Friday, 22 November 2013

Top Shelf Books #6 - The Jolly Postman by Janet & Allan Ahlberg

The next book to make it to The Top Shelf is another picture book.  Never underestimate the power of a good picture book:

The Jolly Postman or Other People’s Letters by Janet & Allan Ahlberg, 1986.

‘Once upon a bicycle,
So they say,
A Jolly Postman came one day
From over the hills
And far away…’

This was one of the best pictures books I ever read as a child and looking at it again now, it’s still witty and inventive.

If you don’t know this book, let me explain.  It’s a simple rhyming story about a postman delivering letters to various nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters, and every other page is actually an envelope containing the letter he is delivering.

So, while one of the best picture books (nothing will ever outshine Graham Oakley’s Church Mice books in that category), this is the best interactive book I’ve ever handled.

When I was a child, this book opened up The Imagination every time I picked it up.  It is simply ingenious.

‘So the Witch read the letter
With a cackle of glee
While the Postman read the paper
But left his tea.  (It was green!)’

The writing is very sharp, which is hugely impressive given the restrictive rhyming structure.  The illustrations are attractive and detailed (I’m a sucker for all the little details) and always add more than the text describes, creating re-readability.  So it’s a great book before you even get to the interactive part.

And what an interactive idea.  The thought and detail here is astounding.  The envelopes are realistic, with stamps and postmark detail, so for a child this really does feel real.  And there is a huge variety of letters.  A handwritten note, a catalogue circular, a postcard, a formal printed letter with tiny sample book, a solicitor’s letter and a birthday card with money…  There’s got to be educational value here introducing children to different writing styles (and illustration styles in some cases), but more importantly, there’s no chance of getting bored.  To be able to physically handle items being described in the story makes the reader part of the story in a way no other book can achieve.  It’s like some kind of magic portal.

The Favourite Illustration is in the letter from Goldilocks to the Three Bears, in which she has drawn the sky as one thin blue line at the top of the page.  This is exactly how The Friends and I used to draw the sky.  This attention to detail and clear understanding of the child mind is both impressive and what’s so appealing about the book. 

Another classic in its own right is the sequel:

The Jolly Christmas Postman by Janet & Allan Ahlberg, 1991

‘Once upon a Christmas Eve
Just after it had snowed,
The Jolly Postman (him again!)
Came down the jolly road;
And in the bag upon his back
An… interesting load.’

This one’s set at Christmas (duh) but otherwise follows the same format as the first book and revisits a lot of the same characters and shows how their lives have progressed since last time.  Considering that the letters are already set after the happy or not-so endings of the fairy tales, this continuation of life really challenges the finite endings children are surrounded by, helping develop both the imagination and a sophistication in story telling and understanding the world around them.

‘The Postman gets back on his bike
And rides another mile.
A crooked mile, in actual fact,
It takes him quite a while.
He never finds the sixpence, though,
Or, come to that, the stile.
And, besides, the crooked man has it.’

This is part of the beauty of these books.  It shows recognisable fantastical characters in a setting that’s familiar to the child audience.  First the child will get a kick out of recognising all the references to the stories in both the rhymes and especially the illustrations, which is always going to be fun and rewarding.  But second, the idea that wicked witches and big bad wolves receive mail from the postman, and newspapers and solicitors and advertising and milkmen and removal trucks and ambulances and hospitals and all sorts of everyday normality exists in this fantasy world is far more interesting than the original fairy tales.  It makes the unfamiliar recognisable and again opens up the imagination – does this mean these characters actually live in our world? – if these fairy tales are connected, are all stories connected?  There are endless opportunities here for the child to go on to make up their own stories, to get so much more out of the old fairy tales they’ve heard so many times, or to just play with some toy letters.

Like I said above, ingenious.

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