Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Once Upon an Alphabet:  Short Stories for All the Letters Book Poster Image
Funny alphabet stories have some big words, mild dark side.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Many unusual word choices represent each letter, such as "onward" for O, and will expand kids' vocabularies. They'll need help with some meanings that aren't illustrated or are very subtly illustrated. A few puzzles -- such as the enigma, the missing question, and the X-ray spectacles -- encourage creative thinking. The letters themselves look hand-drawn, and some are modeled after cursive writing, which can introduce the idea that letters look different under different circumstances.

Positive Messages

Good manners are important. Thinking about words and letters of the alphabet is fun.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The large cast of characters is mostly humorous, and no one does anything mean or evil. The owl and the octopus wander the seas looking for people to help and problems to solve. One character is shown performing dangerous stunts, and there's a small asterisk and note at the bottom of the page advising readers not to try this at home.

Violence & Scariness

A cup character falls and breaks into many pieces. Many pages later it's seen being glued back together and later is in pieces again but with a dialogue bubble. A daredevil laughs in the face of Death, a classic grim reaper who's mildly scary. A large monster, also mildly scary, stands next to a frightened man; the next page shows a few of the man's things fallen over, and it's clear the monster ate him. A kid and his pet frog become an old man and a skeleton. A character gets locked out and spends the night outside looking frightened and sad. A figure falls from a tall cliff into the sea because she rolled out of bed the wrong way. A man burns down a bridge to keep his neighbor from annoying him.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers (The Day the Crayons Quit) is a humorous, sometimes absurd collection of very short stories illustrating each letter of the alphabet. The letter examples themselves look hand-drawn and some are based on cursive writing (such as the capital "G" and the lowercase "l"), so early alphabet learners may be confused by letters that look different from what they're used to. Vocabulary is advanced, and kids may need help with meanings that aren't illustrated or are very subtly illustrated. Mildly scary or violent illustrations show a large monster, the grim reaper, a woman falling from a cliff, and the skeleton of a pet frog. Some situations, such as being locked out of the house at night, aren't resolved.

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What's the story?

To thank the letters of the alphabet for all the hard work they do making words for us, author-illustrator Oliver Jeffers writes a little story for each one. The many characters have a wide variety of adventures and misfortunes, from the cup who's tired of living in the cupboard to the girl who becomes the size of a molecule.

Is it any good?

ONCE UPON AN ALPHABET is a delightfully absurd collection of very short stories illustrated with charm and wit. It's probably better suited to kids who are already familiar with the alphabet, because some of the letters are shown in a handwritten, cursive style that adds interest and whimsy but may confuse early learners. Resolution is inconsistent: Some stories have no resolution, some are satisfying on their own, and some have surprise resolutions that appear many pages later. Jeffers achieves a nice balance between the short-story format, which makes it easy and fun to pick up for a few quick pages, and the continuity of recurring characters, which makes it a pleasure to sit down with and savor all the way through.

The advanced vocabulary is a big bite for some ("ingenious" and "molecule," for example), and the illustrations don't always show the meanings. There's also a mild dark side, slightly reminiscent of Lemony Snicket or Edward Gorey. But don't let that scare you off: It's a wonderful way to move beyond the same old "A is for apple" lesson. Kids will love going along for adventure, excitement, and mystery with the wonderfully intriguing characters.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about letters of the alphabet. How many words can you think of that start with the first letter of your name?

  • Which is your favorite story? What do you like about it?

  • Do you know which letter is Oliver Jeffers' favorite? Do you have a favorite letter? Why is it your favorite?

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