Trying to figure out what makes a good alphabet book is like determining what makes a good meal for a child. It’s a matter of taste as well as developmental maturity. A baby might be partial to mashed peas, a toddler to plain pasta, and a six-year-old may prefer the textural complexity of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The child who is still learning to recognize and name letters doesn’t want to be overwhelmed, while one who has mastered this trick is looking for a little more action and maybe even a bit of a challenge. Fortunately, there are alphabet books for every taste — hundreds, in fact, from the simplest name-the-letter books to those that present puzzles and challenges for older elementary-age children and even adults. Alphabet books stopped being just for pre- and beginning readers long ago.
The first step toward reading is spotting letter shapes and giving them names. Flashcards would get the job done, but where’s the fun? It’s much more interesting to find those letters in the world around you. Stephen T. Johnson and Zoran Milich both provide this chance, showing letters found in cityscapes. Johnson’s Alphabet City employs spectacularly photorealistic paintings, some of which require a sharp eye to spot the letter. Milich’s black-and-white photos in his City ABC Book offer a little more help for beginners by overlaying red to emphasize each letter. Neither book attempts to tie the shapes to words that begin with those letters. We’re not ready for that yet. In the now-classic Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault also refrain from tying the letter shapes to words, but add a simple story to the mix, with rhythm and rhyme. The action-filled plot even brings in the lowercase letters — as the children of the uppercase ones, of course. Lois Ehlert illustrates their goings-on with cut-out letters that remain easily recognizable despite some bending and manipulating to add character.
Once all those letters can be named without trouble, children are ready for books that partner each letter with a single, easy word that not only begins with that letter but also matches its most common spoken sound. Nouns in the A for Apple, B for Bear vein are best, being easiest for beginners to decipher by looking at the accompanying picture. If you are ready for a little action, however, Denise Fleming’s Alphabet under Construction is worth a look. Demonstrating craft-related verbs, a group of mice airbrushes, buttons, and carves a giant alphabet. Books like Woodleigh Hubbard’s C Is for Curious: An ABC of Feelings pose a problem since words for emotions are still limited at this age. Hubbard is forced to place xenophobic and yucky side-by-side. Ouch.
Alphabet books constructed around a theme helpfully provide an extra clue for deciphering the words in question. Jerry Pallotta is the king of this subgenre with more than twenty titles to his name (The Beetle Alphabet Book, The Skull Alphabet Book). If you can match the theme to a child’s particular interest, then you may have a winner. Generally, though, his wordy, rather earnest books don’t pass the test of a truly great alphabet book. Fortunately, there are plenty of other choices in theme-driven ABC books, like Lois Ehlert’s Eating the Alphabet. Showing both common and unusual items from the produce section (Swiss chard, spinach, starfruit), Ehlert’s brightly colored collage illustrations make even ugli fruit look appealing. (This book could also serve double duty by challenging children to find and taste new foods.) V for Vanishing by Patricia Mullins is another enticing theme book with collage illustrations showing endangered species. You can learn your letters and your animals and begin developing a civic conscience all in one go.
Recently there has been a trend toward oversize, action-packed alphabet books presumably geared toward boys, though we could all use a little adrenaline now and then. Chris L. Demarest has two of these: Alpha Bravo Charlie with a military theme and Firefighters A to Z. Brian Floca’s The Racecar Alphabet satisfies the need for speed, and Bob McLeod’s SuperHero ABC is full of muscles, Lycra, and unexpected humor. “Huge Man is Happy to Help Heroes and never Harms Humans,” but “He’s not exactly Handsome . . . even His Hands are Hairy!”
For children suffering from alphabet anxiety, a shot of humor can save the day. There are plenty of books that simply incorporate humor into the art, like Satoshi Kitamura’s From Acorn to Zoo. The reader is asked twenty-six questions, such as “Who plays the violin like a virtuoso?” (answer: viper), while a jam-packed page shows animals and other labeled items beginning with that letter, one of which is the answer to the question. Rather than being overtly silly, Kitamura’s illustrations draw on a subtler humor of recognition as each animal pursues its odd or unusual activity with a serious and intent expression. Max Grover takes a more direct approach to humor in The Accidental Zucchini, with brightly colored absurdist paintings depicting his sets of unlikely alliterations (“Octopus overalls”; “Umbrella underwear”). A Is for Salad by Mike Lester lets the child feel smarter than the book, with a silly text that gets each letter wrong. The first image shows an alligator eating a salad, hence, “A is for salad.” Next, a beaver in a Viking outfit (“B is for Viking”), a cat eating a hot dog (“C is for hot dog”), and so on. With great comic timing, Lester breaks his pattern near the end: “X and Y are not important letters. Never use them. And Z is for . . . The End” (showing a zebra’s hindquarters).
Ah yes, those difficult letters at the end. An alphabet book is only as good as its weakest link, aka the X page. Many a book starts off well only to falter as it grapples with the tricky letters. Q, X, and Z are worth lots of points when you play Scrabble, but they can be the devil for alphabet book creators. Books with themes and plots seem to have the toughest time here, making desperate attempts to plunk a xylophone or x-ray into the story. Some just settle for words that start with an “ex” sound (eXtreme, eXcellent), de-emphasizing the beginning E. Not only is this cheating — as every child knows — but it can lead to confusion between letters and sounds. One way around this is to present a story in which unusual animals or children’s names are used. Joseph Slate and Ashley Wolff do this in their clever Miss Bindergarten books, with twenty-six animal classmates including Xavier, Yolanda, and Zach. Peter Catalanotto spins this device on its head in Matthew A.B.C. All of Mrs. Tuttle’s students are named Matthew, but she has no problem telling them apart because “Matthew A. is extremely affectionate. / Matthew B. loves Band-Aids. / Matthew C. has friendly cowlicks.” In Aardvarks, Disembark!, Ann Jonas’s story about Noah’s Ark, the abecedarian part doesn’t start right away. When the waters recede, Noah calls out to each animal to disembark, from aardvarks to zebras, but when he’s done, there are still many animals left — all the less common ones whose names he doesn’t know. At a loss, he shouts, “Disembark, everyone! Everyone, disembark!” and out come the rest, cleverly lined up in reverse alphabetical order (often with several animals per letter) and clearly labeled. Reversing the alphabet is, of course, more advanced, and even adults may have difficulty sounding out some of these unusual animal names (a pronunciation key is appended). But Jonas’s treatment is so matter-of-fact and understated that the book is unlikely to be daunting. After all, even Noah didn’t know the names of these animals!
Max’s ABC by Rosemary Wells is one of the more successful plot-driven alphabet books to come out in the past year or two. The ants in Max’s ant farm escape and go looking for his birthday cake. Unlike many plotted ABC books whose stories swerve off course in an attempt to maintain a strict pattern using each letter within a short space, Wells’s text sounds completely unforced. The relevant initial letters are shown in boldface, and some pages have only one alphabet word within several lines of text. The reader becomes so caught up in the conflict between big sister Ruby (trying to clean up and exterminate the ants) and Max (thwarting her every attempt) that it would be easy to forget this is an alphabet book. In the end, “’Gone forever!’ said Ruby. ‘X marks the spot where the ants used to be!’ But inside the vacuum bag the ants were enjoying cake and toast. ‘Yum Yum Yum,’ said the ants.” Max dumps them out of the bag and they walk back to the ant farm, exhausted, for some well-deserved sleep: “ZZZZZ!”
Alphabet books used to introduce another language are usually intended for an audience older than the standard two- to five-year-olds. Muriel and Tom Feelings’s Swahili alphabet book, Jambo Means Hello, works best with children who have mastered the English language alphabet book form. But Laura Rankin’s The Handmade Alphabet, showing each letter, an object (asparagus, bubbles, cup), and a hand forming the letter in American Sign Language, is presented so clearly and cleverly that it can work on multiple levels without fear of intimidation. With the current popularity of teaching pre-verbal babies basic ASL signs, the book could even be used to help those children continue learning this language.
Alphabet books can give illustrators a chance to have a little fun with a distinct and venerated form. The simple rules (twenty-six subjects over thirty-two pages) allow them to enjoy a satisfying creative experience that showcases the picture book as object and art form. Without the distractions of plot and character, each page turn and each pattern that is set up (and sometimes playfully broken) become all-important. Chris Van Allsburg’s The Z Was Zapped is a case in point, as the repetition of the stage background allows each new character (letter) to enter during the page turn. Meanwhile, the audience is invited to guess the verb depicted, with the answer revealed on the following spread. Critics complained of the violence and near-torture inflicted on those precious letters, but for an older child with plenty of alphabet book experience, it may provide some subversive and even cathartic moments. Photographer Henry Horenstein’s A Is For . . . ?, also for the more sophisticated child and adult, plays a guessing game with portions of animals printed as luscious black/brown duotones. Even adults will have difficulty naming some of these animals (a key is provided at the end), and an eye for subtle detail is needed to fully appreciate the anatomical, textural, or compositional connection between the photos on the left and right pages. This is a puzzle book that may keep everyone guessing and looking again.
It seems odd to list an alphabet book’s level as “all ages,” but some of the most graphically exciting alphabet books do just that, holding some usefulness for letter learners but greater appeal for older elementary school students. David Pelletier’s The Graphic Alphabet caused a stir in 1996 as one of the first picture books to use computer art conspicuously and expertly. Pelletier tackles the daunting task of manipulating each letterform to illustrate a noun or verb beginning with that letter. His A crumbles at the top, causing an avalanche; his sideways B is a series of dotted lines indicating the path of a bouncing ball. Lisa Campbell Ernst uses sideways letters, too, but hers are the result of the reader turning the book around. The Turn-Around, Upside-Down Alphabet Book shows a single letter on each square page with text circling it to describe what the letter looks like from each angle. For example, “E dreams of being” (turn the book ninety degrees clockwise) “an electric plug” (turn another ninety degrees so it is upside down), “a number three” (turn again), “candles on a birthday cake.” Since she doesn’t attempt to use words that begin with the letter, this is really that simplest name-the-letter kind of alphabet book. But the treatment is so clever — and potentially confusing to beginners — that it seems better suited to older children who might even want to try making a book like this themselves. Laura Vaccaro Seeger, the new queen of the concept book and never one to shy away from a difficult setup, manages to pull off a triple challenge in her lift-the-flap book The Hidden Alphabet. Like Horenstein’s A Is For . . . ?, it is a puzzle book first showing a portion of a larger image. Like Pelletier’s Graphic Alphabet, it incorporates an object beginning with the letter into the letterform itself. Finally, like Escher and Mitsumasa Anno, Seeger plays with perspective and context as lifting the flaps completely changes her images: the objects (arrowhead, balloons, cloud) seen through a cutout window visually pop out, but when the full-page flap is lifted, they become concave — the negative space within or around the revealed convex letterform. The wow factor here will be highest with older children who can appreciate the complex problem-solving feat achieved for each letter. It’s also unlikely that words such as inkblot and quotation mark are in any three-year-old’s lexicon.
So what makes a good alphabet book? It all depends on what you are ready for. From letter learners to fluent readers, the menu is large enough to suit every palate. And if you still have room for dessert, perhaps we could interest you in some excellent counting books . . .
Titles Discussed Above
Peter Catalanotto Matthew A.B.C.; illus. by the author (Jackson/Atheneum, 2002)
Chris L. Demarest Alpha Bravo Charlie: The Military Alphabet; illus. by the author (McElderry, 2005)
Chris L. Demarest Firefighters A to Z; illus. by the author (McElderry, 2000)
Lois Ehlert Eating the Alphabet; illus. by the author (Harcourt, 1989)
Lisa Campbell Ernst The Turn-Around, Upside-Down Alphabet Book; illus. by the author (Simon, 2004)
Muriel Feelings Jambo Means Hello: Swahili Alphabet Book; illus. by Tom Feelings (Dial, 1974)
Denise Fleming Alphabet under Construction; illus. by the author (Holt, 2002)
Brian Floca The Racecar Alphabet; illus. by the author (Jackson/Atheneum, 2003)
Max Grover The Accidental Zucchini: An Unexpected Alphabet; illus. by the author (Harcourt, 1993)
Henry Horenstein A Is For . . . ?; illus. with photos by the author (Gulliver/Harcourt, 1999)
Stephen T. Johnson, illustrator Alphabet City (Viking, 1995)
Ann Jonas Aardvarks, Disembark!; illus. by the author (Greenwillow, 1990)
Satoshi Kitamura From Acorn to Zoo: And Everything in between in Alphabetical Order; illus. by the author (Farrar, 1992)
Mike Lester A Is for Salad; illus. by the author (Putnam, 2000)
Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault Chicka Chicka Boom Boom; illus. by Lois Ehlert (Simon, 1989)
Bob McLeod SuperHero ABC; illus. by the author (HarperCollins, 2006)
Zoran Milich The City ABC Book; illus. with photos by the author (Kids Can, 2001)
Patricia Mullins V for Vanishing: An Alphabet of Endangered Animals; illus. by the author (HarperCollins, 1994)
David Pelletier The Graphic Alphabet; illus. by the author (Orchard, 1996)
Laura Rankin The Handmade Alphabet; illus. by the author (Dial, 1991)
Laura Vaccaro Seeger The Hidden Alphabet; illus. by the author (Porter/Roaring Brook, 2003)
Chris Van Allsburg The Z Was Zapped; illus. by the author (Lorraine/Houghton, 1987)
Rosemary Wells Max’s ABC; illus. by the author (Viking, 2006)
From the March/April 2008 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.