The Jolly Postman

The Jolly Postman by Janet & Allan Ahlberg (Puffin, 2002)

This classic picture book by Janet and Allan Ahlberg came out in 1986, so just too late for me to have grown up with it myself. Coming to it in adulthood was an absolute joy, however, and the boys love it possibly almost as much as I do…

It was one of the first things to come to mind when wondering why we still tell fairytales – there would be no understanding this book without a knowledge of them.

Once upon a bicycle, so they say,

A jolly postman came one day

From over the hills and far away…

With a letter for the Three Bears

Badly spelled but beautifully hand-illustrated, it is an apology from Goldilocks for eating all the porij. “Mummy says I am a bad girl. I hardly eat any porij when she cooks it she sxays.” She also invites Baby Bear to her party where there will be “3 kinds of jelly and a conjoora”.

Children are fascinated by letters and their joy in retrieving the post is undimmed by bills and junk mail. The subtitle Or, Other People’s Letters taps into this appeal, as well as that of peeking into mail intended for somebody else…

The postman carries on on his round with a catalogue for the wicked witch, an official letter from Red Riding Hood’s solicitor to B.B. Wolf Esq., a postcard from Jack to the giant and so on. Each letter has its own addressed envelope and some have other inserts, like a little book with the story of Cinderella, sent for Her Highness’s approval by the publisher at Peter Piper Press that features a few additions to the traditional version. Did you know that, at the ball, Cinderella ate lots of little sausages on sticks?

You can see why, according to Wikipedia, it took five years to produce and a year of discussions with the original publisher. There are all sorts of books like this now – Emily Gravett‘s Meerkat Mail for example – but this was a trailblazer.

There are so many little details to enjoy. In the illustrations, for example  – the boys are very fond of the witch’s cat doing the washing up in the background. The postman stops for a cup of tea at each house – no wonder it’s the end of the day by the time he heads home – but it’s champagne at the palace with Cinders and the Prince just back from his honeymoon. Then he wobbles off on his bike again “(and again, and again – Oops!).” I don’t think the boys get that one, but it amuses us. Finally, he ends up at Goldilocks’ party, bringing her a card and a pound note (showing its age). Each of the letters is written in an appropriate style – very formal from the solicitor, jaunty adverts in the catalogue. This gives us lots to talk about and helps with understanding different registers of language. I also had to explain the concept of scare quotes to fils aîné yesterday –

Later on the Postman, feeling hot,

Came across a ‘grandma’ in a shady spot;

But ‘Grandma’ – What big teeth you’ve got!

All this detail means it’s not a quick read, but it works so well on every level that it really does repay a little attention.

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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5 Responses to The Jolly Postman

  1. Lydia says:

    Oh, yay – this was one of my absolute favourites when I was small (along with the followup title, ‘The Jolly Christmas Postman’). My family still uses the phrase ‘three kinds of jelly and a conjuror’ as a byword for a really fancy event!

  2. mumsnetkent says:

    I love this book! Have bought it for my son for his birthday – can’t wait to read it with him!

  3. Catherine says:

    This is a beautiful book. You have reminded me to order The Jolly Christmas Postman – it was really difficult to get hold of when I tried in December!

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