Julia Eccleshare talks to Allan Ahlberg about The Jolly Pocket Postman
Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s The Jolly Pocket Postman will always have a place in history because it’s the last book Janet illustrated before her death in November 1994.
But it also plays an important part in marking Janet and Allan’s development as creators of original books and particularly of novelty picture books.
Never ones to stand still with ideas and having already broken traditional barriers by doing a ‘catalogue’ book – The Baby’s Catalogue and a book which tells the story through a hole – Peepo, the Ahlbergs created The Jolly Postman based on an idea which came from watching their daughter Jessica’s delight at opening letters. ‘We thought it was sliced bread,’ says Allan. ‘We both loved the idea of spinning stories off fairy stories and we came up with many versions of a book before we came on the final one. We sent a letter of explanation to our publisher but she couldn’t see exactly how it would work. “What will they do with the letters when they’ve read them?” she asked. We decided we’d have to make a dummy to show people exactly how it would be.’
The whole process took a long time. Jessica was two when the idea was first conceived and seven when the book was published. And the Ahlbergs were right. It was sliced bread.
‘Sequels are mostly a mistake,’ says Allan, but the Ahlbergs couldn’t stop having ideas after the success of The Jolly Postman. The Jolly Christmas Postman followed and now The Jolly Pocket Postman has added an extra small-scale dimension. ‘We could have done a fourth and in it we’d have gone backwards in age. We wanted to do a really simple “parcel” book for the very young and for a fifth we’d thought of letters to a sick child from visiting relatives.’
To be truly successful a novelty book must exploit its novelty to a purpose. The letters in The Jolly Postman tell the parts of stories that are missing from their fairy tale originals. The sequel, The Jolly Christmas Postman, depends, as any good Christmas book should, on the idea of gifts.
‘The trick is to match the device – the flap, the hole, or whatever – with the narrative story,’ Allan says. ‘The jigsaw in the Humpty Dumpty envelope comes from the idea of “putting together” Humpty Dumpty. You have to find the right match between the mechanism and the idea.’ Of course, not all ideas come to fruition when you hope or expect them to. ‘We wanted something with glitter in the first book but we didn’t get it. We didn’t get it in the second either, but we did get it in the third.’
The third is The Jolly Pocket Postman which had an unusual provenance for the Ahlbergs who usually draw so closely from their own experience. ‘We had a whole pile of letters from a school in Texas. There were about 30 of them, written by kids of 10 or 11. “You must do another one,” they wrote, and they gave us various suggestions. One was that Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz would meet a cute boy, who would be – The Jolly Postman. We both downed tools and Janet drew a spread of the winding path. There’s a kind of symmetry between the Oz story and Alice – Dorothy follows the Yellow Brick Road to find the magician of Oz and Alice falls down a rabbit hole and reaches Wonderland. So we put Alice in and I also put in some of my favourite story (though not Janet’s), ‘The Constant Tin Soldier’. We worked away at all this for three or four days, then we found the teacher’s letter. It gave the game away. The whole thing was an assignment – “Can you persuade these guys to make another book?”’
Allan is rueful that it wasn’t the children’s own idea but, by the time he and Janet had discovered the truth, the seeds had been so well planted they had to go on.
‘From when the letters came, to the overall shape of the book took about five days. We didn’t think of the audience. It was never there. Janet and I were playing a fast game of table tennis. The fun was chasing the idea until we got it.’
And get it they did in a book that has all the warmth and immediacy of the original but which also plays clever games with the idea of narrative. A book within a book has long been a conceit of the Ahlbergs and in The Jolly Pocket Postman the idea is extended as the pocket version tells a different story by altering the starting point.
Allan’s love of many-layered storytelling, matched by Janet’s rare talent for combining beauty and humour in her illustrations, has given us, in addition to all their other books, three novelty books which show clearly how quality, and what may easily be dismissed as gimmickry, can be most creatively united.
The Jolly Postman, 0 434 95635 X, £10.99
The Jolly Christmas Postman, 0 434 92532 2, £9.99
The Jolly Pocket Postman, 0 434 96942 7, £10.99
(all from Heinemann)
The Baby’s Catalogue, Viking, 0 670 80895 4, £8.99; Puffin, 0 14 050385 4, £4.50 pbk
Peepo, Viking, 0 670 80344 8, £8.99; Puffin, 0 14 050384 6, £3.99 pbk
Julia Eccleshare works as a freelance book consultant and is the Editor for children’s books coverage in the Bookseller. This year she is Chair of the judging panel for the Smarties Book Prize.