The City ABC Book

by Zoran Milich

Published by Kids Can Press

32 pages, 2001

Eh? to Zed

by Kevin Major

illustrated by Alan Daniel

Published by Red Deer Press

32 pages, 2001

Abrstract Alphabet: A Book of Animals

by Paul Cox

Published by Chronicle Books

64 pages, 2001



"A" is for Alphabet

Reviewed by Monica Stark

Books for children are available in every imaginable genre. There are mysteries and tales of adventure, science fiction and even romance. If you can think of it, it's likely that a representative genre exists within the category of children's books: And some of them esoteric enough that they don't even seem to be discussed as a sub-genre all that much.

Take alphabet books, for instance. Every child seems to get at least one at some point: a book that correlates the letters that comprise our written language with something identifiable from the child's world. From an adult perspective, the idea is to get children familiar and comfortable with the concept of having these fairly abstract shapes consistently represent an aspect of communication. So while "C is for Cat" might not make a lasting impression, perhaps seeing the "C" again and again and having it always represent that sound (cat, car, canoe, clone) will sink in and take root. While I'm not completely convinced that A-B-C books are always helpful in this regard, it's certainly a fun step to take with your child on the road to appreciating language. Especially since, as a sub-genre, A-B-C books tend to be some of the most beautiful and creative around.

In The City ABC Book award-winning photojournalist Zoran Milich has taken a completely new approach to bringing written language to a child. Using stark black and white images of urban scenes, Milich has let the landscape speak for itself and uses the shapes not found in nature to bring individual letters to the child. As it says in The City ABC Book "A keen eye and a little imagination are all it takes to discover a secret world of letters hidden in the urban architecture of a bustling city."

In The City ABC Book there is no "C is for Cat." Milich's "C" is indicated in red atop the closed surface of a manhole cover. "V" is picked out of a storm grating, "R" from the entrance to an old house, "H" from part of a hopscotch grid and so on. Will Milich's approach be more successful than good old "C is for Cat"? I don't know. But at the very least, he might have provided us with the makings for a very enjoyable traveling game: can you spot the letters that make up the landscape?

Eh? to Zed: A Canadian ABeCedarium takes a novel -- and regional -- approach to breaking language down for children. Author Kevin Major challenged himself with finding four "very Canadian words" for each letter of the alphabet. Then he pushed the whole matter almost into the zone of the ridiculous by attempting to make the four rhyme. The result is an alphabet book quite unlike any other though, unfortunately, it's quite flawed.

The fact is -- though I'm ready for mail to the contrary -- there simply aren't four Canadian words for each letter of the alphabet. Even if you stoop -- as Major has done -- to using regional Canadian words and words that aren't strictly speaking Canadian, you're still going to come up short. And Major has. What else would explain the inclusion of "Quahog" and "Quarter Horse" (neither of these are in the least distinctly Canadian) as well as "Quints" (a reference to the famed Dionne Quintuplets of the 1930s: but that's a bit of a reach) and "Qu'Appelle" (you tell me). It just happens that, for me anyway, the "Q" in Eh? to Zed: A Canadian ABeCedarium doesn't work at all. Many of the letters are better represented. For example, the "B" words all seem to at least have fairly Canadian connotations ("Bonhomme, Bluenose, beaver, bannock"). Most of the letters, however, are less successfully represented.

At best Eh? to Zed: A Canadian ABeCedarium is a curious hodgepodge of vaguely Canadian images. At worst, it serves to reinforce all of the stereotypes that contemporary Canadians have been fighting against (for what seems like!) all their lives.

At first glance Abstract Alphabet: A Book of Animals seems counterintuitive to the entire concept of A-B-C books. "An alphabet is a set of symbols," explains Abstract Alphabet. "If the symbols were different from the letters we know would they still spell words?"

To answer this question, the "letters" in Abstract Alphabet aren't letters at all: at least, not in the terms we're used to thinking in. Rather, they are colorful geometric shapes, like Rorshack blotches with purpose. In author Paul Cox' special alphabet, the letter "B" is always represented by a pale blue circle and "X" is always indicated by an orange semicircle, while "O" is a bright red staircase. Each alphabet letter in Abstract Alphabet is illustrated by symbols or icons in Cox' own geometric alphabet that make up a kind of word puzzle animal name. A handy legend that equates geometric shapes with the appropriate letter helps turn Abstract Alphabet into an elaborately printed word game. When I used the legend to decipher the "C" word I was pleased, though not overly surprised, to find that, in this case, the geometric shapes spelled out the word C-A-T. Somehow it's reassuring to find that, even in the face of experiment and great change, some things stay the same. | April 2001

Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.