The latest picture book by author-illustrator Oliver Jeffers, Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories For All the Letters, offers a new spin on the usual picture book structure. As the title suggests, the story consists of 26 vignettes accompanied by watercolor and ink illustrations.
The short stories are, unsurprisingly, hilarious. They offer absurd new ideas about language and the world, from an astronaut with a fear of heights, to a lightning prone lumberjack, to an octopus and owl detective agency. Combining text and drawn dialogue, the book progresses in a looser order than most, with a large cast of characters and highly varied plot. The language is simple, each story made up of a few sentences with a final punch line just before the end, and as the alphabet continues into the later letters, the story shows previous characters coming back to make appearances in other vignettes. Likewise, the illustrations, which consist of a few lines and large splashes of color, manage to use their simple nature and surreal subjects to catch a reader’s attention and hold it.
The stories are short and funny, obviously meant for entertainment, but there are moments within the stories that range from ridiculously morbid, to oddly sad, to inspiringly clever. My favorite story is one linking the book’s beginning to its end, in which as astronaut who is deathly afraid of heights attempts to work his way up from three feet off the ground to more than three hundred thousand. By the end of the story, we see him again at Z (for Zeppelin), cruising at four feet off the ground as everyone, including an alien, cheers his progress. It is in moments like this, moments that are both funny and filled with hope, that the book excels, and any child who reads this can detect the importance of the message.
Children just starting to gain some independence in reading will have a blast reading the chapter-like sections, and the length of the book allows for them to pause at reasonable intervals and even go back to reread their favorite sections. This charming and unique take on the alphabet is sure to appeal to children and adults alike.
Reviewed by: Veronica Kittle-Kamp