Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Take Me Down to Alphabet City

Hello, my name is Joy, and I have a tiny obsession with alphabet books. Being a parent of two toddlers, I read my fair share of such books on a regular basis. While one might think that this would be boring, I must admit I find the myriad of ways which authors and illustrators invent to teach children the same basic information fascinating. From a writer's perspective, it seems like a great challenge: how do you present the alphabet in a new and interesting way--one that will simultaneously capture the imagination of a child, keep his interest for at least a few minutes, maybe teach that child more than just the letters in the alphabet AND make your book unique enough to stand out from the slew of picture books submitted to editors? I'm deeply impressed whenever I witness someone pull this off well. Recently I added another name to my mental Alphabet Book Hall of Fame--Stephen T. Johnson.

On a trip to the local library, I picked up Johnson's Alphabet City because its cover intrigued me, I saw that it was a Caldecott Honor Book, and hey, it's an alphabet book. Glancing quickly through the book, while the Light nagged at me to move on so she could go to the play area for a few minutes, I thought that this was a book of photos from various urban settings including shapes that resembled letters of the alphabet. I added it to my bag and let my daughter drag me down the aisle a bit further.

When I got home and read, or rather looked at it with the Light and Seal, I was instead very impressed to realize that what I had thought were photos in passing were actually beautifully detailed paintings, done in "pastels, watercolors, gouache and charcoal on hot pressed watercolor paper," according to the front matter. Sounds sorta like a description from a menu in a fancy restaurant, doesn't it? This is fitting because Johnson's work is definitely a feast for the eyes, and a gourmet one at that. There are no words--just images. Each image presents something you might see in a city, such as an architectural element, a crack in the sidewalk, the sky between buildings, lamp posts, etc. Each of these urban details takes the shape of a capital letter in the alphabet. For example, the side of a barricade, as shown on the cover (above) looks like a capital A. Fire escapes look like Zs, traffic lights look like Es from the side, and the arches on a bridge form an M.

The colors and the quality of light in these paintings are really lovely, and while most are recognizable as paintings (once you're looking at them carefully), a few still look like photos to me even though I know better. The best example is probably the image of street lamps used for the letter Y; although I'm not thrilled with the shape of the lamps for the purpose of this book (it doesn't translate into an instant recognition of the letter for me) I defy you to look at that image and not need to tell yourself that it isn't a photograph of a real place.

Admittedly, some of the letters are subtle--the C created when a shadow falls on part of a cathedral window and the Q in the wheel on a train are good examples of such stretches. But others jump off the page at you. Perhaps the subtler images are good for encouraging kids to look closely at what they observe. And in the end, I'm still more impressed by a painting of something that only vaguely looks like a Q than I am with one more book that declares "X marks the spot," "X is for eXciting," or something equally unimaginative and groan-worthy.

Despite any difficulty they may have in recognizing some of the letters, my kids LOVE this book. The Seal just turned two, but he carries this book around like a stuffed animal, and often insists that I hold it and go through the pages with him. He will shout out some of the letters he really likes the pictures for, and reading this book has encouraged him to play more with some alphabet flash cards that my husband originally made for the Light. As for the Light, I've caught her on more than one occasion recently looking for the shapes of letters in things around the house or that she sees outside the car window as we drive through town. That sort of inspiration is quite an accomplishment.

So, if you're in the market for a good book to teach kids about the alphabet or art, or if you just want an interesting coffee table book, check this one out. You'll find yourself looking for letters everywhere.

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