A is for alphabet book

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Abalone to zebra via gecko and observatory: Elaine Williams finds a B in her bonnet

A LONG TRIP TO Z. By Fulvio Testa. Andersen Pounds 8.99 I'VE LOST MY YELLOW ZEBRA. By Angela Brooksbank. Scholastic Pounds 7.99

THE BAD DAY ABC. By Hilda Offen. Hamish Hamilton Pounds 10.99. ALICE AND ALDO. By Alison Lester. Little Ark, Pounds 9.99. FLORA McDONNELL'S ABC. Walker Pounds 10.99

As sure as A leads to Z, children's publishers produce their annual crop of alphabet books. The grounds for this output often seem dubious when one scans the shelves of remainder shops, which bear their share of ABCs with badly matched words and pictures and an inappropriate and confusing lexicon. Abalone, gecko, nasturtiums and Venetian blinds are just some I have seen in the present batch.

One wonders at the criteria for choice, feeling at times that the child might as well eat the dictionary. One wonders also at the purpose behind the book and how far publishers have looked at the needs of emergent readers.

Knowledge of the alphabet, rhyming and phonological awareness are thought to be key predictors of later reading performance, so a good ABC is undoubtedly a boon. Some publishers are getting there.

There's nothing neutral about letters and the sounds they make. In a child's mind they take on the character, shape and meaning of many associated things, a favourite object or an event. In A Long Trip to Z Fulvio Testa takes us on a journey across the alphabet, so that "a" for aeroplane flies out of the "b" for book on the child's desk and takes us past the bird in its cage through the door, out of the house across islands and mountains, into space, back to earth, bedroom and bed where you sleep on a pillow of "galloping * ebras".

The delectable little red aeroplane travels through a surrealist landscape which yet remains child-friendly. There are lots of pictorial games. If you look closely, for example, the desert island takes on the shape of a human face, the aeroplane's World War One pilot looks out from a mirror in the bedroom. The book does use the word "observatory", not an everyday word for a three or four-year-old. What can be seen from it? the book asks, "Why, you of course amongst the planets!" Unlike many ABCs, more difficult and adventurous words are explained through the storyline, which is simple but beautifully imagined, built up from the favourite pictures that many children, and especially boys, might have in their bedrooms. The colours are warm and rich, the images are careful and clever. The typeface is sympathetic and useful for early readers - all the alphabet letters are in a beautifully simple lower-case font, for example. The letters, pictures and words, while witty and entertaining, nevertheless conspire to produce instant recognition and understanding, a necessary prerequisite for any self-respecting ABC.

Many little children pin their hopes, affection and anxiety on some misshapen, mangled object. In Angela Brooksbank's wonderful I've Lost My Yellow Zebra, "y" and "z" take on a cuddly, lovable familiarity in the form of a young girl's yellow zebra. This is a durable, simple lift-the-flap book, in which we follow the girl into the attic, under the beds, into drawers and cupboards - through the household in general - in search of her favourite toy. Indeed we search through an alphabet of lower-case everyday, domestic words until we come to the wash, where the yellow zebra is turning inside the automatic with extraordinary results! A delicious ending to a delicious story. The key words are instantly knowable and meaningful, the illustrations are graphically clear and humorous - a firm favourite with my three-year-old daughter.

Some publishers have taken on board that rhyme is closely linked to phonological awareness and have produced rhyming or alliterating alphabets such as Hilda Offen's The Bad Day ABC which must be one of the better ones. It takes us on a jaunty trip through a series of calamities that befall a young lad from dawn to dusk: "An alien ate my alarm clock", "a bear in the bathroom bawled 'Boo!' " "A crocodile crunched up my cornflakes" etc. Zany alliteration and illustration familiarises children with a host of literary and word-shape possibilities.

Alice and Aldo takes us on another alliterative journey through the day, with Alice and her moth-eared cuddly helping "Dad do the dishes", doing "kangaroo kicks" and leaping in leotards. However, while the illustration is light and pleasingly linear, groups of random objects placed around each central picture, albeit all starting with the same letter, only serve to crowd and clutter.

While Flora McDonnell's ABC treats us to some luscious, painterly pictures of bears and yaks, alligators and pink Cadillacs - and while it seeks contrast, with an elephant balancing an egg, for example or an alligator with an ant on its tail - the use of words in capital letters for big objects and lower case letters for small objects is dangerously confusing.

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