Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers
Review by Anne Malewski
Once upon an Oliver, we met a boy with a penguin friend, a curious girl who put her heart in a bottle, a moose that belongs to no one, a bear who was a paperplane enthusiast, and many more who, I daresay, live happily ever after in readers’ minds.
Those picturebooks are excellent both in content and form, as are his paintings and music videos. Without losing his distinct style, Oliver Jeffers keeps exploring and experimenting enthusiastically and he has outdone himself with Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for all the Letters (2014). Again.
Jeffers has reimagined the concept of alphabet books, shifting the emphasis from educational to inspirational (where Once Upon an Alphabet imparts information, on dark matter for example, it does so cheekily and sneakily). Lovingly dedicated to the letters without whom words and sentences and stories would be impossible, his book celebrates each letter with a short story of its own. Not to explain letters but for the letters.
It is tricky to avoid becoming formulaic when following a formula, in this case, a story for each letter, but Jeffers seems to freewheel effortlessly. Some of the stories are poetic, some prosaic, some use plenty of alliterations with the respective letter, some don’t, some characters’ storylines continue elsewhere in the book (even in the endpapers), some stories are more self-contained, some stories take existing sayings literally, some pose mathematical problems (or elephantine equations). Some of the illustrations are sketches, some are very elaborate, some are unlike anything we’ve seen in his picturebooks before. As usual, Jeffers mixes art and science, offering quirky hoorays for creativity. Catching me quite off guard, there are even some heartbreakingly sad bits, which are reminiscent of Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963) in tone. Luckily, readers’ hearts are not left hanging and, then, there’s also the warming excitement of meeting old friends (at Jeffers’s favourite letter, no less) and making new ones such as the octopus, the owl, and Danger Delilah.
This picturebook feels both darker and funnier than Jeffers’s previous picturebooks, and the illustrations are consistently brilliant. We’re fortunate that Oliver Jeffers and his brother (who did the book’s design) weren’t made to get, as it says in the dedication, “a real job”.
Once Upon an Alphabet ticked all the Kate Greenaway Award boxes, and then some, with varying degrees of cheekiness. While, unfortunately, it did not win the Greenaway Medal, I have no doubts that this fine picturebook is not struggling to find devoted readers.
Illustrations from the text via Oliver Jeffers’ website.
The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove.