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Big A and little a go out to play

Elaine Williams on getting to grips with the alphabet. There's nothing more basic than the ABC and there's nothing more difficult to put successfully into book form. Mastering the alphabet is an essential skill for all children, and producing good, clear, inventive and engaging alphabet books is something most self-respecting children's publishers seek to do. But the failure rate is high and remaindered book shops have seen plenty of uninspired attempts and clever ideas that confuse rather than clarify.

The letter, pictures and words must conspire to produce instant recognition, building up the child's reading confidence, as well as being engaging and entertaining. Winning formulas are few and far between. Paul Sellers's Alphabats, however, published this month, are promising. They are well-researched, simply and wittily designed and extremely child-friendly. Twenty-six board books, one for each letter of the alphabet, are compact, robust and easy for little children to hold. Aimed at the pre-school and reception class market, they present 26 lower case Alphabat characters. In the well-worn path of Roger Knight's Lettermen, the alphabet is brought to life.

These friendly little books have a clear graphic format with uncluttered, lively illustrations and a sympathetic humour that will appeal to adults as well as children. There is a subtlety in the drawing that in no way detracts from their clarity and the clever use of secondary and tertiary colour provides welcome relief from the ubiquitous primary colour that accompanies so many educational, early years texts.

The books are shaped to follow the outline of the letter and an indented finger guide on the cover allows the child to follow the letter's outline. Alphabats should put children well on the road to word recognition. My pre-school son went off into a corner with these and returned some time later declaring that he could read. He had picked up the concept and could easily match up pictures to words, which has to be the way it all begins.

Phonological awareness and knowledge of the alphabet are said to be the two chief predictors of later reading performance. They are essential early skills and an attractive alphabet series can provide an enormous boost to mastering them. Diana Bentley, senior lecturer in primary English at Oxford Brookes University and consultant to the series, believes a whole alphabet book can prove too overpowering for children. She said: "Unless parents and teachers dip in and out of a few pages concentrating on a few letters, ploughing through a whole book can be pretty dull. These books are handlable, they have sparkle and they promote independent reading."

Phonic, decodable words are frequently used and Diana Bentley was concerned to achieve as pure a sound as possible. For example, "cow" was chosen in preference to "crow" because the "c" in crow is overpowered by the "r". She was also concerned that the pictures should immediately evoke the word underneath so children would feel confident enough to read independently of adults. Part of their success is that they invite a response through pictorial narrative, avoiding the clinical graphics which some alphabet books adopt to achieve clarity.

Four story books of Alphabats A-D have been published to accompany the series. The adventures of big B and little b in the Big Bubble Adventure are written in flowing alliteration, giving children a wide range of B words in a variety of situations: "bundling back the blankets as they tumble out of bed"; "bounding down the stairs for breakfast"; "in a balloon bobbing along on the breeze". Similarly, the Amazing Apple Adventure is rich in alliteration. But these don't work so well. They are rather forced, the diet of B words or D words is over-rich and the story line suffers accordingly. Paul Sellers will be writing one for each letter of the alphabet and 26 upper case board books are also to appear in the future.

Alphabats by Paul Sellers. 26 lower case board books published by Transworld Pounds 1.99 each. Four story books A-D. Amazing Apple Adventure. Big Bubble Adventure. Cuckoo Car Adventure. Dark Dungeon Adventure Pounds 2.50 each.

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