When it comes to writing and illustrating picture books, Janet and Allan Ahlberg are truly in a class of their own. Each Peach Pear Plum (1978), a whimsical wander through a nursery-rhyme wood, might just be the quintessential “I spy” book for children; perhaps it’s equalled only by Peepo! (1981), a book for babies that is somehow also about wartime Britain. It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (1993) is a less-recognised masterpiece, but it’s a masterpiece nonetheless: the tale of Antonio and the brigands is so wildly inventive that I rank it as my favourite book of all time.
And, of course, there’s The Jolly Postman.
The Jolly Postman (or Other People’s Letters) is an idea so good, so wonderful, that it fills me with joy just to remember that the book exists. Published in 1986, the book is a collection of letters and envelopes, as found in the mailbag of the eponymous postman – but these are no ordinary letters. You see, this postman serves the fairy-tale community, and as such his postal route is unusually perilous. On this particular day, he’s carrying an apology note to the Three Bears, a postcard addressed to a giant, and even a cease-and-desist notice for the Big Bad Wolf.
But best of all is the letter he delivers to the Wicked Witch.
I read this book countless times as a kid, but no letter excited me more than this piece of witchy junk mail. The very idea – that a witch might receive junk mail – is so ridiculous, so inspired, that it thrills me to open the letter even now. And that’s before I’ve even started reading about the products! There are the Halloween Boots, available in “five lovely colours” – but all the colours are black! There’s the Little Boy Pie Mix – made proudly with the “finest natural ingredients!” And, as a special bonus, you can even get a free “Witch Watch” with every order!
Seriously, this letter blows my mind. Even the envelope is great: it’s addressed only to “The Occupant,” and includes a return address of “Hobgoblin Supplies Ltd., Warlock Mountain.” Who are these hobgoblins targeting witches with anonymous supply catalogues? What is the Magic Traders Circle? And how can you turn some powder into a frog by just adding water?
Suffice to say, I find this book very inspiring. It fostered within me a love of found texts: a passion for documents that look as if they’re just for adults, but which are actually filled with secret, arcane knowledge. I love reading the classified ads in the paper, just to marvel at the weird things people are buying and selling. Community notice boards are even better, with a whole collage of battered posters advertising strange goods and services. Wouldn’t it be easy for a witch to slip in a notice as well, so that she might gather a bucket of snails or some other ingredient for her latest potion? In the age of Gumtree, I doubt anyone would even bat an eyelid.
The witch from the book, by the way, is something of a fairy-tale pastiche: she lives in a gingerbread bungalow, carries a broomstick, and has even trained her black cat to do the washing up. Her generic nature perfectly suits her generically-addressed letter. Actually, it’s a bit sad to see how happy she is to receive a piece of unsolicited mail. Is she lonely, out there in the woods?
Regardless: I love the Ahlbergs, and I’m truly grateful for all their books. Thanks, Ahlbergs. You two were the best.
— There are two more books in the Jolly Postman series: The Jolly Christmas Postman (1991) and The Jolly Pocket Postman (1995), the latter of which was published after Janet’s death. Both sequels are just as good as the original. Really, are there any other picture book trilogies as strong as this?
— Allan and Janet have a daughter, Jessica Ahlberg, who has also become an illustrator. She’s pretty darn good. The Goldilocks Variations (2012), a collaboration between Jessica and Allan, is probably the best Ahlberg book since Pocket Postman – which leaves me hoping that father and daughter might one day revisit the famous postman franchise once more. Allan is mostly retired now though, so it’s very unlikely, and I would also completely respect the decision to leave the postman legacy alone. (But also, what if it was great?)
— The circular from Hobgoblin Supplies Ltd. is my equal favourite illustration of all time. It’s tied with the cross-section of the haunted castle from It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, and probably also the feast scene from that same book. Equal second place is held by every other illustration Janet ever did.
— The Wicked Witch from The Jolly Postman looks quite similar to the Wicked Witch from Each Peach Pear Plum. I wonder if they’re related?
— Janet is a two-time winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal for excellence in children’s illustration: once for Each Peach Pear Plum, and again for The Jolly Christmas Postman.
— I’ve been working on a “found text” project of my own, but it’s so big and crazy that I doubt I’ll ever finish it. How did the Ahlbergs possibly manage three of them?
— I’d also love to write some picture books eventually. I think a big part of it is meeting the right collaborator, though, so I’m happy to wait until I know a few more artists. It would be nice if my girlfriend could step up to the plate, but the only thing she knows how to draw is a cartoon chicken.
— I suppose I could write a book about a chicken…