The pleasures of learning one's ABCs

Alphabet books are a secret passion among book lovers. The sheer number of ABC books published demonstrates that they hold a special place in the world of children's books. Entering the term on delivers 13,089 results (and that was a few days ago -- it's probably up to 14,000 by now). Almost any author you can name has done an ABC book, from Edward Lear to Maira Kalman, from Beatrix Potter to William Steig, from Edward Gorey to Chris Van Allsburg, from H.A. Rey to Mitsumasa Anno, from Jon Agee to -- drat, I can't find a Z! -- Jane Yolen.

My pick for this year's most beautiful gift book is "ABC3D" by Marion Bataille (A Neal Porter Book/Roaring Brook Press: $19.95, all ages). A French graphic artist and book designer, Bataille finds relationships among the letters of the alphabet that you've never considered -- but that seem self-evident -- as they are revealed in her sculptural pop-up pages. There is a spectacular simplicity to her three-color forms that only the most brilliantly thought-out ideas have. The letter C flips over to reveal the vertical that turns it into a D. As X's page opens, its right leg slides out of sight to leave a perfect Y. V, set against a reflective facing page, forms the letter W when held at the proper angle.

As with any smart book, the more you bring, the more you take away. There are multilingual pleasures also to be had here. The French letter W is "double V," rather than "double U," which adds to the charm of the V-in-the-mirror effect. I and J lean in together to share the dot that completes them, a delightful twinship for those who appreciate crazy-letter combinations in Dutch, which contains (among its unpronounceable diphthongs) an "ij."

"ABC3D" takes my breath away, and seems to have the same effect on everyone who opens it. Fortunately, readers needn't rely on my description. A video that Roaring Brook Press' marketing department produced last spring became an Internet sensation, linked on design sites worldwide once it was discovered on YouTube.

Not only are the visuals entrancing, so is the cool retro music, composed for the video by the group Not Waving But Drowning, which performed it on publication day last week in New York in front of the Flatiron Building.

What is the appeal of alphabet books, really? Although their historical origins lie in classrooms, a great many are clearly not meant to teach kids their ABCs. Are they just pretty gifts, or, as a librarian of my acquaintance calls them, "illustrators' ego-trip books"? The dirty truth about alphabet book lovers is that the ones that make our hearts beat fastest are not, really, meant for kids at all. It's not just a genre in children's books, like fairy tale retellings or first-day-of-school books, of which there are also a myriad.

The appeal is this: Alphabet books provide a form, like a sonnet. There is a clear structure. There must be an approach, like a musical theme; even if it's as simple as offering one word beginning with each letter, there are 26 variations to perform, all of which have to conform to the aesthetic established with the first letter. An author must get through the whole alphabet, accounting for every letter, even -- especially! -- that tricky X.

My own test for ABC books is to turn immediately to X. If the X is imaginative, and not shoehorned in, it's a book worth perusing. One of my favorites is the X in Chris Demarest's "Cowboy ABC" (1999), which shows a pay ledger open to a list of ranch hands' names. As a man's hand marks receipt of his salary in the illustration, the caption reads: "X is the mark cowboys make to get paid." True, the reader would have to know about the illiterate "making their mark" as a signature, but it's a brilliant use of the problematic X (and an interesting issue to explain to kids gaining literacy).

There is also something to be said for audacity in dealing with the X. In "A Is for Salad" (2000), Mike Lester's mischievous ABC in which the text misrepresents the alphabet hidden in the illustrations, the author dismisses a few tricky letters with the entry: "X and Y are not important letters. Never use them."

In an interview, Neal Porter, editorial director of Neal Porter Books at Roaring Brook Press and publisher of "ABC3D" and many other alphabet books over the years, makes no bones about why he loves them:

"I have a weakness for them. I've always loved letters, typefaces and fonts, and I've done a lot of books on words and how to make them. When you come to my apartment, there is lots of art with letters and graphics, and lots of letterpress stuff.

"Some alphabet books are for kids, some are not. I view them as a departure point for all kinds of explorations. For example, 'The Hidden Alphabet,' by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, really uses the alphabet to discuss negative space.

"I collect alphabet books, I love things that make me jump and say 'wow!,' and that was certainly the case with 'ABC3D.' I acquired it at Bologna, the international children's book fair where publishers from all over the world meet and show each other what they're working on.

"I had sworn I wouldn't publish another alphabet book, it was almost a habit I was trying to break, but then I said, 'I have to publish this book.' It exemplifies everything I love about alphabet books: It uses the medium in new ways.

"Marion Bataille is a graphic designer who lives and works in Paris. She originally created 'ABC3D' as a limited-edition object. It was subsequently converted into a book that could be commercially produced. She looks just the way you expect a French graphic genius to look, like Audrey Hepburn. She designs books, and has illustrated a few books published only in France, but I knew northing about her [before I bought this book].

"Where [Roaring Brook] had a lot of impact was in the cover. The book was extraordinary on the inside, so we wanted a cover that said 'Open me!' It was our decision to use a lenticular cover. There have been books with lenticular covers, but relatively few have the number of stages this book has, where you see A, B, C and D separately. Usually there are two, and usually it's kind of cheesy. This is a very elegant use of the technique.

"I've always had an interest in pop-up, but of course, there are a lot of bad ones. For me, the litmus test is: Does it need to be a pop-up book? Could it be done in any other way? The last time I remember being this excited about a pop-up was Robert Sabuda's 'Christmas Alphabet.' The pared-down aesthetic appealed to me.

"What most attracted me to it was the sculptural quality of book, the way the letters change and metamorphose, the way O and P are transformed into Q and R by adding a line. And just when you think Bataille can't do anything more inventive, she does it again. I love watching people look at this book, their eyes just bug out.

"The moment of truth for me with this book -- when I knew what we had on our hands -- was when I went to the theater with a publishing friend. I showed her the book just before curtain, and about six people immediately moved closer, and ooh'd and ah'd, and asked, 'Where can I get it?' And I thought, this will really be a book that moves by word of mouth. So for publication day, we planned a viral marketing campaign, in which there will be 25 people scattered all over New York, showing the book in public, casually.

"How the video got made was a great bit of serendipity. In the early days we had only one dummy -- a rough prototype of the book -- and we wanted to show the sales reps what the book was all about. The easiest way in this age of technology was video, so our marketing director, Colleen Venable, created this video with a camera in an office. It was her idea to edit, set it to music and give it some polish. I had never understood how quickly things can be disseminated on the Internet. When she put it up on YouTube, it turned up on design and typographic sites all over world in a matter of days. It had 800,000 hits on YouTube and MySpace, and went to No. 12 on Amazon in March, seven months before publication.

"We worked very hard to keep price affordable, because we wanted people to be dazzled by book, then say, 'Wow, they did all this for $19.95!' It turns out to be nice at a time when people are counting their pennies."

Sonja Bolle's Word Play column appears monthly at

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