By Katie Moody – A smattering of alphabet books live among the various children’s books here at the Schulz Library. Good alphabet books are deceptively simple, and—just like good comics—read so effortlessly that you suspect that making the thing must’ve been easy as a sneeze. But what makes an alphabet book great and possibly timeless? How do some of our books hold up?
Our main contenders, fresh from the showers.
To answer these questions I read Alpha Beta Chowder by Jeanne and William Steig, The Dangerous Alphabet by Neil Gaiman and Gris Grimly, and Museum ABC by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ll be holding up Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies, originally published in 1963, as an example of when all elements align to produce a classic: Simplicity, consistency, memorable imagery, good writing, and frequent moments of delight. It doesn’t need to be perfect (I can’t imagine many children would know what lye and ennui are, much less gin), so we can fudge our standards a little if the overall read still delivers.
Join my cats and me for some soup out of a decorative urn?
The title’s a bit misleading, as there’s no actual chowder tale to be found, but the book is full of twenty-six alliterative short stories that range in topic all over the place. The title page kicks things off with a charming art style that kids would find very approachable, so I hoped that the relatively dull cover wasn’t an indicator of the book’s contents.
Six-year-old me would have totally dug this.
The four-line rhyming foreword invites the reader to take a taste of chowder—presumably implying the hodgepodge of stories that follow. So far, so good.
Yet alas! All is abrogated amongst the A’s: These eight lines warn off a lizard from a hungry cat, but with language that roams well beyond the vocabulary of young readers. Kicking off with a misspelled “abhorrent,” we’ve got axolotl and absquatulate tossed in for good measure. I began to suspect that the author combed through the dictionary in search of mumblety-peg–sounding words for this book. The painted and inked “A” illustration is serviceable, though uninspired, and its watercolors are engaging.
One of the better entries. (I’ve a weakness for jambalaya.)
There are a handful of clever illustrations throughout, and while some of the ideas reach enough absurdity to be quite entertaining, the overall effect for this reader is one of impatience. The length of entries varies wildly, the rhyming schemes are inconsistently structured and often forced, and there are some oddly catty criticisms among the characters. Add in the vocabulary issue to the inconsistent content, and my younger self would have probably given up on the prose in frustration, scanned through the pictures for any odd gems like the one below, and tried another book.
In spite of some swell illustrations and a solid concept underneath it all, I suspect that this title was the lowest sales performer of the three.
Shipwrecked with sixty tons of Stilton!
The nice bold colors and clean contrast invite you to crack it open for a look.
This alphabet book aims at simplicity, and hits it dead on. Strangely refreshing.
And check out these sweet feet.
Each letter is assigned an alliterative word and then illustrated with four examples of that word from throughout the Met’s vast art collection. Paintings, prints, tapestries, and sculptures from around the world are fair game, resulting in a compact survey of visual-arts disciplines. The target audience for this book may be educated, museum-going parents and grandparents, but it is easy to imagine that very young children could be captivated by the variety of images on display.
“V” is for “vegetable,” and I could stare at this onion all day. From the piece “Onions and Tomato,” by Mary Ann Currier, and done in oil pastels, if you can believe that.
While the entries for “X” were kind of a cop-out (“X is for ex”? Really?), and kids above age three or four might find the entire exercise dull, Museum ABC admirably executes its modest goals, and with great consistency throughout. Plus there’s a full list of citations at the back of the book, for we more elderly art nerds.
I’d expect that it’s an “evergreen” purchase for the Met store—and yep, as you may have already seen above, their website still has it listed as available.
This book has swell production values, and I was expecting to enjoy it the most out of the three. The atmosphere evoked by the curious title and the cover art is awfully intriguing. The introduction uses the term “scrivener” to describe Gaiman, which is somewhat advanced vocabulary for a children’s book, but that’s a minor quibble.
The authors claim that the alphabet has a “dangerous flaw,” which I can only assume was their swapping the order of a couple letters, as you’ll see in a moment. I can’t be certain that this was the flaw to which they refer, though, because there is some witty phonetic play with the alphabet throughout—C is used as “see,” U as “you,” and L as “’ell” and “’eaven”—which is probably satisfying and entertaining for advanced readers and possibly confusing for struggling readers.
Here we have the left side of the “W-V” spread, still set in the sewers. (Note the bonus points for using semicolons in an ABC book.)
Even more confusing, though, is the narrative given by the illustrations. Where are the pirates that have been mentioned? Are the men in black suits supposed to be the pirates? How do they relate to the underground dungeons populated by monsters and abducted children? And how do we get from sewer level to what appears to be a rooftop?
There are some great illustrated elements throughout the book—alliterative details that smart kids may delight in—and Grimly’s art is inarguably stylish. Unfortunately, the perplexing sense of space and the unclear visual journey of our main characters is discombobulating, and for those reasons I found the read ultimately unsatisfying.
Gaiman’s star power has probably made for great sales on this title, but the consistency of his prose is confused more than clarified by the accompanying illustrations. Sometimes exuberant details add depth to the reading experience—Graeme Base is a master of that—and other times they overwhelm. A bit more legibility in the illustrations could have made the difference in this case.
Overall, with the goals of simplicity, consistency, memorable imagery, good writing, and frequent moments of delight, I found Museum ABC to be the most satisfying read. The Dangerous Alphabet came in second, thanks to its clever prose and distinctive atmosphere, and overall I found myself wanting to curl up with some more Edward Gorey. If only making timeless alphabet books was as easy as he made it look!
“K is for Kate who was struck with an axe.”
Katie Moody is an MFA candidate at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and used to edit various funnybooks for Dark Horse Comics. [NB: Site does not distinguish between "editor," "associate editor," and "assistant editor" credits, so should be taken with salt.]