Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The ABC’s

by Kittenpie

ABC books are a great tool for introducing the alphabet, which is in itself a rather self-evident part of pre-literacy skills. There is available an abundance of ABC books, each more arsty than the next. So how to get a few in your collection without going crazy? Here are a few of my favourites and some things to look for.

I find alphabets most useful when they are clear. By that I mean the letters are clearly identified in large and simple font. Stephen Johnson’s Caldecott Honour book Alphabet City and Kjell Bloch Sandved’s Butterfly Alphabet are gorgeous, but prime examples of alphabet books that have become too focused on their own concept to be useful as alphabet books for younger kids (though they are fun for see-if-you-can-find-it games with kids who are already comfy and confident with their ABCs). I also sometimes find the choice of items to illustrate the letters are very busy being clever or artsy or esoteric, and ignore the fact that their target audience is pretty young, with a relatively limited vocabulary and knowledge base. The Metropolitan Museum’s out-of-print ABC book, for example, is a lovely idea, and many of the items are very appropriate, but some are not words of a child’s vocabulary or are not obvious from the accompanying art. The Tiffany vase illustrating V doesn’t look much like one likely to be found in an average child’s home, for example. A few I find clear and yet lovely or interesting or fun enough to keep parents happy?

The New Alphabet of Animals
Christopher Wormell

Wormell’s signature bold woodcuts and gorgeous colouration are at work on ivory pages here, giving the piece an heirloom feel. Each spread features a very large letter (both upper and lower cases) and the animal’s name in a bold serifed font on the left, with a large framed image on the right. The animals are a nice mix of the obvious (Horse, Sheep, Lion, etc.) and the unusual (Armadillo, Ibex, Zorilla). It passes my “What are the Q, X, and Z?” test with style, and even has a page with short descriptions of the “less familiar” animals at the back, should you be interested.
Unfortunately, this lovely is only available for purchase in paperback now (0762418478).

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault, ill. Lois Ehlert

A modern classic – and I say that as someone who hates it when publishers say new stuff has “the makings of a classic.” Clear, bold, brightly coloured, boasting a fun rhythm and enough storyline to keep it moving, this is also one of the few books that really focuses on the lower case in the illustrations, though the text shows the upper case. (067167979X, also available with just the first half as an abbreviated board book: Chicka Chicka ABC: 067187893X)

Flora McDonnell’s ABC
Flora McDonnell

This quirky painter brings her smiling animals to pages featuring colourful backgrounds and bright, bold letters in upper and lower case. Most pages have two articles that begin with the letter, and they are also spelled out. Her paintings are very slightly offbeat, but I quite like them. (0763601187 also available in board book: 0763613991)

Dr. Seuss’s ABC
Dr. Seuss

Need I explain this one? I like that there are several words for each letter, even if a few of them are purely Seussian. And … well, it’s Seuss. Duh. (03948100303 or in board 0679882812) (Oh, and it’s in Beginning Readers, not Picture Books, at the library.

The Hidden Alphabet
Laura Vaccaro Seeger

This one is more artsy than any of the others on this list, but so interesting and lovely, I couldn’t help myself. It’s a big, thick book with hinged cardstock pages, each with a die-cut frame that lifts to reveal the letter beneath. I will confess that I have included this one despite my usual constraints against anything that sacrifices clear fonts for artsiness, but I do so because it’s gorgeous and unusual, although I’m not entirely sure it’s for kids. (0761319417)

And one CD:
Sesame Street: Sing the Alphabet

This is packed with great stuff, beginning with Big Bird’s classic song about finding a word that turns out to be the alphabet, and moving through a song for every letter. No, I’m not kidding. Bert contributes a few great ones – La La La La and The National Association of W Lovers. And of course, C is for Cookie reps the third letter. Genius.

A few Out of Print lovelies worth borrowing from the library or buying used:

The ABC Exhibit
Leonard Everett Fisher

Lovely paintings illustrate each word, one per letter. So gorgeous it’s tempting to frame them, and the object is clear in each, each thing being accessible to a child. Just beautiful.

A, B, See!
Tana Hoban

Photographer Tana Hoban turns to the little-used technique of photograms for her alphabet book, and includes several different items in each black-and-white image. The letter is shown in the context of the full alphabet on each page in clear sans serif. Lovely and unusual, this is a favourite choice of mine.

ABC Pop!
Rachel Isadora

This out-of-print treasure is worth going to the library for. In the comic pop-art style of Lichtenstein, Rachel Isadora illustrates the alphabet in a decidedly urban setting. The choices are familiar and recognizable on every page but perhaps one or two (my only real complaint is with Z = comic book sounds Zing! Zoom! Zap!), the font is a large clear sans-serif, and the illustrations are fantastic and fun.

Ah! Belle Cité! / A Beautiful City
Stéphane Poulin

I was so shocked to find this was out of print – it’s one that should be a Canadian classic. It is seriously one of my faves and especially brilliant because he has, for each letter, found something that starts with the same letter in both official languages. The lovely scenes are from in and around Montreal, representing urban life with loving detail and plenty of humour.

Find these and other alphabet books at your local library!


A career Children’s Librarian, kittenpie has worked in library systems in both New York and Toronto, and delights in sharing favourite books with kids of all ages. Settled back in Toronto, she now brings work home to read to her own little Pumpkinpie.


Sandra said...

The Dr. Seuss one was my son's favourite of these when he was young. Great list.

Mouse said...

We also love the Dr. Seuss ABCs. I'll need to go look for some of those others you've suggested!

mo-wo said...

The Seuss is universal for sure... I might add the Jazz ABZ.. but maybe that's just us. I loved it when my 18 month old used to study the page and repeat the lilting name Sidney Bechet.. it's neat.


And, for the really small a tidy priddy soft touch board book is a must have I think -- from about 1 year.

P-man just asked.. what about Bad Kitty? Right. I wouldn't have thought you'd skip that one.

mo-wo said...

Oh yeah and http://motherwoman.blogspot.com/2006/04/recommended-title-alisons-zinnia.html

Lisa b said...

Thanks! I will have to get that Seuss one.

Mad Hatter said...

The art on the wall of my office is an alphabet made up of laminated colour photocopies from different alphabet books. Many letters are from the ones you mention here. I am also a fan of Azarian's Farmer's Alphabet as an early alphabet primer and the 1923 C. B Falls' ABC Book.

For older, Canadian kids nothing beats the poem in Kevin Major's Eh? to Zed. In the alphabet art for art's sake category I would list Wallace Edwards Alphabeasts--but I know that's not what you are writing about here. Still, it's a lurid, breathtaking beauty.

kittenpie said...

Mad - OMG I love the CB FAlls one! I never see it anywhere. We had original prints for it at the Central Children's Room in NYC, which I totally coveted. (of course, they were tucked among Caldecott and Marcia Brown drawings, Bemelman and Wells paintings, HC Andersen papercuts, Carle paper samples, etc... Sigh.

Ali said...

great post!
i, personally, can't stand chicka chicka boom boom. my kids LOVE it. i find the art so dated. it's a huge seller around here, and i just don't get it!