August 15, 2013


The Amazing Animal Alphabet: Twenty-Six Tongue Twisters. By Robert Pizzo. Pomegranate Kids. $17.95.

What’s in the Woods? A Nature Discovery Book. By Zoe Burke. Illustrations by Charley Harper. Pomegranate Kids. $14.95.

     When you come right down to it, strictly from the point of content, all alphabet books and pretty much all simple books about animals and nature are the same. And there are so many of them, alphabet and animal alike, that it takes very special conceptualization and execution to make books stand out as much as these two do. Robert Pizzo’s The Amazing Animal Alphabet contains the same 26 letters as any English-language alphabet book, but in the grand tradition of Dr. Seuss’ outrageous-rhyme books – the best-known being Fox in Socks and the most twisted being Oh Say Can You Say – Pizzo mixes his unusual, angular graphic style with eerily emphatic extraordinary elucidations (sorry; this is contagious) of the letters. His eventual entry for “E” goes, “Enormously Elegant Elephant wears Electric Easter-Egg Earrings,” not to mention red high-heeled shoes and bright red, stylish sunglasses. And yes, the earrings really are electric – they are plugged into the wall behind the pachyderm. Even more overtly outrageously outré (sorry again), our O: “Outlandish Octopus Orchestrates an Oboe Orchestra of One,” with a very cool-looking octopus indeed playing four oboes and using a music stand while fish flit by blowing bubbles and a wayward G clef drifts off to the left of the two-page illustration. Some smart sisters shall survive the S scene: “Stinky Skunk in Smelly Sneakers Shows off on a Skateboard” (the “odor indicators” and a mouse’s reaction to the event are wonderful). But brothers better begin B boldly: “Big Brown Bull Blasts off on Badly Built Bright Blue Bicycle.” Try the book and see if you don’t find yourself getting into the ongoing alliteration – in fact, the whole thing makes a great game for the family, with young kids reading “Crabbie Crab Cabbie Cruises in a Cool Classic Checker Cab” while adults and older kids pick out and enjoy all the detail that Pizzo crams into the drawings. And, to answer the eternal question about alphabet books, what happens with the letter X? An eXtra eXcellent eXcelsior! “X-ray fish goes eXploring on eXceptionally eXotic eXciting eXpeditions.” And what a wow! “Weak-Willed Waddling Weighty Walrus Waiter Wants Waffles,” and his name tag identifies him as William and the restaurant as Wally’s. There is so much written and visual fun to be had in The Amazing Animal Alphabet that kids and adults alike will relish rereading Robert’s rousing rendition repeatedly.

     The animals are extraordinary in a more-ordinary way, if that makes any sense, in Charley Harper’s What’s in the Woods? Harper (1922-2007) was a well-known, highly skilled nature artist who used accurate observation, a wonderful sense of color and shape, and skillful stylization to make animals seem even more real than they are in reality. Zoe Burke’s simple text portrays each animal in amusing rhyme: “A rustling movement at our feet—/ Can you identify/ The bushy tail and showy stripes?/ It’s Chipmunk dashing by!” Harper’s portrayals of the animals make the words special: the chipmunk, for example, hangs down from the top of the page, its head turned to one side, its squared-off brown body striped just so in black and white. Harper was a master of stylizing, of showing off animals in recognizable ways never found in nature but somehow seeming entirely natural. The wood duck, for instance, is seen completely from the front and is purely an assemblage of shapes: most of a circle for a body, two parenthesis-shaped wings, an elliptical head turned to one side – with everything colored carefully and with great beauty, an elegant mixture of black, white, brown, red, green, purple and orange. The snake, in contrast, is simply a solid and stolid black shape, head slightly larger than body; but skunk and raccoons are seen as if from above, with the big raccoon and the five small ones being led in perfect formation providing one of the highlights of the book. At the end, there is a delightful foldout to Burke’s words, “Our walk is done; can you recall/ The animals we met?/ The birds and plants and leaves and trees?/ You’ll find them here, I bet!” Sure enough, everything from the walk appears on the folded-out page, with a key on the following pages at the back of the book – a lovely display of what’s in the woods to conclude the delightful What’s in the Woods?

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