The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z!
by Steve Martin; illustrated by Roz Chast
Flying Dolphin Press
Reviewed by Kelly Herold
I'm of two minds reviewing this. On the one hand, does the world really need another alphabet book? (I have one child who refused to be read yet another alphabet book from age two on.) On the other hand, how can a creative, wacky alphabet book be a bad thing? On the one hand: I hate the whole celebrity book industry. On the other hand, Steve Martin is a smart celebrity who can write (see: Shopgirl) and Roz Chast is a genius (see: The New Yorker). On the one hand, it's nice to see a book for children that adults will enjoy. Over to you, other hand: aren't we all just a little sick of coy books written to two audiences?
It's difficult to review a picture book when your mind is so obviously boggled, but I'll do my best.
Steve Martin's couplets are funny and scan beautifully. No stray syllables here! His "letter" choices are unusual, giving xylophone, x-ray, and zebra a sorely needed break. Take the letter X as a successful example of Martin's technique:
Ambidextrous Alex was actually axed
For waxing, then faxing, his boss's new slacks.
These lines have a nice crunchy feel to them and are truly new. Chast's iconic illustrations add to Martin's lines. They're busy and full of supplementary detail (the X page, for example, does indeed contain xylophones in the illustration), giving the child plenty to look at and consider.
Chast has added a truly brilliant touch to her illustrations, posters and notes that deal with English's infuriating orthography. On the X page, for example, a poster gracing the side of a desk reads, "Links, minks, facts, and links sound like they have X's, But that idea STINKS!"
Some of Martin's vocabulary choices tend to the overly knowing. Do you really want to explain the letter G to a three year old?: "While Granny in Greenland had gravlax for three,/Her gallant son Gary grew green gracefully." Really? Or, how about O?: "Old Ollie the owl owed Owen an oboe/But instead bought him oysters at Osgood's in Soho." Shorthand? O is for annOying.
Also on this other hand...I wonder about Chast's illustrations and their appeal to the average alphabet-book audience. Do small children really appreciate her anxious style?
In bringing my two minds together, I find I have to give this book two ratings. One for adults (3 buds) and one for children (2 buds). Considering that celebrity books are really written with adults in mind, The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z! is a marketing success just in time for the holidays.