Creature ABC By Andrew Zuckerman, Chronicle Books, 116 pages, $19.99, ages 3 and up Alphabeasties and Other Amazing Types By Sharon Werner and Sarah Forss, Blue Apple Books, 48 pages, $24.95, ages 3 and up
Both of these books will interest those just beginning to connect letters and objects, three-year-olds and their ilk, but both also offer delights for the literate decades older.
The first double-page spread of Creature ABC offers hints of what's to come. A photograph of a leathery, clawed left front foot occupies the left hand side of the spread; on the right side are bold black a's, one upper case, the other lower case. Turn the page and an alligator, fearsome in tooth and claw, bestrides a double page, the word "alligator" identifying it. The parade of spectacular photographs continues, with two shots of each beast, bird or insect. Particularly dramatic are the bear, up on its hind legs, the mandrill with its paint-box face, and the enigmatic oryx.
The authors/illustrators of Alphabeasties are a pair of award-winning graphic designers who, in this book at least, have fun with letters and typefaces. The youngest "readers" of this book will especially enjoy the "beasties," one for each letter of the alphabet; they are shapes with the bodies filled with the first letter of the beastie's name. So, for instance, the two-humped camel is filled with upper- and lower-case c's, and the dog, a dachshund, with bold large and small d's. Older as well as younger readers will appreciate the clever paper engineering which produces an elongated giraffe composed of a multitude of large and small g's, of various typefaces, some elongated. In the case of size and variety of typeface it seems, the medium aids the messaging.
Finn Throws a Fit! By David Elliott, illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering, Candlewick, 32 pages, $20, ages 3 to 5
A more perfect account than this of a small child's meltdown would be hard to imagine. Whether it will ring any bells of recognition/self-awareness among its projected audience of three- to five-year-olds remains to be seen, but it will find a home among parents who have experienced and survived fits like Finn's.
It all begins with a peach. Usually Finn likes peaches but today he doesn't. In fact today Finn doesn't like anything at all. There he sits, wrapped in a blanket scowling at all comers, which include his placatory mother, bearing sliced peaches on a platter, and his equally placatory dad, jiggling toys, hoping to amuse his boy. Their ploys do not work. Nothing works.
"Today Finn is cranky. Anything could happen." And it does. "Finn throws a fit." Like a hurricane, the little spitball wreaks havoc in every room of the house: "He cries. The house floods. He screams. Look out! Avalanche! He kicks. An earthquake shakes the world. Tidal waves sweep through the living room." And so the fit continues. "Until it doesn't." Finn sits in an exhausted heap, his rage spent. A small smile crosses his face. "He'd like those peaches now. Please." Ering's fine and very lively illustrations in charcoal, oil paint and grease pencil say what even the most carefully chosen words can't quite convey.
Alego Written and illustrated by Ningeokuluk Teevee, translated by Nina Manning-Toonoo, Groundwood, 24 pages, $17.95, ages 4 to 7
Written in Inuktitut and translated into English, with a short appended glossary, this little gem is inspired by the author's childhood forays with her grandmother digging for clams at low tide. Teevee, who lives in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), is one of the major contributors to the Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection, which is distributed to art galleries across North America. Her gifts as an artist are much in evidence here, in the graphite and coloured pencil drawings that illustrate this gentle, spare tale.
The titular Alego is the little girl with black pigtails and a red coat, who accompanies Anaanatsiaq, her grandmother, on a clam-digging expedition, something she's never done before. She's excited. The two walk toward the seashore, hand in hand, carrying buckets and leaving behind the small collection of houses on the rocky seacoast. Anaanatsiaq tells her granddaughter how to catch the clams. "Sometimes you will see the foot of the clam above the sand. Then you grab it and pull it out."
There are clams to catch but other things to see and touch as well: the sculpin ( kanajuq) trapped in seaweed after the tide has gone out; the bright orange starfish ( aggaujaq); and a "creepy-crawly thing with many legs called ugjunnaq; there are snails and sea lice too. While Alego has been discovering all sorts of sea creatures and putting them in her bucket, her grandmother has filled hers with ammuumajuit, clams. It's time to go home, says grandmother, before the tide comes in again. When they get home Alego, Anaanatsiaq and Ataatasiaq (grandfather) have a feast of clams and hot tea. It's "' mamaqtuq !' Alego said, and they all agreed. Delicious!'"
Viva Zapata By Emilie Smith and Margarita Kenefic Tejada, illustrated by Stefan Czernecki, Tradewind, 32 pages, $16.95, ages 4 to 7
This charming, humorous tale with its striking black and white illustrations stands on its own merits, but an afterword provides contextual information that enlarges the story considerably. The young protagonist, Emiliano, whom we meet as the tale begins, is in fact Emiliano Zapata, who will grow up to be a fighter for the rights of the poor and the leader of the Mexican Revolution.
This book begins on the morning of Emiliano's seventh birthday when his family's old mare, Lucita, gives birth to her last foal. "'He's black like a shadow,' said Emiliano. 'I'll call him Sombra.'" Under Emiliano's care, Sombra "grew strong and feisty," and before long the pair was galloping deep into the countryside, through "tumbledown" villages where the silent children never waved to them.
When he asked his mother why the children seemed so unhappy, his mother replied that it was because they hadn't enough to eat. Then why don't the farmers grow more corn, Emiliano asks his mother. "'Because they don't have enough land. That's just the way the world is,' she answered. 'But why is that the way the world is?' Emiliano thought."
The night before Emiliano's tenth birthday, a gang of banditos, led by Bad Carlos - deliciously evil-looking with several days' growth of spiky black stubble sprouting from his chin - steals all of the horses except the old mare Lucita. Emiliano saddles her up and rides into the foothills. Beneath Popocatepetl volcano, around a campfire, "the Banditos snored in heaps," and the stolen horses, including Sombra, whinnied their welcome.
Bad Carlos tells Emiliano, "little hombre," that he can have his horse back if he can make the banditos laugh. None of the tricks that Emiliano and Sombra perform produce anything approximating a laugh. When Emiliano asks why they are so mean, Bad Carlos tells him that it's because they never got enough tortillas to eat when they were little. Emiliano promises the bandits that when he grows up, "No one will go hungry. And no one will need to become a bandito." No banditos! The banditos laughed so hard that they didn't notice Emiliano spiriting away all the stolen horses. "High above, the moon smiled, lighting the way. She knew. For Emiliano Zapata, this was only the beginning."
Say What? The Weird and Mysterious Journey of the English Language By Gena K. Gorrell, Tundra, 146 pages, $12.99, ages 10 to 14
"Where on earth did the English language come from? Over a million words, and such weird spellings! Aren't there any rules? ... How did English get so complicated?" These introductory statements and questions launch Gena Gorrell's wonderfully absorbing disquisition on the English language. Her short and pithy answer to the question of where English came from is, "that English isn't just the speech of one nation; it's the memory of thousands of years of history."
A thousand years of history, of invasions by Romans, Vikings and Normans, can, in part, account for a language that, as it grew, "became a jumble of sounds and words and rules from countless languages and lands." Gorrell's account of these invasions and influences amounts to a history lesson that is immensely readable; her touch is light, sparked with humour and allusions to such touchstones as Harry Potter, but her reach is far and deep. She takes her readers from the depths of the prehistoric cave and the acquisition of language, to both ancient and modern Greek and Greeks. Parental units will be delighted by her deft inclusion of some first principles of English grammar and its (or is that it's?) applications. There are source notes for each chapter and an excellent bibliography as well as recommended reading.