Oliver Jeffers has a weird sensibility for a picture book author and illustrator. The thing is, he has an effortlessly amiable way with weird, whether it is a boy who discovers he gets smarter when he eats books, a stoically lost penguin or a kid who tosses a number of increasingly huge (and impossible) items into a tree to dislodge his kite. Jeffers's sparse illustrations are populated with big headed humans, a curious assortment of animals and charmingly off-kilter hand lettering, all of which are perfectly paired with his stories. Besides bringing an uncommon illustration style to the pages of picture books, Jeffers is actually a gifted picture book writer as well. Talented author and illustrator? Double rare. That said, even double rare can miss the mark sometimes - creativity doesn't always mean consistency. That said, Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters, happens to Jeffers at his absolute best. It's a home run and a prime example of what can be really wonderful about Jeffers's books.
Once Upon an Alphabet breaks the picture book mold in gentle ways, including a running length of 112 pages rather than the typical 32 and a cover price $10 more than the average picture book. Also, Once Upon an Alphabet is far from a traditional ABC book, as to be expected when it comes to Jeffers. It's more a collection of stories with an alphabet theme running through it than a child's primer. Each letter gets a story, and not just a string of less-than-logical alliterative words honoring each letter, which you get with most ABC picture books that try to have a narrative. Most letters get three pages of story and illustrations, (although many of the stories are the same length as a Shel Silverstein poem) with the page turn of the third frequently delivering a punchline. Like Stuck, reviewed here in 2011 (along with reviews of all Jeffers's other picture books up to that date), Once Upon an Alphabet takes mundane everyday characters and situations and gets subtly silly pretty quickly.
The letter A introduces us to Edmund, an astronaut, is scared of heights, specifically anything more than 3 feet off the ground. Edmund had a "long way to go. Another three hundred and twenty-eight thousand, four hundred and thirteen feet to be accurate." B's story is about Bernard and Bob who have been fighting neighbors for so long they forgot what the feud was about. One day Bob decides to end the fight for good by burning the bridge between his home and Bernard's. In doing so, Bob learns an important lesson - "he needed the bridge to get back." There are also yetis (who buy yo-yos without string) sea cucumbers (and the vegetable kind) zeppelins, robots, jelly doors, "whiraffes" (an invention mash-up: a giraffe body with two whisks instead of a head) and an octopus and owl problem solving duo. In fact, if you look closely, you'll see that this problem solving pair helps out some old, lost friends who want to learn how to fly.
But, what really makes Once Upon an Alphabet especially perfect is the fact that the characters recur throughout the story. Edmund the astronaut from the A story reappears in Z and he has made some progress! Overcoming his fear of heights, just a little bit, he purchases a Zeppelin and drives it a steady 4 feet from the ground. Now "only three hundred and twenty-eight thousand, four hundred and twelve feet to go." My favorite, however, is the story for E where the question is posed, "How many elephants can you fit in en envelope? Turn to the letter N to find out . . ." Once there, you will be treated to a visual feast as well as a tiny, Miss Clavel-type nun.
Oliver Jeffers's books that have come out since my review of Stuck in 2011:
And, of course, the bestseller that just may make Jeffers a household name, The Day the Crayons Quit, written by Drew Daywalt -
Fans of The Day the Crayons Quit will be happy to hear that the follow-up, The Day the Crayons Came Home, is due out in August of this year, and a movie is in the works!