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Tuesday, April 17, 2007



by Wallace Edwards

There are many abecedary books, mostly aimed at introducing letters of the alphabet, each with its own charm and merit. Some are favored by teachers and parents alike, some just by the kids who happened upon them. This book, Alphabeasts, at first glance, drew me in with its brilliant illustrations.

As the cover might suggest, the illustrations have a surreal quality at times. Very eye-catching. In addition, they have layers of subtleties infused that hopefully will become apparent as the child grows.

And, as the title suggests, each letter of the alphabet teaches an animal name, in the form of simple couplets, like:
A is for alligator awake from a dream
B is for bat slurping ice cream

Each illustration depicts a single animal placed in a rather incongruous setting, without obvious elucidation. An alligator comfortably stretches in a plush red recliner, a comically stout hippopotamus prepares to play a dainty violin, a majestic lion sits styling his locks...

"I didn't want there to be a story," I remember reading Edwards' observation. "Kids make up their own stories."

It is not surprising that Edwards won the Governor General’s Award (Canada) for children’s illustration for this book.

In addition to the usual array of animals like P is for Pig and C is for Cat, this book introduces exotic animals such as: I is for Ibis, M is for Mandrill, N is for Narwhal, Q is for Quetzal, X is for Xenosaur, without appearing patronizing or condescending at any level... Not many kids get introduced to these animals in a standard alphabet book.

Although the rhymes in Alphabeasts are a bit bizarre, seemingly prosaic, and possibly beyond comprehension for a toddler, it definitely could double as an interesting coffee table book: The Victorian-looking house has different animals in different rooms in various states, doing different things that is sort of summed up or suggested in the rhyming couplets.

One of my favorites in this book
C is for Cat,
Who reflects on its self
shows a Siamese cat in front of a mirror gazing at the tiger staring back at him!

Another favorite for visual tease is
J is for Jaguar
Checking the stairs
where the jaguar's intricate coat pattern blends in with the checkered carpet on the stairs.

And the funny one
Y is a Yak
Seeking a Path
shows a yak, with a paint brush in mouth and a paint bucket hanging from his horn, looking perplexed as he has painted himself into a corner.

Peeling the layers of meaning that suggest themselves in the dreamlike illustrations is the greatest appeal of this book. As the child grows with the book, and starts getting the subtleties, this book will be treasured by both the parent and the child.

I do believe visual stimuli and very simple rhymes catch children's fancy, help bring them in, and encourage them to enjoy reading. So, I love this book, and can't wait for my daughter to start appreciating it in her own way as she grows up, pointing out her interpretation of the illustrations.

Meanwhile, I enjoy reading the couplets out loud to her while she drinks in the page visually, scanning every inch, pointing out things she already recognizes, asking about things that catch her fancy.

This is a wonderful book for children of all ages, merging childhood fancy with adult finesse.

[This post written for Saffron Tree]

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