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Children's Literature

The Jolly Pocket Postman. By Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Heinemann #163;10.99. - 0 434 96942 7.

On a tiny postcard to the Jolly Pocket Postman tucked inside a little book inside a letter which is inside a book, Alice, Dorothy and Toto have added a PPS: "Did we dream you - or did you dream us?" Hallucination, fantasy, things seeming what they are not, the possibilities of what could have been, nursery rhyme upon nursery rhyme, books within a book, letters within letters - one could not have believed that Janet and Allan Ahlberg would surpass the kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria of former Jolly Postman stories. But The Jolly Pocket Postman is a masterful exploration of some of our most surreal tales and nursery rhymes.

The Jolly Postman, walking his round because his bike has a flat tyre, suffers concussion from a blow from the rattle of a giant baby thrown down from the top of the beanstalk. In a dream-like state he tumbles down a rabbit hole and stumbles pocket-size through the mad-hatter world of Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz, among others.

We are even given a magnifying glass through which to pursue his magical trip. This glass, provided at the beginning of the book, enables children - and adults - to follow the postman through a visionary landscape and to enjoy the lyrical detail of the illustration. Letters tucked away provide additional enticement.

Janet Ahlberg, dying of cancer, knew this would be her last work and was determined to finish this ambitious project. This is her illustration at its best: full of movement and life, with its warm, wise and generous humour, playing with a myriad archetypal images through the rhymes and stories of our cultural heritage. Allan Ahlberg's poetry, skilfully light, lucid and funny moves perfectly with the flow of the illustration.

Fairy stories, fantasy tales and nursery rhymes have always dealt with the highs and lows of life, the day dreams and night terrors, tragedy and celebration, birth and death, damnation and redemption, the hand of fate. The postman enters a world which is upside down and back to front and inside out, unnerving, despite the jauntiness of the rhyme: "'My word!' the Pocket Postman cries, Astonished by his pocket size, His pocket dog, his pocket hat, 'What kind of cup of tea was that?'" From the Hatter's party the postman is bid: "Wave farewell to worries all And trouble's heavy load" to follow the Yellow Brick Road (map included) to the Emerald City. During all this the postman experiences some hair-raising escapades until he is knocked flat by the escaping Gingerbread Man on a bike and his consciousness returns and he finds himself in hospital.

Finally he peruses a book sent through the post to his bedside from the Emerald City entitled If the Tyre Had Not Been Flat. If the tyre had not been flat the postman may have ridden to glory and won the hand of the Princess and the rattle may have hit Robin Hood instead who would now be "bandaged up in bed" and unable to rescue the Babes in the Wood until tomorrow.

In a cyclic view of life, the book ends with a new beginning, and the reader is left to guess the fateful outcome. This is both a profound book and an immensely funny one, which touches on the big issues in life. Like its predecessors, The Jolly Pocket Postman deserves to become a classic.

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