While I’d like to think that any good book is timeless, there are certain kinds of books that you end up buying for your children that do seem to come with a very implicit “best if used by” date stamped on their side. For example, I know many children who, once they reached a certain age, refused to read board books anymore. To them, board books = baby books. And, regardless of the book itself (we have board book versions of older-skewing books like Olivia and Madeline), some six-year-olds just won’t be seen dead reading a board book. Another example of a kind of kid’s book that comes with a very distinct shelf-life is the Alphabet Book.
Alphabet books are possibly one of the most common kinds of picture books you can find for younger pre-readers. Their mission is simple and true – reinforcing kids’ knowledge of the alphabet from A to Z. This can be accomplished through pictures, rhyming couplets, you name it. Start at A, end at Z – they come with their own structure built in. No wonder there are so many alphabet books on the market. However, what happens to the book once a kid learns their alphabet backwards and forwards?
Unlike storybooks, alphabet books can be fairly utilitarian. They normally don’t feature stories, characters, or emotions for children to encounter and revisit. Most alphabet books just want to make sure that kids know that J comes before K and, once that’s accomplished, it’s O.K. (letters 15 and 11, respectively) to put them aside. However, there are classes of alphabet books and some are much more expertly executed than others. Some alphabet books transcend mere letter instruction and can stand on their own two feet much longer than their more cheaply produced brethren.
So, if you’re looking for a good alphabet book and you’ll like it to have a longer shelf-life than the crappy paperback A-to-Z book that came with your Happy Meal, here are six really great examples of alphabet books that do a whole lot more than just teach kids about letters.
1. The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey
Granted, it’s more of a commentary on alphabet books than anything, but it is one of the most brilliant, oddball, most often-copied books I’ve ever read. (Fair warning – there are a LOT of lame “parodies” of The Gashlycrumb Tinies out there.) But it is dark. And it is macabre. It is really, really macabre. And if your kid is into that, they might LOVE it. Personally, I know my daughter is far too easily creeped out to really enjoy a line like “X is for Xerses devoured by mice” without it giving her nightmares for a week. In regards to your own kid, you can read the whole book online here and decide for yourself. But, even though I can’t imagine ever giving The Gashlycrumb Tinies to a still-learning-to-read three-year-old, there is such genius and humor in Gorey’s work that it’d be a shame to keep this alphabet book away from kids entirely. As such, there’s a copy of The Gashlycrumb Tinies sitting on our “Books My Kid Will Read in the Future” shelf that’ll be waiting for my daughter whenever I think she’s ready for it.
2. On Market Street by Arnold Lobel, illustrated by Anita Lobel
I’ve known about Arnold Lobel since I was a kid thanks to his classic Frog and Toad books, but I’ll admit that On Market Street, a truly wonderful alphabet book, was my first introduction to the work of his wife, Anita Lobel, a hugely talented children’s book creator in her own right. On Market Street is one of those rare picture books that you’ll find your kids revisiting again and again, if only to re-appreciate and re-explore the depth and complexity of the artwork. The premise is relatively simple – a young child heads down Market Street “to see what I might buy”. The Lobels then lead us past an A-to-Z series of wildly imaginative merchants who all have bodies constructed out of whatever it is they’re selling. Thus, the apple vendor is made entirely out of apples, the book seller is made entirely out of books, etc.
My daughter still loves leafing through On Market Street, particularly because she’s so enamored with the intricate and ingenious ways that Anita Lobel assembled her composite street merchants. She especially loves the “T for toys” vendor with her hands made out of Frog and Toad puppets (a nice ode to Arnold’s most famous creations). A perfect mixture of beautiful and fun, On Market Street is an alphabet book that will linger in your home library long past kindergarten.
3. Dr. Seuss’s ABC: An Amazing Alphabet Book
We’re not fervent Seuss fans in our house (my daughter dug Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs, and Hop on Pop, and largely stopped there), but probably our most read Seuss book ever is Seuss’s ABC: An Amazing Alphabet Book. There are a lot of classic Seuss elements in his Amazing Alphabet Book – fun rhymes, oddball scenarios, weird creatures with even weirder names – but I think the overall alphabet structure makes it one of his most accessible books for beginning readers. This was one of the very first books that my daughter really wanted to read aloud on her own and the repetitive structure of the rhyme scheme definitely helped her confidence. For each letter, Seuss begins largely the same way – “Big A, little A, what begins with A?”, “Big B, little b, what begins with B?”, etc. And that introductory phrase is then followed by a quick burst of alliterative Seuss verse – “Big A, little A, what begins with A? Aunt Annie’s alligator. A…a…A.”
And, beyond its role as an entertaining read-aloud, Dr. Seuss’s ABC is just so gloriously absurd that can keep kids laughing even after they’ve mastered all 26 letters. My kid still cracks up at some of the images Seuss creates like “painting some pajamas pink” and “the quick Queen of Quincy and her quacking quacker-oo”. We had the board book version of Dr. Seuss’s ABC, so, admittedly, it did eventually get downgraded to “baby book” status, but it was also one of the few board books that remained on my daughter’s bookshelf long after the majority of her other board books were relegated to a box in the basement. It’s a very fun read.
4. Alligators All Around by Maurice Sendak
This tiny gem of an alphabet book is available for sale on its own, but we got a hold of Alligators All Around as a part of The Nutshell Library, which, to quote the product description, is a “four-volume boxed set contain[ing] an alphabet book, a book of rhymes about each month, a counting book, and a cautionary tale all written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.” While the other three books in The Nutshell Library – Chicken Soup with Rice, One Was Johnny, and Pierre – are all very well done, Alligators All Around was the breakout hit in our house. It just taps into that same snaggle-toothed, anarchic spirit that runs throughout the best of Sendak’s work. The aggressively-abnormal alligator family in this alphabet book would feel right at home romping with the Wild Things or hanging out In the Night Kitchen.
For every letter, we’re treated to an alligator family acting out an alliterative phrase. We might see them “B – bursting balloons” or “C – catching colds” and their madcap energy keeps building through the alphabet until we end with “Z – Zippity zound! Alligators ALL around!” Sendak’s characters are wonderfully expressive and you have to love some of his atypical choices like showing his alligators being “quite quarrelsome” or “shockingly spoiled.” One slight word of warning – The Nutshell Library was originally published in 1962 and the page for “I” shows the alligators “Imitating Indians”, complete with feather-headdresses. Though I think Sendak was a genius and was a remarkably well intentioned author for children, if such a portrayal would make you uncomfortable, you might want to stay away from Alligators All Around.
5. The Dangerous Alphabet by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Gris Grimly
There are many reasons why any kid would enjoy The Dangerous Alphabet. Perhaps they’re drawn in by Neil Gaiman‘s talent for wonderfully conveying mood in verse or they just love Gris Grimly‘s gorgeously wicked artwork. But I think the real reason why The Dangerous Alphabet is such a profoundly worthwhile alphabet book is that it does that which most alphabet books would never even attempt – it turns the alphabet into a story. Together, Gaiman and Grimly take what could’ve just been yet another riff on The Gashlycrumb Tinies (spooky ABC books always get compared to The Gashlycrumb Tinies by default) and instead turn their journey from A to Z into an actual journey, an adventure that reads like the alphabet book companion to Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events.
The Dangerous Alphabet opens with “A is for Always, that’s where we embark / B is for Boat pushing off in the dark”… and, with that boar, we’re off following two curious children into an ancient sewer where they encounter danger, thieves, and treachery as they slowly make their ways towards “Y’s your last question, the end of the ring / Z waits alone, and is not for a thing.” Gaiman even makes the genius decision to slightly alter the order of the alphabet at one point – an alteration they mention in the foreword – specifically to throw the reader off their game, thus making the alphabet all the more dangerous and untrustworthy. And, I’ll admit, the idea that someone figured out such a simple and clever way to throw a plot twist into a freakin’ alphabet book tickles me to no end. Yes, there’s some spooky imagery in The Dangerous Alphabet – nothing worse than you’d see in most Halloween books – so you will have to gauge whether or not your kid can handle Gaiman and Grimly‘s macabre mayhem. But, if they’re interested, it’d be hard to find them a more imaginative hybrid between a storybook and an alphabet book. And it makes a GREAT Halloween read aloud. It’s definitely worth checking out.
6. The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z! by Steve Martin, illustrated by Roz Chast
I have a strange relationship with The Alphabet from A to Y. Our whole family loves Steve Martin – he remains my daughter’s favorite guest on The Muppet Show ever – so we couldn’t have been more excited to get this book for our daughter when she was two years old. However, after reading it to her a few times, two things quickly became apparent. #1). My daughter ADORED this book, and #2). I did not particularly enjoy reading this book aloud. But, trust me, #1 trumps #2 any day of the week. I couldn’t believe how enthusiastic my daughter was in her response to The Alphabet from A to Y. In the book, each letter gets an absurd two-line verse from Martin accompanied by a full-page illustration by Roz Chast, who does her best to fit as many items related to the featured letter into each picture. For example, in the first verse, “A – Amiable Amy, Alice, and Andie / Ate all the anchovy sandwiches handy”, Chast not only gives us the trio of sandwich eaters, but we also get alligators, axes, ants, acne cream, and abacuses, among other details, worked into the background. One of my daughter’s favorite activities was pouring over each illustration to see if she’d found every possible reference to the letters in question.
The sophistication, depth, and detail of Chast‘s artwork, I think, lends The Alphabet from A to Y the bulk of its extended shelf life. The biggest issue I have with the book is related to Martin‘s verses. I don’t care that they’re weird – and some of them are extremely weird. Kids love weird and Martin‘s mind is amazing. I mostly take issue with the fluctuating rhyme scheme across the verses. As a dad who enjoys reading aloud, I will admit to being completely stumped when it comes to figuring out the ideal way to recite a line like “Kathy and Keith kayaked to Kansas / Though they were told not to by King Kong’s aunt Frances”. Or “Zany Zeno zoomed to the end zone, / But with a zucchini, scoring him zero.” When I read The Alphabet from A to Y aloud, I always feel like I’m tripping over the words, which isn’t the best feeling in the world. BUT, all that being said and despite my concern that some of Martin‘s references would go completely over my daughter’s head, she LOVES this book. LOVES it. She has no problem with the absurdism, doesn’t mind getting tongue-tied when she reads it, laughs at every spread, and loves exploring all of the alliterative allusions in Chast‘s artwork. (See what I did there?) The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z! is a work of messy genius and, even if it isn’t your personal cup of tea, I think it’s totally worthwhile to place it in front of your kid and see if, like my daughter, they can do a much better job of tapping into Martin‘s wonderfully askew worldview than you can.
Do you have your own picks for classic alphabet books that didn’t make my list? If so, leave a comment and let me know about them. I’ve love to hear your suggestions.