Let-r play

Classic and iconoclastic books shake up the alphabet and take kids on a trip through the Dictionapolis of the written word.

By Polly Shulman
Published February 18, 1999 12:16PM (EST)

Once they've mastered the alphabet, children arrive at a star-shaped crossroad bristling with choices. They can become readers, writers, typographers, crossword enthusiasts, spelling champs, editors of the school paper -- the list goes on. These many paths through the garden of literary delight braid together, circling around to meet, perhaps, at a sculpture garden full of mythological figures, or a small folly shaped like a ruined castle or a piece of ornamental water. And for each path the young alphabet master chooses, a genre of children's books waits to guide him down it.

Closest to alphabet books are letter-play books, such as William Steig's ingenious "CDB!" and its sequel, "CDC?" Each page contains a string of letters that yield their meaning when pronounced sequentially. Steig helps out with his goofy cartoon illustrations. The title spread of "CDB!" for example, shows a boy and girl enthusiastically inspecting an insect that's hovering near some flowers. (See the bee -- get it?) "D B," it turns out, "S A B Z B." Girls named MLE and KT and boys named PT will find these books particularly XLN.

The king of the letter-play classics, of course, is "The Phantom Tollbooth." Anyone of any age who hasn't read this profound, witty modern fable should do so immediately. Milo, the hero, sets out on a quest for the twin princesses Rhyme and Reason. On the way he meets a boy who grows down, not up (someday, when he's an adult, the boy's feet will touch the ground), as well as the world's smallest giant, who's also the world's tallest midget, the world's thinnest fat man and the world's fattest thin man. Milo spends time in the Doldrums, where laughter is frowned upon and the inhabitants take a break from doing nothing by going nowhere, and Digitopolis, ruled by a mathemagician. It should come as no surprise that, like Lewis Carroll, Norton Juster, the author of this Wonderland-inspired journey, is a mathematician himself.

Juster sends his hero to Dictionapolis, the dominion of Azaz the Unabridged. There the king's cabinet -- the Duke of Definition, the Minister of Meaning, the Earl of Essence, the Count of Connotation andthe Undersecretary of Understanding -- show Milo around a market where people come to buy and sell the world's words, grown in nearby orchards. After finding his first choices -- "quagmire," "flabbergast" and "upholstery" -- way too pricey, Milo settles for an assortment of letters. A is sweet and delicious, I icy and refreshing, C crisp and crunchy, P full of pits. Dry Z, however, disappoints him, and X tastes like a trunkful of stale air. "That's why people hardly ever use them," confides the salesman. A friendly Spelling Bee, a Which (not witch)named Faintly Macabre and a banquet where the guests eat their words (after helping themselves to ragamuffins and synonym buns from the breadbasket) round out the verbal portion of the novel.

One of Milo's virtues as a hero is his ordinariness. Juster presents him as an anti-nerd -- bored, blasi, uninterested in subtracting turnips from turnips or spelling "February." By the end of the novel, however, Milo has become as curious as any teacher could wish. Not so his spiritual heir in "The Ink Drinker," a delightfully iconoclastic new book for children cursed with literary parents. "My father owns a bookstore. He loves books. He devours them like an ogre. All day and long into the night, he reads," complains the narrator, who hates books himself. So when a weird new customer shows up floating a few inches above the floor, sniffs out a book, sticks a straw into it and sucks up the words, leaving the pages blank but for a few scattered letters, the narrator knows he's found a role model. Translated from the French, "The Ink Drinker" retains charming continental touches in its illustrations, which are strewn with appropriately unapproachable text. The sensibility is pure 8-year-old. "Eric Sanvoisin is one bizarre writer," boasts the author in his bio. "Using a straw, he loves to suck the ink from all the fan letters he receives ... If you write to him, he will send you a straw."

Most children's books, however, are kinder to the written word. From the four March girls poring over "Pilgrim's Progress" in "Little Women" to Harriet the Spy, who spies on her friends and neighbors to get material for the novels she plans to write, children's books center around books and writing. Even the Sweet Valley Jr. High series, deplored by tasteful librarians across the country, features a literary theme. One of the twin heroines -- Elizabeth, the serious one -- makes friends and influences people by joining the school paper. In a similar vein, the heroine of "My Angelica" enters her bodice-ripper in a middle-school writing competition; it's so bad that it wins when the judges mistake it for a parody. Meanwhile, her best friend, a boy who has a huge crush on her, has submitted anonymously the other winning entry: a series of love poems that many readers will choose to read as parodies as well.

By far my favorite entry in the genre of children accidentally parodying literary forms is in E. Nesbit's 1899 classic "The Story of the Treasure Seekers." In it, the six Bastable children -- Dora, Alice, Dicky, Horace Octavius(or H.O.), the poet Noël and the self-important narrator, Oswald -- attempt various strategies to repair their family fortunes. They try putting out the priceless Lewisham Recorder (one shilling; illustrated, sixpence extra). "Every paper is written for some reason. Ours is because we want to sell it and get money. If what we have written brings happiness to any sad heart we shall not have laboured in vain. But we want the money too," begins the "Editorial Note." A serial story follows, in which the children take turns writing chapters. Noël's includes the following passage: "So the hero, whose name was Noëloninuris, replied -- 'My blade is sharp, my axe is keen, You're not nearly as big as a good many dragons I've seen.' (Don't put in so much poetry, Noël. It's not fair, because none of the others can do it. ED.)" In a later chapter, "the Prince, whose real name didn't begin with N, but was Osrawalddo, waved his sword," corrects an editor (wonder who?). Under "Gardening Notes," the children write, "It is useless to plant cherry-stones in the hopes of eating the fruit, because they don't!"; under "Legal answer wanted," they write, "A quantity of excellent string is offered if you know whether there really is a law passed about not buying gunpowder under 13."

Edward Eager, a great fan of Nesbit's, paid tribute to her in a series of books he wrote for his son in the 1950s and '60s. He particularly admired Nesbit's magic books, in which children find a magical talisman or creature that grants wishes, allows them to travel through time, grumps at them and lets them dig themselves into trouble. In his delightful "Seven-Day Magic," one of my childhood favorites, his protagonists find a mysterious old book in their local library. Just as it should, the book grants wishes -- but it does so in a particularly literary way, taking the children into the world of a different children's classic each day. There's an Oz chapter, a Little House chapter, even a chapter about "Half Magic," one of Eager's earlier books. When the children use the book to visit a TV studio, it starts to bristle, as any book would. But things really get bad when they tear it in a struggle (familiar to every book lover with a conscience) over whether to return the book to the library or keep it for themselves. Lacking the book's final pages, one boy finds himself wandering endlessly through his own narcissistic adventure story; it takes all his siblings' courage and imagination to rescue him.In the world of children's literature, where coziness is as much a virtue as adventure, what could be more appropriate than cross talk among the books? They usher readers into a literary community full of gossip and loyalty. It's as exciting and welcoming as any sitcom -- and easier to get along with than many families.

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

By William Steig
Simon & Schuster Children's, 48 pages

By William Steig
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 64 pages

The Phantom Tollbooth
By Norton Juster. Illustrated by Jules Feiffer
Knopf, 256 pages

The Ink Drinker
By Eric Sanvoisin. Illustrated by Martin Matje. Translated by Georges Moroz
Delacorte Press, 48 pages

Francine Pascal's Sweet Valley Jr. High: Get Real
By Jamie Suzanne
Bantam Books, 152 pages

My Angelica

By Carol Lynch Williams
Delacorte Press, 144 pages

The Story of the Treasure Seekers
By E. Nesbit. Illustrated by Cecil Leslie
Puffin Books, 208 pages

Seven-Day Magic
By Edward Eager. Illustrated by N.M . Bodecker
Harcourt Brace, 190 pages

Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

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