The Jolly Postman (Janet & Allan Ahlberg, 1986)

It’s been a weird writing week, due to travel. A more substantial post tomorrow, and then back to a normal schedule next week.

picturebookpicksThe Jolly Postman, or Other People’s Letters is one of many fine books by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, a British husband-and-wife children’s book team, that play with familiar fairy tales and nursery rhymes. The best-known is their book Each Peach Pear Plum, which is a lovely little “I Spy” type book with simple rhymes about nursery rhyme characters. But when I remember what delighted me when I was a child, The Jolly Postman is the easy winner.

The premise is simple: a postman rides around the town on his bicycle, delivering mail to the all the fairy tale and nursery rhyme people. But it’s the book’s construction that is brilliant: every other page is actually an envelope, with a letter inside that you can remove and read. This is not a book for a classroom—the pieces will be quickly lost. But a single reader can keep all the letters neatly organized to be pulled out at will.

The letters are an engaging mix of styles. There’s a letter from Golidlocks to the three bears apologizing for her behavior and inviting Baby Bear to her birthday party (complete with little pictures Goldilocks drew in the margins). There’s a notice to the Big Bad Wolf from the law firm Meeny, Miny, Mo & Co. threatening legal action with regard to his treatment of Little Red’s grandmother and the three pigs (“All this huffing and puffing will get you nowhere”). There’s a catalog of magical items for the Wicked Witch (“Easy-clean non-stick Cauldron Set, with free recipe for Toad in the hole—150 year guarantee!”). And so on… Each has its own distinctive style—of both words and visuals—and rewards readers who remember details of each story without needing heavy-handed reminders. You’re invited to make associations yourself from what you know of the stories (as when Goldilocks writes, “Daddy says he will mend the little chair”).

As the words reward thoughtful readers, the illustrations reward careful observers. There are clever details all over the place, from the postmarks on the letters to the contents of the Wicked Witch’s kitchen counter, and clever little references to other stories. And yet somehow all this complexity of content doesn’t detract from the simple, friendly appeal of the ink and watercolor illustrations.

Also, though the book was published over a quarter-century ago, it’s actually quite good training for readers in the internet age. Every page has a main illustrations but also several smaller ones that may connect to the story tangentially, or thematically, or as another part of the narrative. You could read the story straight through without pausing for the letters, or you could skip around to your favorite letters, or you could get sucked into the small book-within-a-book that a “publisher” mails to Cinderella, or you could spend your time just looking at the illustrations and finding all the references and little jokes. Which is to say, it’s almost like reading content online, with side-bars and hyperlinks and all kinds of content vying for your attention all over the place—but with a crucial difference: it’s all static, so the child has the time to actually process it all, and decide what path to take. They can go back and try it again, without distractions or changes. It’s like a little choose-your-own-adventure for the picture-book set, and it’s great for children to have some exposure to a branching, choice-based text before being plunged straight into the roiling, distracting seas of the internet.

Finally, the story is just so good-hearted it’s hard not to be charmed by it. A lot of the mini-narratives are about civility and reconciliation, and even the Big Bad Wolf offers the postman a cup of tea. But it’s not twee or pat—rather, it’s friendly. It’s great to have a story that’s just nice, without sacrificing complexity or depth.

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You probably have a child to buy a book for in this holidayish time—check out other books I recommend at!


One thought on “The Jolly Postman (Janet & Allan Ahlberg, 1986)

  1. Susan Schweik December 13, 2012 at 4:47 pm Reply

    Timely, given the wonderful sequel where the postman delivers Christmas greetings!

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