educational aspect to the game; the books come with notes so teachers can help children learn to read.

After each critter has been washed and had its diet and feet discussed, it's returned to its pen where, hopefully, it will go on to live according to Mrs Wishy Washy's rules: Be clean, be neat, look tidy, smell sweet. If not, I guess it's back for another dose of soap suds.

The worst that happened was Candy the donkey stood on Mrs Wishy Washy's elegant, hot-pink slipper clad foot. Like the trooper she is, our star merely winced and kept on going.

The show must go on.