Alphabet books were one of the earliest varieties of illustrated books for children, and artists and authors continue to devise inventive ways of introducing the ABCs to children. In Suse MacDonald’s Caldecott Honor Book Alphabatics (1986), for example, MacDonald shows each letter going through an amazing acrobatic metamorphosis: E tips and turns and mutates until it becomes the legs of an elephant. Stephen Johnson’s Alphabet City (1995) is a series of 26 paintings, so realistic that they are sometimes mistaken for photographs, wherein letters of the alphabet are formed by objects found in a townscape. For example, the letter G is located within the wrought iron decorations on a lamppost.
The alphabet may also be used as a vehicle to introduce or categorize information or concepts for older children. For example, Beastiary: An Illuminated Alphabet of Medieval Beasts by Jonathan Hunt (1998) is an ABC introduction to the mythical creatures people feared during the Middle Ages: A is for amphisbaena, B is for basilisk, C is for catoblepas, and so on (with a paragraph of explanation for each animal).
One of the most inventive ABC books in recent years is Cathi Hepworth’s Antics! An Alphabetical Anthology (1992). Hepworth paints humanlike ants, whose personality traits represent words that begin with each letter of the alphabet and have the letters ant embedded in them. For the letter B, Hepworth shows an Albert Einstein-type ant labeled “Brilliant,” and for I, the illustration shows forlorn, turn-of-the-century “Immigrants” huddled nervously on the deck of a ship.
Another example of a creative approach to the ABC book is Tomorrow’s Alphabet by George Shannon (1996; illustrated by Donald Crews). It works this way: “A is for seed—tomorrow’s apple. B is for eggs—tomorrow’s birds. C is for milk—tomorrow’s cheese.”
For the most part, alphabet books are not well suited to teaching the ABCs along with their phonic generalizations and are not intended to serve such a purpose. However, if a teacher or parent insists on using an ABC book as a medium for teaching the alphabet and its sounds, then care must be exercised to find some of the extremely rare books that conform to this task. Three criteria help define this type of ABC book (Criscoe, 1988, p. 233).
- Words used to represent each letter must begin with the common sound generally associated with that letter. In other words, blends, digraphs, and silent letters should be avoided. MacDonald’s Alphabatics violates this principle in its use of ark for A, elephant for E, and owl for O.
- Illustrations must represent each letter using only one or two objects that are easily identifiable by and meaningful to young children. Once again, Alphabatics often violates this rule. For instance, the word insect is used for the letter I, and the illustration shows an insect along with a large, bright yellow flower. A young child’s attention may be drawn to the flower, thus I is for “flower.”
- Illustrations must represent objects that do not have several correct names, thus confusing young readers. Alphabatics uses quail for Q, which would certainly be identified as “bird” by a child. Even the insect in the preceding example would likely be called a bee, a fly, or a bug.
Alphabet books are meant to introduce fascinating words and interesting concepts and to entertain. Clever ABC books appeal to adults as well as children, and almost any subject can be the focus. For example, An Alphabet of Dinosaurs (Dodson, 1995) identifies 26 dinosaurs, each beginning with a different letter. M is for Music (Krull, 2003) introduces musical terms from allegro to zarzuela. Some titles are self-explanatory: My First Buddhist Alphabet (Bates & Bates 2004), The Gardner’s Alphabet (Azarian, 2000), Jazz A·B·Z: An A to Z Collection of Jazz Portraits (Marsalis, 2005), C is for Cowboy: A Wyoming Alphabet (Gagliano, 2003), and 26 Ways to Say “I Love You” (Jarrell, 2000). Alphabet books can also introduce the unusual. Candle Time ABC (Gillis, 2002) features various holidays that use candles as a part of their celebration, and The Butterfly Alphabet (Sandved, 1996) shows each letter appearing naturally on the wing design of a butterfly or moth, a task that took the author 25 years to complete.
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