“Each Peach Pear Plum” and “The Jolly Postman,” both written and illustrated by the husband and wife team of Janet and Allan Ahlberg, remain to this day two of the most treasured book titles from my youth. I’ve bought each time and time again for new parents and young children, and I have as much fun reading them today with my daughters as I did when I was a child myself.
Within these books, the Ahlbergs have created a world in which the folk of nursery rhymes, mother goose and fairy tales live among each other as friends and neighbors. We are invited to explore what happened after “happily ever after” in a manner and humor similar to the modern-day Shrek franchise.
“Each Peach Pear Plum,” first published in 1978, is an “I Spy” style board book written with a poetry reminiscent of the very nursery rhymes it references. Its highly detailed illustrations are charming watercolors that bring to mind Beatrix Potter. The simplicity of the words makes it a lovely book to read to the youngest of babies, but concealed in the beautiful illustrations for your toddler to discover are a dozen of our most beloved and familiar fairy tale friends.
His feet dangling from a tree branch, the reader first spies Tom Thumb. He reveals himself on the following page, grabbing a quick bite of jam from Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. But where is the Mother, herself? Each discovery leads to an encounter with a new character until the whole crew ends up together, happily sharing a plum pie picnic.
“The Jolly Postman,” published eight years later, is the unabridged version of its board book predecessor. In this tale, we follow the postman as he makes deliveries to residents of The Woods, Beanstalk Gardens and Horner’s Corner. Interestingly, this jolly man is likely modeled after the author himself; Allan Ahlberg spent six months as a postman before writing became a full-time career.
At each stop, the postman is invited into tea while the recipients read their mail. Meanwhile, we’re given a behind-the-scenes look into the homes and everyday lives of many of the characters found in “Each Peach Pear Plum.” But what truly makes this book one of kind are the half dozen pieces of mail found inside full-page envelopes interspersed throughout the story.
Throwing federal mail regulations out the window, the reader can open up Goldilock’s letter of apology to The Three Bears and browse through the Wicked Witch’s mail-order catalogue – offers include such essentials as “Little Boy Pie Mix” and non-stick cauldrons. Cinderella’s mail even contains a book within the book: a copy of her biography released by the Peter Piper Press in celebration of her recent marriage to Price Charming.
The Ahlbergs credited their then two-year-old Jessie for the book’s genesis. “She would sit in her highchair and pull letters out and put them back in,” Allan told The Guardian, a British national daily newspaper. “I’m not sure she knew what a letter was, but she like them.”
The book’s format presents a true novelty for today’s child, who rarely finds anything in the mailbox that catches her attention. In the years after the book was published, we’ve seen a complete revolution in the way people communicate. Hand written letters are nearly extinct, and in their place are email, Skype, text messaging and Facebook. The thrill my daughter experiences exploring the correspondence of this nursery rhyme world is inspiration enough to find her a pen pal. “Beaches” anyone?
In addition to the incredible craftsmanship that went into its construction, the Ahlbergs have filled every corner of this book with imaginative details, some I can only now appreciate as an adult reader. Letters are postmarked from Banbury Cross, Crooked Mile and East of Sun, West of Moon. And stamps bear the images of Old King Cole (with pipe and bowl) and the Queen of Hearts. We learn that Jack’s Giant is the doting father of a baby girl and that the Big Bad Wolf from the Three Little Pigs and the scoundrel who impersonated Little Red Riding Hood’s grandma are one and the same.
But here’s the problem…When I first pulled these books out to read them to my daughters, I realized they were incapable of appreciating the witty allusions to these age-old nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Eloise had no idea who Jack and Jill were or what Goldilocks had done to start a feud with The Three Bears. She and her sister, Charlotte, were in desperate need of an education in Mother Goose, Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm.
Of course, many of these tales, in their original form, are a bit dark and morbid for the preschool audience. I found my solution in a trio of books that were the realization of a life-long dream for illustrator Mary Engelbreit. A review of her wonderfully complete and often-illuminating “Mother Goose,” “Nursery Tales,” and “Fairy Tales” will follow in short order.