August 31, 2006


Alphabet Rescue. By Audrey Wood.  Illustrated by Bruce Wood. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $15.99.

Can You See What I See? Once Upon a Time. By Walter Wick. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $13.99.

     The themes are familiar, the approaches unusual, and the result is a pair of winning books on topics that, in other hands, would seem merely ordinary.

     What, after all, can be more everyday than the alphabet?  For all the ways alphabet books are dressed up and brightly illustrated and given themes and offbeat approaches, what can be really different in a book about the 26 English letters?  Audrey Wood can answer that: she has turned the letters into heroes of an alphabet-themed story that does not actually teach the alphabet sequentially at all.  There is no “A is for apple” in Alphabet Rescue – instead, there is a presentation of all the letters at the start of the book, and several additional presentations of them within it; but the book itself is a story.  While a boy named Charley goes to visit his grandparents, the alphabet letters take a trip of their own, to Alphabet City, where they have a series of adventures based on the clever idea that it is the small letters taking the trip to a land where the capital letters are in charge (just as adults are in charge of children).  Within this conceit, Wood finds lots of ways for the small letters to be more useful than the capitals think they can be – ending with a celebratory parade in which the capitals, in proper A-through-Z order, cheer everything the little letters have done.  The story works so well in part because of the illustrations by Bruce Wood (Audrey’s son), which focus on the action scenes while keeping the letters within them outstandingly clear.  Kids will have a lot of fun picking out the words that certain letters spell out, apparently unintentionally, in some scenes.  In the celebratory final scene, for example, the text draws attention to the words “thank you,” but some letters are spelling “Cat” and “Mud” as well.

     Searching for certain specific things within complex scenes is what the popular I Spy books are all about – and Walter Wick, that series’ co-creator, has carried the theme through into his own set of books called Can You See What I See?  The basic approach of this series and the I Spy books is similar – but the latest Once Upon a Time volume is something special.  Instead of just creating elaborate, digitally enhanced photo montages within which hard-to-find items are located, Wick here bases every two-page spread on a fairy tale: “Goldilocks,” “Puss In Boots,” “Cinderella” and more – 11 tales in all, plus a final two-page illustration combining elements from all of them.  The result of Wick’s approach is a book that is not only fun as a set of puzzles, but also a clever reminiscence of well-known stories.  On the “Three Little Pigs” pages, for example, there are three little pigs and a wolf whose breath is apparently blowing them (and lots of other things) all over the place.  “Sleeping Beauty” features the heroine dozing in the ruins of a castle, a wicked fairy made out of twisted roots, and a variety of items not necessarily found in this particular story, such as seven-league boots and a pink high heel.  The humor in these try-to-find-it illustrations is as enjoyable as the puzzles themselves, and the high quality of the arrangements – the one of “Beauty & the Beast” is particularly striking – makes the book lovely to look at.  The “search for hidden objects” theme is an old one, but Wick’s book makes it fresh again.

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