Wednesday, April 9

All Aboard: A Traveling Alphabet

concept by Chris L. Demarest
illustrated by Bill Mayer
McElderry Books 2008

Alphabet books. If asked, how many adults (outside the world of publishing or kidlit blogging) could name a favorite alphabet book they had as a child? I did ask people, casually, in a non-scientific poll and not one could name an alphabet book they loved.

"Wasn't there a Dr. Seuss alphabet book? I probably had that."

They might have been thinking about On Beyond Zebra, which goes beyond the normal alphabet in Seussian style. The fact is they don't generally remember alphabet books. The reason is that they hold such a temporary spot in our progression as readers, a mere blip on or reading radar. The reinforcement of shapes and sounds, with images to match, can't quite lodge itself in the same memory sensors as those books that hold deeper meaning for us.

Which might be why it seems like everyone wants to come out with a new alphabet book every season, because who can recall the last memorable alphabet book?

To answer my own question there is one alphabet book I do remember, and that Sendak's Alligators All Around, part of the Nutshell Library. What I remember about it is there's more story than letter reinforcement, the alliteration of letters and sounds, and the plain fact of alligators doing silly human-like things. I think what I like most about it, what I remember, is that it's less interested in teaching me as a young reader, and more about entertaining me.

All to say that while I don't necessarily hate the alphabet book, I sometimes don't understand the point of one. Some serve as a game ("can you find the letter C?") and some are about reinforcing the sounds (those alligators again) but so many seem to be designed as clever concepts for adults to enjoy. It's a bit like the way modern animated feature films include adult jokes for the those in the audience who are sitting with young ones, a way to entertain the family. But what adult needs to have an alphabet book similarly made palatable to their tastes in order for them to show an interest with a child?

Let's get around to the book at hand. All Aboard! is an alphabet book in the style of romantic travel posters. Each page features some element of travel -- the smokestack of a steam steamer, a canoe on still water, a biplane from above -- each with a letter of the alphabet worked into the design in some fashion. They also include a word beginning with the letter appropriate for each illustration, for example the word "jump" along with a fish leaping to swallow a fishing fly.

This last example is a perfect illustration for what I don't like about the execution of this concept. The J in this case is supposed to be found in the shape of the fish, the way it's tail flips to create the tail of the letter. The problem is that it isn't an exact letter shape but a general shape and as such isn't obvious from looking at the picture.

Other letters are hidden in some clever ways that make them almost impossible to find. The H in the highway illustration is made from the edge of the highway, the double yellow line down the center, and the long shadow of a cacti plant crossing both. It's not impossible to see once you know it's there, but using the edge of the highway is a sophisticated form of shape recognition that might be just outside the bounds of young eyes that are still getting used to more than 2-dimensions.

The concept of using old travel posters as an illustration style I think is great, but since this is probably aimed at adults it would have been nice if the illustrations were a bit more true to their source. A skier making a downhill run, the S in the trail behind the skis, would have benefited from a bit of something that made it look a little more... like travel poster. Instead we get a skier against a white background which, besides being dull, doesn't convey the sense of the concept. All it would have taken is an alpine ridge, a stylized mountain edge in the background, perhaps a Swiss chalet. Similarly, the previously mentioned Highway illustration would have made more sense with a retro station wagon loaded with camping gear going through the desert instead of what we do get, an 18-wheeler making a hairpin turn.

If that sounds like I'm being nit-picky remember, I'm part of the intended audience. There's little point in making the illustration resemble travel posters from the early part of the 20th century for those born in the 21st who have no frame of reference.

I find it amusing -- that is, I smirk when I think about it -- that this book as a credit for the concept and another for the illustrator. It isn't quite a writing credit, is it? And in the forward the artist talks about the challenges of working with the editor on how to fit the alphabet letters into the illustrations. So if the artist and the editor are doing the heavy lifting... is it really worth mentioning who came up with the concept?

Yeah, I've got this idea for an alphabet book. Something with letters somehow worked into old travel posters. You guys can hammer out the details, I'll be in Jamaica drinking up my advance if you have any questions...

It's a bit like a Hollywood-type saying "Let's do Die Hard on a boat!" and getting story credit for it in the movie and ten grand for each word in his pitch. Is this the future of picture books, "conceptualists" instead of authors? I hope not.

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