Interview: Oliver Jeffers, Author Of 'Once Upon An Alphabet' From a cup who dreams of a window seat to a problem-solving owl, Oliver Jeffers' new picture book, Once Upon an Alphabet, gives each letter its own story.
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In This 'Alphabet,' 'O' Is For Helpful Owl And 'C' Is For Escapist Cup

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In This 'Alphabet,' 'O' Is For Helpful Owl And 'C' Is For Escapist Cup

In This 'Alphabet,' 'O' Is For Helpful Owl And 'C' Is For Escapist Cup

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Kids love a good alphabet book. A is for apple or for the more adventurous, A is for aardvark. But what if each letter had not just a word and a picture, but a whole story? So instead of C is for cat, how about this?

OLIVER JEFFERS: (Reading) C - cup in the cupboard. Cup lived in the cupboard. It was dark and cold in there when the door was closed. He dreamed of living over by the window where he'd have a clear view. One afternoon, he decided to go for it. Unfortunately, he forgot that the counter was a long way down and made of concrete.

SIEGEL: That's Oliver Jeffers, a kid's book writer and illustrator whose new book is "Once Upon An Alphabet - Short Stories For All The Letters." And of course, the cup is cracked to pieces on the concrete. Not a very cheery ending there for the cup.

JEFFERS: Well, for a - for a temporary spell, not a very cheery ending, but the cup does make an appearance later on in the book. The beautiful thing about a picture book is that it - reading it aloud only shows - or only presents half of the story. The other half is displayed in the pictures, so whenever we get to the owl and octopus, the story simply says, out in the ocean, there was an owl who rides on the back of an octopus. They search for problems. They solve them. They move on.

SIEGEL: The owl and the octopus - and they are recurring character in this.

JEFFERS: They are recurring characters. But that's simply all the words say, but then the pictures show the owl and the octopus solving a whole array of problems, from mathematical equations to gluing the cup back together.

SIEGEL: And you say, mathematical equations - you've got the quadratic formula in there from algebra.

JEFFERS: Yeah, that's right. Yeah.

SIEGEL: Pretty serious stuff there in the detail.

JEFFERS: Well, you know, I don't like to just pick things at random. I like to have thought it through to the fullest possible extent.

SIEGEL: Now, tell me about the genesis of this idea - of the book about the alphabet and the story for each letter. What inspired it?

JEFFERS: Well, the ideas came from all different places, really. Actually, that is what the idea is - is it's a whole bunch of half-cooked ideas. I think what every really good story has is a beginning, a middle and an end. And a lot of ideas that I've had have had either a beginning or a middle without an end or a beginning and an end without really a middle. And so I would put all of these concepts - these nuggets of ideas into my sketchbook. And there they would live until either they clash with another idea at another time, and the explosion created a third idea, or they would just live there.

SIEGEL: Now, we've mentioned the owl and the octopus - the problem-solving pair - the owl and the octopus who are the O story. Another favorite of mine, though, is the S story, and I wonder if you could read that one for us.

JEFFERS: I certainly can. S - sink or swim. This is the story of a regular cucumber who watched a program about sea cucumbers and thought it might be a better life for him. That very evening, the regular cucumber went to the shore and taking a last look around, plunged into the sea. However, never having tried before, he hadn't realized he couldn't swim and sank straight to the bottom. He hasn't heard from since, but don't worry. The owl and the octopus are on their way.

SIEGEL: The good old owl and the octopus. He did as badly as the cup did there - the cucumber.

JEFFERS: He did, but actually, that's one of the stories that gets solved on earlier on in the book. Whenever the owl and the octopus have a double-page spread of solving multiple problems, they say, there it is. And they're pointing to this strange green shape underwater, and it's the sea cucumber that they have found.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

JEFFERS: Or rather - or rather, the regular cucumber that's trying to be the sea cucumber.

SIEGEL: Did you do this, by the way, A to Z? Or were there some letters that came a lot more easily than others, and some that gave you trouble?

JEFFERS: The only stories that have remained pretty much true to the original are A - the astronaut story at the very beginning - and then its bracket at the end, with the zeppelin and then the octopus story, I think. Every other story has had several reincarnations because they all had to flow together, and there were various things that I would consider.

So I would write all of them, and then I would leave it for a couple of weeks and go back and read it with fresh eyes. And with fresh eyes, it was pretty obvious which ones weren't up to scratch, which ones weren't going to work. Some of them were tricky. Yeah. Q was one of the trickiest ones 'cause there - that's - there's not a lot of things you can do with stories with words beginning with Q, which is why I ended up going for a bit of a conundrum with that one. It's really question rather than a story.

SIEGEL: Q - this story is supposed to be about a question, but I can't find it anywhere. Do you know where it is? That's Q. There you go.


JEFFERS: See, the interesting thing is kids get that immediately, but most adults I show it to - they're like, I don't get it.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

JEFFERS: They don't understand that the very last question is the question that they were looking for.

SIEGEL: Well, Oliver Jeffers, thanks a lot for talking with us about your book.

JEFFERS: Thanks very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: It's a picture book called "Once Upon An Alphabet - Short Stories For All The Letters."

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