Alphabet Books Never Cease to Amaze Us

Lynn:  If you thought there could be nothing really new in alphabet books, think again! Alphabet books have been some of the very earliest in the history of picture books but authors and illustrators continue to bring their boundless imaginations to this topic. We have two of special note to review today and I’m leading off with an exceptionally original book, The Invisible Alphabet (Penguin/Rise, 2020) by Joshua David Stein.

Here Stein and illustrator Ron Barrett present their fascinating take on an alphabet representing things not seen. A is for Air, C is for Clear, E is for Erased and J is for Just Missed It. This is a conceptual breath of fresh air (B is for Brilliant), a nudge to children’s imaginations, and a unique approach to thinking about the alphabet for kids who have the knowledge solidly acquired.

On solid white backgrounds, Barrett used pen and ink and added bright orange in Photoshop to create fascinating scenes depicting something unseen or actions happening off the page. A drawing of an empty birdcage with an open door and a small orange feather is captioned F is for Freed. An exploding orange balloon illustrates P is for Popped and 2 blank pages represent N is for Nothing.

Each page turn is fascinating, challenging kids to think about this familiar concept in a totally new way. Every scene asks readers to imagine what has already happened. This is absolutely ideal for use as writing prompts or story starters in classrooms of all ages of students.

W is for WOW!

Cindy: ABC Animals (Peter Pauper, Oct. 15, 2020) by Christopher Evans is stunning. Each spread of the books features a letter of the alphabet and an animal whose name starts with that letter. On the left are the large capital letter, the name of the animal, and a silhouette of the animal in what appears to be scaled to size in comparison with each animal in the book. At the top of that page are two sets of upper and lower case letters, one in a serif font and the other in a more modern style. Both sets are positioned on a lined and dashed line space resembling those in a writing practice book. I could see young readers practicing their own letters on the space between the two sets! The Robin and the Quetzel are perched on those lines like wires while the Orangutan swings from them. On the facing page is a digital woodcut of the animal representing the letter. A for Alpaca, B for Badger…H for Hedgehog, etc. until Z for Zebra. What is a digital woodcut, you ask? Good question. Lynn and I aren’t sure we completely understand, but Evans says it is the “modern-day equivalent of wood engravings…images drawn by hand in an illustration software, point by point, and shape by shape.” Whatever they are, we are agreed that they are gorgeous. Each one is presented on a contrasting color background. If I were an early elementary teacher I would buy three copies of this book. One for students to read, and the other two to cut up and post around the perimeter of the classroom or on a bulletin board. Aspiring graphic artists will want a copy of this book as well. Brilliant.

 

The Roots of Rap–Say Holler if You Hear

Cindy: What I know about Rap music I mostly learned by listening in the car as I drove my teen daughters to high school each morning a decade ago. I let them pick the music every day—”I Do It for Hip Hop.” Last year I listened to a delightful debate between my middle schoolers and visiting author Jason Reynolds as they quizzed him for his opinion on their favorites. I have some catching up to do! Meanwhile, I can’t wait to add this new picture book, The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip-Hop ( Little Bee, 2019) by Carole Boston Weatherford to my middle school libraries.

“Folktales, street rhymes, spirituals—rooted in spoken word.
Props to poets Hughes and Dunbar; published. Ain’t you heard?”

So begins Weatherford’s rapping text on a spread that features images of the poets in the clouds and a skeptical black teen staring at the reader. On to James Brown, duel turntables, breakdancing on cardboard sheets, and female rappers like Queen Latifah, while “keepin’ the lyrics real.”

“A generation voicing stories, hopes, and fears
founds a hip-hop nation. Say holler if you hear.”

I’ll be adding this book as a choice in our 7th-grade nonfiction picture book research multimedia project and it makes a great pairing with When the Beat Was Born: D.J. Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop (Roaring Brook, 2013), which we wrote about here. The Roots of Rap is a much-needed picture book to balance against the many featuring jazz and blues artists. It will be a huge hit with its intended early elementary school audience, but all ages will enjoy it as well.

Lynn: I know even less about rap and hip hop than Cindy! My kids were into They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies. So this terrific book was a very welcome introduction/history. Not only is it a real joy to read but I feel like I have a much better understanding of this important musical form. I love Weatherford’s text but I’m blown away by Frank Morrison’s illustrations. (Now that we’re independent again, I’m adding “blown away” as a literary criticism term.)

Frank Morrison, Simon & Schuster, 2019

Morrison’s bold dramatic illustrations use every inch of the pages and practically pulse with energy. Strong colors and unusual perspectives make every page-turn a new treat while expanding the text and evoking the time. DJ Kool leans over the turntable out toward the reader on one 2-page spread while on another page, readers look down from high above at a break dancer surrounded by his audience.

Don’t miss the back matter either. There’s a helpful glossary of terms, a Hip-Hop Who’s Who, and personal notes from both the author and illustrator. This book is keepin’ it real!