If you’re in any sort of position where you read a lot of picture books—teacher, librarian, or reviewer—then you may understand the alphabet book ennui that sometimes sets in. There are a lot of alphabet books in this world, more published annually, and some are better than others. But you see so many of them that you wonder if the new one in your hands can possibly be any good—and your brain also immediately goes to: What on earth can they even do with the letter X that hasn’t already been done?
Leave it to author-illustrator Oliver Jeffers to shake things up a bit. “If words make up stories,” he writes in his newest book, Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters, “and letters make up words, then stories are made of letters. In this menagerie we have stories, made of words, made FOR all the letters.” Thus begins this collection of short stories for each letter of the alphabet—and he means short, as in one to five pages for each, though they’re all compiled in a tall, 112-page book. And it’s really funny stuff.
The Edward Gorey sensibility in this book is strong. If you’re expecting short stories about apples, bears and cupcakes, you’ll have to look for another book. There’s death (Danger Delilah stares right into the face of the Grim Reaper, in fact); destruction (Cup, who dreams of living by the window instead of in a cupboard, tries to make a jump for it but meets his end on the concrete floor); hurricanes (poor Helen and her house); lightning strikes (more than once); rusting robots; drowning cucumbers; scheming children wanting to exact revenge (watch out for Victor); and even terrified typists, who brings monsters to life with words.
Jeffers never goes for the obvious either: You might imagine that each tiny story includes as many words as possible that begin with the letter in question. Nope, not always. Sometimes he does this, such as with “Made of Matter,” the marvelous story for the letter M: “Mary is made of matter. So is her mother. And her mother’s moose.”
But for the most part, Jeffers doesn’t restrict himself in this way with his prose (though, to be sure, at least one story is rhymed). Take, for instance, “Guarding Things,” the letter G’s story:
“Leopold Picard is a really great guard.
He’ll guard anything he is given, provided he is asked nicely enough. (Good manners are very important, you know.)
His current assignment is a bit boring. But he doesn’t mind.
It’s much better than his last one.”
No servile devotion here to making nearly every word begin with a G. We’ve seen those alphabet books. Things get stilted and boring fast. Jeffers frees himself up here to tell a good story, instead. And what do the illustrations show? Why, Leopold is guarding a glacier. The last job involved a gorilla. (Shall I say a gorilla experiencing great gall? Well, I can’t help it.)
The stories are filled with the dry humor for which Jeffers is known. In F’s story, “Forever,” Ferdinand takes his frog out for a walk. They come upon a huge hole. “In fact it was the world’s biggest hole and it went on forever.” Right next to it is a sign that says “careful now.” Blink and you’ll miss it. But it’s these moments of subtlety and understated humor that make many of Jeffers’ books so rewarding. Turns out, too, that Ferdinand drops a penny in this hole to see how long it would take till it hit the bottom. On the next page, Ferdinand is an elderly man—the penny is still falling after all, since “forever never ends”—and his frog on the leash is now a skeleton. (Hey, I told you death and destruction are involved.)
And close readers will spot many of the characters and objects in one story appearing in another. That cup who fell to his end on the concrete floor in the letter C’s story gets some help from owl and octopus in the letter O’s story. Observant eyes will see that they glue Cup back together; that is, after all, what owl and octopus do. They search for and then solve problems. (Really astute readers will notice the boy from Lost and Found, Jeffers’ 2005 picture book, on the same spread.)
In the book’s memorable opening dedication, Jeffers writes (from himself and someone we can assume is a sibling): “To Dad. Thanks for never making us get a real job.” Yes, thank you, Oliver's dad, since as a result, we readers get to enjoy books as clever-witted and deliciously fun as this one.
ONCE UPON AN ALPHABET: SHORT STORIES FOR ALL THE LETTERS. Copyright © 2014 by Oliver Jeffers. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, Philomel Books, New York.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.