phd mama

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Alternative ABC’s

I love alphabet books, the traditional sort as well as those listed below, each of which provides a twist on the standard format for the genre.  I like to think of these as making the familiar strange, taking something as easy as ABC and looking at it in a new way; that process reminds me that the alphabet is an invention, with a history of its own, and that at one point it was considered a technology. At the very least, this list makes me appreciate how much easier it is to learn the Roman alphabet than it would have been to learn hieroglyphics.

  1. Alphabet City, by Stephen Johnson; using urban photographs, Johnson finds unexpected letters in the cityscape. It reminds me of the way children see shapes and letters in unpredictable ways before grownups train the creativity out of them.
  2. The Dangerous Alphabet, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Gris Grimly; set in rhyming couplets, Gaiman’s wonderfully creepy alphabet world follows two children on a treasure hunt.
  3. Eating the Alphabet, Lois Ehlert; I love Ehlert’s bold, colorful collage style. Here she covers the pages from A-Z with delicious fruits and vegetables that look good enough to eat.
  4. A Fabulous Fair Alphabet, by Debra Frasier; this text recreates the stimulation of attending the fair with simple shapes and bright colors exploding on each page; find the letters in fair-friendly terms splayed across each spread in images as delightful as a trip to the fair itself.
  5. The Graphic Alphabet, by David Pelletier; each letter in Pelletier’s text visually represents a corresponding concept; some are strange, some abstract, but all of them display a starkly modern look at the alphabet. Letter “I” is my favorite.
  6. The Handmade Alphabet, by Laura Rankin; Rankin’s book shows the letters of American Sign Language. Each page shows a hand forming the letter and an image that illustrates something hands can do. Sometimes strange and weirdly disembodied, this book draws new attention to body language.
  7. I Spy: An Alphabet in Art, by Lucy Micklethwait; densely packed with images, this book lets the readers invent the alphabet. I love the way that each reader can create and invent from the same picture—“j for jewelry” or “n for necklace” to show language’s possibilities.
  8. LMNO Peas, by Keith Baker; playing on that tongue twister from the traditional alphabet song, Baker’s whimsical book looks at a crowd of peas with all kinds of interesting hobbies and professions.
  9. Museum ABC, by The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art; following the standard “A is for Apple” format, this book quickly departs from the norm by showing 4 pictures for each letter. Close-ups of famous artworks illustrate that even “A is for apple” is open to interpretation.
  10. Ox, House, Stick: The History of Our Alphabet, written by Don Robb and illustrated by Anne Smith; as the title indicates, this book tells the history of the alphabet. I like the attention to the story behind each letter, and it reminds me that even the deceptively-simple letters come from somewhere.
  11. Superhero ABC, by Bob McLeod; casting each letter as a superhero, McLeod using a comic-style of illustration to turn the alphabet into a silly, sweeping adventure.
  12. The Z Was Zapped by Chris Van Allsburg; in “26 acts,” Van Allsburg raises the curtain on each letter and its terrible fate. Each page depicts a letter, and readers must turn the page to discover the corresponding text, making this a page-turning mystery from cover to cover.

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Embodied ABC’s

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(This image courtesy of Carolina Weick’s Walk With Me Photography)

Embodied ABC’s

There are some amazing alphabet books out there (more on that here), but small children learning their ABC’s often benefit from more embodied educational approaches. Being able to handle, create, and manipulate letters provides children with ways to connect their incredible physical energy with their busily whirring brains. Uniting body and mind enhances the images children see on the pages of alphabet books, and makes letters come alive—not as static pictures but as living language.

Here are some strategies for working with the alphabet beyond books:

  1. Use pipe cleaners to form the letters.
  2. Twist letters out of Play-dough.
  3. Play with Scrabble or Upwords tiles (with or without the game boards).
  4. Put alphabet magnets on the fridge or in the bathtub.
  5. Write letters on the side of the tub with foam soap.
  6. Draw letters in the sand or in the dirt with a stick.
  7. Try to turn your whole body into each letter.
  8. Trace each letter with your finger on your child’s back.
  9. Make cookies (or Play-dough shapes) with alphabet cookie cutters.
  10. Learn the ASL alphabet.

As you try these, embrace imperfections and incompleteness, and keep in mind that learning to craft letters with a writing implement requires significant patience, practice, and highly-developed motor skills. Experiment with these, but don’t force it. If you draw the entire alphabet in the sand and your kid stomps all over it, be cool. That’s learning too, and most importantly, it’s fun.

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