THE WALL OF A ROOM in Pompeii is said to reveal the marks made by a child who was learning to write the alphabet. Did Vesuvius interrupt matter or pater, reading to filius or filia from an ABC liber? Grim thought. What's interesting is that little ancients cut their teeth on the same ABC's as do our kids today. Almost everything else has changed in the last 2,000 years, but not our alphabet. Publishers, writers and artists never tire of producing abecedarian books, with good reason. They are crucial, introducing children to the world of words, and also presenting a challenge to come up with new ways of dealing with the same old 26 letters. Here are three outstanding new ones.
In the case of Albert's Alphabet Walk, Victoria Chess is both author and illustrator. Her protagoinst is a shaggy little creature (i confess I don't know what category, though he has pink extremities and a short tail) who has been asked by his mother to stay home and study the alphabet. Instead he takes off on an aimless tour of the countryside, but the story of his adventure is a lesson in letters, for both Alfred and a younger reader. "A Herd of Hungry Hogs were Hurrying Home." He runs into a "Paunchy Porcupine Picnicking." And so on, meeting a variety of bird, mammal, reptile and whatnot, each page prettily illustrated. When Alfred returns home, he is able to recite the alphabet and earn his mother's praise. It's a delightful, humorous story.
Here's a book that is supposed to put someone to sleep. Good Night to Annie starts off with Annie in bed in her nightcap, reading her ABCs. It ends with here a-snooze, and presumably a young reader will yawn and follow her example. Eve Merriam's brief text has a lilt to it as she describes what's going on here and there as the world prepares for bedtime. "Starshaped snowflakes are falling without a sound." "Queens are doffing their crowns and drowsing under downy quilts." Each page by artist John Wallner is devoted to a letter, decorated with its capital and lower case, and illustrated with his concept of the particular dusk or nighttime scene, using purple, plum, black and other quiet colors. No wonder Annie falls asleep.
Count on versatile Jane Yolen to invent something special and intriguing. For her alphabet book, All in the Woodland Early, she has written not only words but music to go with them. The verses feature birds, animals and insects from ant to zemmi (whatever that is!), concluding with a page of music alongside a page with all lyrics repeated. That means a grown-up and child can place the book on the piano, like sheet music, and sing, "All in the Woodland Early." So clever! It adds another dimension to a leason in the ABCs, does it not? And Jane Breskin Zalben's beautiful illustrations in color are accurate and alluring, whether she's capturing with her brush a ring-necked pheasant in flight or depicting the microscopic xyleborus, a tealeaf-chomping pest which Jane Yolen, bless her inspired heart, has resorted to for her letter X.