Thursday, March 18, 2010

Creature ABC by Andrew Zuckerman

Librarian, blogger and book reviewer Adrienne Furness once titled a blog post "A is for Alphabet, B is for Boring..." and I knew exactly what she meant.  They're out there by the zillions and jillions and squillions, those alphabet books, and  either they're all the same ("x is for xylophone, z is for zipper") or they become so complicated trying to be different that young kids can't understand them--and older kids know their letters already, thank you very much, and can get mighty insulted when offered an ABC book.  It's hard to kick some life into this exhausted genre, and many ABC books end up seeming blatantly pedagogical.  Creature ABC is a magnificent exception to this glut of dull, copycat ABCs.  This book  is GENIUS!  Simple, crisp, focused, fascinatingly detailed.  Andrew Zuckerman approaches his ABCs with freshness and sophistication and pure artistry.   It's a book I'd look at even if I didn't have kids, and yet it's clear on every page that he's got his audience firmly in mind.  You could read this book to a two-year-old, no problem.  And they'd want to read it again. 

I could spend hours staring at Zuckerman's photo of an elephant's foot. I've truly never seen any image like it, anywhere.  It makes me feel like I'm seeing an elephant for the first time ever.  You can see the cracks and scratches in it's toenails, the remarkable contrasting of  mottled skin colours, the weird surface texture.  Parts of the skin look reptilian, with  dense bumpy scales.  Other clumps stick out like the papillae on a tongue.  Zuckerman lets you see each short, coarse hair sticking out of the leg and foot, each wrinkle and bump in the skin.  He even lets you see the effect of weight and gravity on this huge creature, with the clean white background emphasizing the foot's sturdy shape.  It's almost sculptural.  There is a definite sense of drama throughout this book, with many shots highlighting motion or expression.  Shape and texture are everywhere.  The cumulative effect is brilliantly arresting.

Zuckerman has kept the text to a minimum, with each letter presented in large black type (in both capital and lowercase) on one page and the name of the animal in the same large clear type on the next.  This layout allows him two photographs per letter, and it also allows the child the pleasure of guessing at the name of the animal in the picture before the page is turned and the word is finally presented. 

Coincidentally, this week I read an article in Horn Book Magazine by Leonard Marcus entitled "Click!  Photography as Picture Book Art".  Marcus opens with the provocative statement, "It's not by chance that the Caldecott Medal has never gone to a photographically illustrated book."  He posits that, despite some brilliant photography-based children's books by the likes of, say, Tana Hoban or Walter Wick, the children's book community still sees photography more as craft than art.  I'm wondering if Creature ABC will be the book to finally break through that glass ceiling.

Andrew Zuckerman's website is well worth a visit, and really expresses his artistic vision.  Enjoy.