The alphabet book is one of the oldest genres in children's literature.
In 1691, the popular "New England Primer" was designed to teach the letters of the alphabet as well as to instill moral values in the reader. Today's ABC books are considered a staple of most publishing houses; new ones are snatched up readily by parents and grandparents to help children learn the letters of the alphabet.
The contemporary ABC book, however, provides more than strategies for emergent and beginning literacy. All ages and abilities enjoy these picture books because they tell stories, portray themes and develop complex language patterns including many forms of verse. Some artists use the 26-letter schema to illustrate masterful art pieces where letters and design become embellished and highly stylized.
This season there has been an influx of alphabet books with at least a dozen and a half new editions. Each is unique but here are a few that are truly extraordinary:
"Z Goes Home" by Jon Agee (Hyperion). As Z climbs from his cage at the Zoo he meets other surprising alphabet-letters: "alien," "gargoyle," "hurdles" and "labyrinth." (There's no fudging on simplistic words here!) The inclusion of Z in each bold illustration provides a novel exploration. The artist, who likes to have a book conclude with a bang, has certainly done that with "Z Goes Home." This book is for all ages.
Milton Glazer is the artistic designer of the "I New York!" logo. He collaborated with his wife, Shirley, on "Alphazeds" (Hyperion) where a spirited bunch of letters groan, whine and bicker as they burst into a stage set with comic balloon-type scripts. "Alphazeds" is indeed a cast of characters —"Flamboyant F," "Pretentious P" and "Dynamite D" — made from vivid typography. This is a romp through "letter-land" appropriate for anyone who enjoys humor and puns.
"Alphabeep" by Debora Pearson, illustrated by Edward Miller (Holiday) introduces 26 kinds of machines and road signs zooming through the alphabet. Younger readers will recognize colorful jeeps, ice-cream trucks and police cars but the Zamboni ice resurfacing machine is a nice finale to a trip through town. The end papers feature safety signs that all children should know and a Web site provides activities to accompany the story.
"Alphabet Mystery" by Audrey Wood (Scholastic). When Charley's Alphabet sets off to find the missing "little x" they encounter the gigantic "Capital M" who threatens to put them into alphabet soup. Naturally "little x" saves the day. The illustrations were created digitally by the author's son, Bruce. Primary-grade readers will love looking for the tiniest of details.
"The Queen's Progress: An Elizabethan Alphabet" by Celeste Davidson Mannis (Viking) is a rich history lesson as Queen Elizabeth leaves London on holiday. Bagram lbatoulline's stunning illustrations are lavish with frills, curlicues and accurate details of Britain 450 years ago. Each character comes alive on the page with whimsy and energy. An author's note provides a brief history of Elizabeth Tudor. What a beautiful art book this one is!
Another history lesson worth noting is "A is for Abigail: An Almanac of Amazing American Women" by Lynne Cheney (Simon & Schuster). Great women of America are portrayed in an ABC book that will encourage respect and honor for some of the known and unknown women who have made America an astonishing place to live. The vice-president's wife and Robin Preiss Glasser collaborated on "America: A Patriotic Primer" last year but this one will appeal to a wider and perhaps older audience.