Letters to Anyone and Everyone –Toon Tellegen
Illustrated by Jessica Ahlberg
Translated from the original Dutch Brieven aan niemand anders by Martin Cleaver
Boxer Books, 2009
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I cannot tell you how excited I was to finally read a Toon Tellegen book. To be honest, I am not sure if I read anything by him as a child, though given the tone and popularity of them, I can hardly imagine not having read some of Tellegen’s collections before. If so, then I’m not sure I remember them exactly. Now, age 24, I was expecting refreshing whimsy stories with some philosophical reflection thrown in. Having paid attention to mentions of Tellegen’s work since Letters to Anyone and Everyone won the Marsh award in 2011, my expectations might have been a little too high. Not every story was as perfect as I had anticipated. Nevertheless, I still felt they were worthwhile enough overall to merit a very positive review.
But I am getting ahead of myself. First I need to tell you that this book consists of mostly two to three page stories in which a set of animal characters write letters to each other. Recurring characters are the ant, who knows a lot of fancy words and likes to feel sophisticated; the squirrel, who is a more homely type; and Elephant, who likes to climb things (mostly trees) and inevitably tumbles down. But there are also more marginal characters that only appear once or twice, like the Narwal who is so lonely that he wants to write a letter to ask someone to come and visit him, only to find out that he finds learning to write in the ocean too tiring.
What makes these stories so much fun is that Tellegen is not afraid to take absurdism to an extreme. These are stories about animal characters writing each other letters. That, in itself, might not seem all that absurd to children. But in between writing these letters, other letters are written as well. A letter is written to the table “dear table”, and in response the table starts to tumble and replies with a letter of its own, thanking the author for acknowledging him. At the end of the year, the animals write a letter to the sun, in which it is implied that this is their ritual to ask for its return before they start hibernation.
Sometimes what seems absurd acknowledges ties to the real world, as in the case of the letter to the sun. Sometimes, there is plain absurdity. Tellegen brilliantly appeals to “children’s logic”: If we say animals can’t write but we write stories about them, why not write letters to letters, or tables? Why not have an elephant climb a tree? The stories are written in such a manner that they are funny. Perhaps funnier for children than for adults, as I mostly had a response of “I would have found this so entertaining as a child” more than I found myself laughing out loud at the stories now. Another example of this is how the animals constantly try to outsmart each other, especially when it comes to the topic of cake. Many of the letters revolve around the opportunity to eat cake together, or to end up as the recipient of one.
As an adult, what I respected in Toon Tellegen’s stories is that they can be read as simple stories, but a lot of them also tackle larger themes: friendship, means of communication, loneliness, possibilities vs. natural boundaries.. Perhaps not as often as I had expected beforehand, but certainly enough. Another thing is that besides the fact that Toon Tellegen is not afraid to enter into the realm of the more absurd and quirky stories, he is also not afraid to tackle difficult themes in his stories. While his stories are generally light and upbeat, there are animals who are disappointed, and not all of the character necessarily end up happy at the end of their tale. This is something I actually admire in a children’s author, but I can imagine some parents would like to shield their child from disappointment up to a certain age.
The feel of the stories reminded me a little of the Winnie the Pooh stories, mostly because they feature animals and a woodland environment. Whereas I always found that Winnie the Pooh might be more entertaining at a later age, when you understand the caricatures the characters represent better, Toon Tellegen’s stories would be more suitable for younger children. On the other hand, A.A. Milne did succeed in making his stories feel more interconnected, whereas I felt that, at times, a sense of how the stories in Letters to Anyone and Everyone related to each other was lacking. Perhaps Squirrel, Elephant, and Ant will grow on the reader once you have read more of the stories, published in other collections. I should also note that not all of the stories are as entertaining or as good as others in the collection. In particular I felt that some of them ended a little too abruptly, leaving you to wonder what their point was.
In sum, Letters to Anyone and Everyone was a satisfactory introduction to Toon Tellegen, but the stories were not as perfect as I had imagined them to be (which might be my fault with all my building anticipation). Nevertheless, if I ever were to become a mom, I would be sure to read these with my children, as I know I loved stories of talking animals when I was a child, especially if they made you reflect and laugh as these aim to.
P.S. I read a Dutch version of this book. The English version mentioned in this review features much more illustrations, which I think makes for a more lovely edition. For a preview of a page and a story, see the Boxer Books website. This site also features an interview with both Toon Tellegen and Jessica Ahlberg about the book, including an explanation of why he features cakes so often in his stories.
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