Once Upon an Alphabet: Oliver Jeffers’s Imaginative Illustrated Stories for the Letters
A warm and wonderful celebration of the paradoxes and perplexities that make us human.
By Maria Popova
In the 1990s, three decades after the debut of his now-iconic grim alphabet book, the great Edward Gorey reimagined the letters in a series of 26-word cryptic stories. Now comes a worthy modern counterpart by one of the most original and imaginative children’s book storytellers and artists of our time: Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters (public library) by Oliver Jeffers — an unusual and utterly wonderful tour of the familiar letters that takes a whimsical detour via quirky, lyrical, delightfully alliterative tales for each, and makes a fine addition to the canon of offbeat alphabet books.
Jeffers’s art is subtle yet immeasurably expressive. His stories brim with the fallible and heartening humanity that makes up our vastly imperfect but mostly noble selves — our paradoxes (A is for “astronaut,” and Edmund the astronaut is afraid of heights), the silly stubbornnesses (B is for “burning a bridge” and we meet neighbors Bernard and Bob, who have spent years “battling each other for reasons neither could remember”), the playful flights of curiosity (E is for “enigma,” like the question of how many elephants can fit inside an envelope), the existential perplexities (in P, a “puzzled parsnip” spirals into anguish over realizing that he is neither a carrot nor a potato), the self-defeating control tactics we employ in attempting to assuage our fear of impermanence (the robots in R are so terrified of rusting that they steal the rainclouds from the sky and lug them around in carts).
There are touches of loveliness and thoughtfulness: The budding scientist (M is for “made of matter”) is a little girl and the manly lumberjack (L) lucubrates by lamplight, reading a copy of Once Upon an Alphabet.
There are also charming winks at continuity: The nun in N flips the enigma from E and posits that “nearly nine thousand” envelopes can fit inside an elephant; the fearless owl and octopus duo in O, who roam the ocean searching for problems to solve, come to the rescue when a regular cucumber plunges into the ocean in S (for “sink or swim”) because he “watched a program about sea cucumbers and thought it might be a better life for him,” only to realize he didn’t know how to swim; when Xavier in X wakes up one morning and is devastated to find out that his prized X-ray spectacles have been stolen, he rings the owl and the octopus for help.
There is, too, a sprinkle of Goreyesque darkness alongside the delight, speaking to Maurice Sendak’s conviction that children shouldn’t be sheltered from the dark: In T, a writer sits in front of his “terrible typewriter,” which has the uncanny ability to make his stories come true, until one day he is eaten by a monster he wrote. (The creature, coincidentally, is reminiscent of Sendak’s Wild Things.) In H, Helen lives in a half house, the other half having been swept into the sea by a hurricane; “being lazy, and not owning a hammer,” she hadn’t quite got around to fixing it yet” — so one day, she rolls out the wrong side of the bed and plummets into the ocean.
Once Upon an Alphabet is immeasurably wonderful in its totality, both sensitive and irreverent, kind and quirky. Complement it with Jeffers’s Stuck, then revisit a few other marvelous alphabet books by Gertrude Stein, Quentin Blake, and Maurice Sendak.
Illustrations courtesy of Oliver Jeffers; photographs my own
Published October 23, 2014