Abecedaria (aka Alphabet Books)

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In medieval children’s primers, the alphabet was the main tool of learning and was often portrayed in a way that also taught religion (Seth Lerer, Children’s Literature, page 61). Poems and teachings would be in the order of the alphabet. This had biblical precedence, as the 22 stanzas of Psalm 118 “use the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet in order” (page 61). This group of books has the really cool name “abecedaria.” I love that word!

Our kids still use alphabet books to learn. I had a fun time reading children’s alphabet books to see how we learn the alphabet today. While all of these “teach” the alphabet, some encourage critical thinking, and some of them have specific purposes for further teaching.

Beginning ABCs and Alphabet Rhymes

Dr. Seuss’s ABC is my favorite ABC learning book that I read this week: it doesn’t force rhymes and each letter has a different silly sentence and illustration. Some pages have made up words, but they capture imagination in a way I think only Dr. Seuss succeeds in. A favorite page: “Many mumbling mice are making midnight music in the moonlight … mighty nice.”

A is for Annabelle by Tasha Tudor is one that I wish I’d found as a little girl. With gorgeous illustrations and soft rhymes, we follow the little china doll Annabelle through an alphabet of her little toys and accessories. I love these illustrations and intend to look up this Caldecott Honor artist again.

A number of books follow the alphabet using letters, nouns, and/or verbs, coupled with creative illustrations in a particular style.

  • A to Z and In Between by Sandra Boynton is full of Boynton’s classic animal illustrations and creative imagination, such as “Xylo Xylophoning” and “Uglybirds being Ugly”.
  • Alligators All Around: An Alphabet by Maurice Sendak has Sendak’s classic illustrations of alligators doing ridiculous things; but Sendak’s text is not politically correct in this day and age (for example, imitating Indians and pushing people). Do you think political correctness matters for a classic children’s alphabet book?
  • Eric Carle’s ABC illustrates colorful animals (including narwhal and xolo) in a unique page fold-out format.
  • Winnie-the-Pooh’s ABC, inspired by A.A. Milne, brings us Ernest H. Shepard’s classic illustrations; I think this book would work very well for allowing a young child to answer questions about familiar pictures using the one word on the page (e.g., who is eating the honey in this picture?)

Alphabet Storybooks

The Little i in Alphabet Adventure by Audrey Wood and Bruce Wood has lost his dot, and the other letters in Charley’s alphabet help in a search. Alphabet Adventure was refreshing because it doesn’t follow the letters in alphabetic order; instead, it allows young readers to search for the letters in the colorful illustrations. There are a few sequels to this story, also featuring the lowercase letters.

In Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr and John Archambault, the letters of the alphabet have a party on top of the coconut tree – which is a good idea until 26 of them are up there!

In Curious George Learns the Alphabet by H.A. Rey, the Man in the Yellow Hat teaches George the alphabet; he teaches things that start with each letter, attempting to make the capital and lowercase letters look like that thing in the illustration. Some are a bit obscure or politically incorrect (e.g., dromedary, tomahawk when George plays Indians) and many of the animals don’t really look like the letter. But this is classic Curious George.

The pirates in Shiver Me Letters: Pirate’s ABC by June Sobel decide that they want letters other than “R,” a concept I found quite amusing. They go on a search, using the anchor to find A, finding a C engraved on the cannonball, etc.

In Richard Scarry’s ABCs, Charlie Chipmunk invited Big Hilda Hippo to dinner, but can’t figure out what to feed her. An alligator or an apple? A bed or a banana? This a fun story that allows the reader to help make decisions.

Critical-Thinking Abecedaria

In The Z Was Zapped Chris Van Allsburg illustrates something happening to each letter; the text is on the next page, thus allowing the reader to guess. Obviously, the actions all start with the same letter: the A was in an avalanche, the K was quietly kidnapped, the T was tied up, and so forth. One amazon.com reviewer was quite distressed that The Z Was Zapped is too violent for children; I, however, think it was another creative way to put the alphabet into action. I also like Van Allsburg’s detailed illustrations. Do you think “violence” like this is okay in a child’s alphabet book?

Q is for Duck by Mary Elting and Michael Folsom is subtitled “An Alphabet Guessing Game.” Like The Z Was Zapped, the reader is expected to make connections using the alphabet. Why is Q for Duck? Because a duck quacks, obviously!

I Spy: An Alphabet in Art by Lucy Micklethwait is a similar concept. Classic artwork has items beginning with each letter of the alphabet and we must find the alphabetic item in the artwork (for example, the cover artwork has an apple). I love the concept of building art appreciation at the same time as learning the alphabet!

Educational Abecedaria

Many alphabet books endeavor to teach, from The Construction Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallotta, which teaches all about construction trucks and tools, to Eating the Alphabet by Louise Ehlert, which illustrates vegetables that begin with each letter. There are many more.

The Discover America State by State series has an alphabet book for each state; review the list here and here. I read Illinois’s L is for Lincoln by Kathy-jo Wargin. While each letter-page has a somewhat awkward poem, there is a beautiful illustration and one-paragraph explanation about the letter-concept (for example, on the page for O is for Mrs. O‘Leary, we learn that there never was proof that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocked over a lantern, starting the Chicago fire). Even though I’ve lived in Illinois most of my life, I learned interesting facts about the state.

There’s one more alphabet book I’ll be reviewing tomorrow in honor of Halloween. In the meantime, it’s your turn.

Which alphabet book(s) did you or your kids learn from? Have I missed your favorite?

For the rest of October, I’ll donate 10 cents to World Food Programme for every (non-spam) comment I receive on any post of Rebecca Reads. See most post on Blog Action Day 2008 here. I’m also donating any proceeds (4%) from my Amazon Store.

Reviewed on October 30, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I loved Chicka Chicka Boom Boom when I was a kid.  I must have read that book a hundred times.  When I got older I brought it along when I would babysit to read to other kids.  The Z Was Zapped looks great — I don’t think the “violence” would bother me unless it scared my kid.

  • Great list!  Thanks for pulling it together — the pirate one looks great – never seen it, have to look for it…   Here are some of our favorites:

    “Bestiary” by Jonathan Hunt — fantastic illustrations and text about 26 mythical creatures…
    “Alphabet Soup” by Scott Gustafson — one of my favorite illustrators.
    “Achoo Bang Crash” by Ross MacDonald — retro images, and all the words were hand set in a wood-type-press.
    “Miss Spider’s ABC” by David Kirk — the most vivid colors I’ve ever seen in a picturebook

  • Like you, I have a love of ABC books, and collect the more art-oriented types. This has prompted me to do my own, and I have just published an interactive eBook, “ABC’s for Big and Little Kids” which can be enjoyed on the Apple iPad. There are 228 pages in this eBook, all of which have an audio button, where anyone from 3 to 103 can hear the words “A is for Acrobats” or whatever the alphabet in question.

    You can get an inkling of the kind of book this is, by checking out my website, colormor.com. It is definitely not just for toddlers, but can be utilized by anyone just learning the English language.

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