Making A Mess of the Alphabet
March 11, 2013 § 3 Comments
I was wrong. Occasionally, this happens (my husband would probably debate the word “occasionally,” but this isn’t his blog and, besides, I am usually right when it comes to books). Shortly after Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky’s Z is for Moose (Ages 4-8) was published last year, I hastily thumbed through it at a bookstore and thought, “Another alphabet book…rudimentary drawings…simplistic-seeming text…a Bullwinkle-style moose…I’ll pass.” Then, in January, right after the Caldecott winners were announced, the Internet was suddenly abuzz about this book: top children’s book critics were outraged that Zelinsky’s book got passed up for an award, and some went so far as to argue that it was the most revolutionary book published in 2012. “Huh?” I thought. So when I happened to come across the book a second time (this time at our local library), I picked it up, brought it home, and read it to my kids. I’ll say it again: I was wrong. In my haste to judge a book by its cover, I completely blew past its cleverness, its hilarity, and its brilliant way of turning conventional alphabet books on their head. This is not your run-of-the-mill alphabet book; it is not going to teach your child the alphabet. It’s a book best read to a child that knows his alphabet and is ready to play with it (the joke begins with the title: kids have to be able to recognize that “Moose” does not begin with “Z”). The basic premise is this: a zebra is trying to stage a very basic book (hence the rudimentary drawings) about the alphabet—only he’s constantly interrupted by a moose who’s eager for the letter “M” to have its turn and then furious when that turn arrives and the zebra chooses a “Mouse” to take the spotlight. No narrative explanation is present (we as readers are left to fill that in). Instead, the action itself tells the story, via the argumentative speech bubbles between Moose and the Zebra or the rebellious graffiti that the former inflicts across certain pages in protest. Repeated readings reveal delightfully subversive details at every turn: perfectly square borders around the pages get bent as Moose brazenly rushes past them; an “O” on the book’s cover is askew from Moose’s protruding antlers. Zelinsky has exploited the very idea of a picture book, calling children’s attention not only to how such works might be constructed but also to how that process could go terribly wrong.
But for all its artistic prowess, Z is for Moose’s tell-tale sign of success is the reader’s reaction: MY KIDS THINK THIS IS THE FUNNIEST BOOK THEY HAVE EVER READ (to be fair, my two year old daughter has no idea what she’s laughing at, but the fact that her five-year-old big brother tips his head back and roars loudly on most pages makes for equally good entertainment for her). What child cannot relate to an impatient, foot-stomping Moose who is denied the justice he feels he deserves? At the same time, what child cannot relate to Zebra’s mission to do things in a certain way without anyone messing them up? And then there’s the ending—every parent’s sigh of relief—when Zebra yields a little control, Moose adjusts his vision of success, and the two friends end up sharing the spotlight under the caption “Z is for Zebra’s Friend Moose.” After all, everyone makes mistakes. Thank goodness for second chances.
Other Favorite Alphabet Books (though of the more conventional kind):
ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book, by Alison Jay (Ages 1-5)
The Sleepy Little Alphabet Book, by Judy Sierra & Melissa Sweet (Ages 2-6)
Alphabet City, by Stephen T. Johnson (Ages 3-6)
LMNO Peas, by Keith Baker (Ages 2-6)
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Marin Jr. (Ages 2-6)
Alphabet Adventure, by Audrey and Bruce Wood (Ages 3-7)