It's time for the annual pick of the ABC books.
Each year a dozen or more new books are published using the ABC format. Some are planned as concept books to teach the alphabet, while others use the 26 letters merely as a strategy to organize the text and illustrations. Still others are art books with aesthetic endeavors that include puzzles, stylized graphics and - this year - photography.For the youngest reader, Martha Alexander has illustrated the words from the 1948 song "A - You're Adorable" (Candlewick Press, 1994, $9.95). The music notations on the endpapers are in color, with angelic children climbing and balancing on the letters of the alphabet. This book won't be read, it will be sung, "A - you're adorable; B - you're so beautiful; C - you're a cutie full of charms."
Also for the preschool set is "ABC Drive!" by Naomi Howland (Clarion Books, 1994, $13.95). Howland wrote the book for her son, Samuel, who "is absolutely crazy about anything with wheels." The pictures are full of wheels around the city (the G page shows a garbage truck).
Both of these books are for reading aloud, chanting and hunting for other details. (They are not intended for teaching the alphabet except by rote, since only upper-case letters are used.)
Kat Anderson uses both upper- and lower-case letters in "Alpha-Blocks" (Longstreet Press. 1993, $15.95), and combines them with 24 small pictures that begin with each letter. If you get stumped, the artist has listed all of the clues in the back of the book. Nonsense reigns here. The cartoonlike pictures will delight those who love to outguess the artist.
The ultimate puzzle book, "The Alphabet From Z to A: With Much Confusion on the Way" (Atheneum, 1994, $14.95), by acclaimed author Judith Viorst, is "an alphabet book for folks who already know their ABCs." It is also, I might add, one that tickles the funny bone by pointing out the inconsistencies of the English language and with the intricate artwork of Utah artist Richard Hull. "N is for NIT, NIGHT and NOT, but not KNOT, KNIGHT or KNIT. It's also for NOW (but not GNAW), and for NOME (in Alaska), but not (darn!) for GNOME . . . " Hull's detailed acrylic designs surpass his first book, "The Cat and the Fiddle and More," and offer a rollicking good time for all ages. The author and artist have included a list of hidden objects, but readers may find others along their romp through the book.
"ABC" by William Wegman (Hyperion, 1994. $17.95) is a perfect gift for dog lovers, or better still, owners of Weimaraners. Anyone who has seen Wegman's large-format color photographs or video works will recognize this celebrated brood of dogs: Fay Ray, Battina and Chundo. The left-hand page shows the dogs forming the letter, and on the opposite page are sepia-tone photos of the dogs in witty positions: upright in clothes, balancing on a chair or gazing with dour contentment into the distance. This original idea will be enjoyed by all ages.
Although there are many alphabet books on the market, I am always delighted to see popular ones return. There are paperback reprints of two favorites, "The Folks in the Valley: A Pennsylvania Dutch ABC" by Jim Aylesworth and Stefano Vitale (Harper Trophy) and Jerry Pallotta's "The Extinct Alphabet Book" illustrated by Ralph Maeielllo (Charlesbridge Publishing). Vitale's Early American prints accompany a text taken from the centuries when the Pennsylvania Dutch worked and survived on the farmlands.
Vitale has found 26 animals on the extinction list. "Q is for Quagga (an African mammal that had stripes on its neck, head and body like a zebra) . . . people hunted and ate all the Quaggas." The book of extinct animals, birds, fish and insects adds a great bit of information about the world as it once was - and could yet become. Pallotta has 11 other alphabet books about various science topics: bugs, frogs, dinosaurs and the underground.