Better _ead than _uck

New ABC books are breathing life into an old genre by making letters vanish, get lost and pop up in unexpected places.

By Polly Shulman
January 20, 1999 6:11PM (UTC)
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Just as babies love to stare at other babies, books are fascinated by books -- children's books especially. After all, they have an educational duty to foster a love of learning. The younger the audience, the trurth is: Before books can open a child's mind to new experiences, they have to help her learn to negotiate their own pages. They have to teach the language if they want to speak volumes. Perhaps that's why B is so often for Book.

ABCs usher children into the prestigious world of the written word. Remember your first one? Remember tracing the letters with your finger, as if its meaning would somehow flow in through your hands? Perhaps you were an Eric Carle child, like me -- his colors seemed so vivid I thought I could feel them with my eyes closed. Like the old favorites, the recent crop of ABCs introduces aspiring readers to the uses of those funny squiggles adults set such store by, then elaborates on their subtleties.


Because the alphabet book is a mature genre by now, most new ones use tricks to distinguish themselves. Kim Golding's "Alphababies," for toddlers, draws in readers with photos of children their own age. Golding poses the tots in computer-generated backgrounds filled with letters and the objects they stand for -- "A is an apple, so shiny and red," and so on. The flat, shadow less landscapes contrast oddly with the photographs; philosophical infants may find themselves inspired to ponder the differences between representation and reality.

"The Letters Are Lost!" an ABC for children a couple of years older -- old enough to talk, if not to read -- adds a narrative to the traditional alphabet text of A is for this, B is for that. It follows a box of alphabet blocks through a diaspora, discovering H, for example, hiding under a hat, and E in a carton of eggs. As in many ABCs, each page showcases several items whose names begin with the appropriate letter. B shares a bathtub with a boat; the dog chewing on D has already made a hash of a rubber duck. Lisa Campbell Ernst, the author and illustrator, fills her pages with toys, putting the letters in a comfortingly familiar context. The contents of a Noah's Ark supply characters in just the right scale and give her a plausible reason to use zebra for Z.

"Miss Spider's ABC," the latest in David Kirk's lush series of picture books about an elegant arachnid, also uses narrative to add structural interest. For each letter Kirk finds an insect, flower or other garden dweller, which he draws in deep, bright colors, supplying friendly faces and plenty of legs. Ants await, butterflies blow balloons, hummingbirds hide inside irises and so on, until Miss Spider arrives at last. "Surprise!" everybody shouts. Then they all eat green cake. Kirk's palette is sure to linger in his readers' dreams for decades.


Illustrator Ian Penney sets his very British "ABC" in "houses, gardens, estates and other properties that he has visited throughout England, Ireland and Wales, specifically those that have been preserved by the National Trust." It's a charming, if slightly twee, tour. B is for book, naturally. Other unidentified B-words abound on the page. A boy in the background lies in a haycart reading the aforementioned book,while a bull looks over a fence. Few American children, unfortunately, are likely to associate the thatched building nearby with the high-roofed, red-painted barns familiar from picture books on this side of the Atlantic. Similarly obscure, though delightful, are A's ruined abbey, D's dairy and the undertaker directing two undergardeners moving an urn while, in an underground passage underneath, an underfootman carries a pudding, the name of which I suspect must begin with U.

You don't find many urns in other ABC books; alphabetarians tend to fall into clichés -- all those cats and castles. By restricting his book to insects, Kirk's "Miss Spider" avoids many of these -- his Q is for queen bee, which makes more sense than the quantities of queens and quilts found elsewhere. A quick glance at the Scrabble letters explains why so many alphabet books spend a page a piece on xylophone or X-ray, zebra or zoo. J is a rare letter as well, worth eight points, which justifies the Jack-in-the-box jumping out of both Penney's and Ernst's pages. But why such an abundance of apples? Can't the authors think of another A word? Why such innumerable islands and such devotion to ducks?

Children who know their letters well enough to ponder such mysteries are ready for Richard Wilbur's ingenious anti-ABC, "The Disappearing Alphabet." If the letters were to vanish, worries Wilbur, so would words and the world they represent. He moves through the alphabet, effacing each letter and noting the carnage. "If [B] were absent, say, from BAT and BALL," he observes, "there'd be no big or little leagues AT ALL." Perhaps Wilbur was inspired by James Thurber's "The Wonderful O," in which the round vowel vanishes and chaos ensues (Ophelia Oliver, for example, finds her O-less name a horrible embarrassment). Or perhaps he read Georges Perec's quixotic French novel "La disparition," which entirely avoids the letter E (as does the English translation, "AVoid," by Gilbert Adair, who also wrote a sequel to "Alice in Wonderland").


Wilbur, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and sometime poet laureate, knows how to make verses scan, which is more than can be said for most children's poets. (Why, why, why? What's wrong with all the editors?) He's also a dab hand at a rhyme, pairing T with "shredded whea" and pointing out that without the letter W, "The WEREWOLF would no longer trouble you."

The conceit of knocking out letters anywhere in a word frees Wilbur from the thrall of initial consonants. No zebra for him; he uses BUZZING and SNOOZE. Still, he finds a duck as irresistible as any ABC author: Like the dodo, with which it shares his D page, "any self-respecting DUCK/ Would rather be extinct than be an UCK."


"The Disappearing Alphabet" is illustrated by David Diaz, who won the Caldecott Medal and creates typefaces -- who better to illustrate an ABC than a type designer? Halfway between silhouettes and stencils, his pictures build objects out of empty space, cleverly echoing the vanished letters.

To supplement the ABCs, I recommend a double set of magnetic letters. Limiting the vowels to two apiece has a magic effect, like a kooky muse. For a couple of years, I kept two magnetic alphabets on the fridge for the household and visitors to play with. Some lines came out sounding like surrealist poems: "Sing heart -- hide my baby sun from Pluto"; "A poor, thin guy busted all my princes"; "I fled huge, lucky transformations. Why?" Others were more down-to-earth: "Get your family fried black donuts," suggested my cousin Peggy. "Go for my quilt, quacked Fred Blank," wrote my dad. Quilts, ducks -- maybe he should be writing alphabet books.

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B O O K_ I N F O R M A T I O N:

By Kim Golding
DK Publishing, 28 pages

The Letters Are Lost!
By Lisa Campbell Ernst
Puffin Books, 30 pages

Miss Spider's ABC
By David Kirk
Scholastic Press, 30 pages

Ian Penney's ABC
By Ian Penney
Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 28 pages


The Disappearing Alphabet
By Richard Wilbur. Illustrated by David Diaz
Harcourt Brace, 28 pages

Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

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