Alphabet Soup

Ever asked a toddler to recite the alphabet, or for that matter even an adult? Chances are they will rattle it back to you in a breathless singsong manner, while bouncing on the balls of their feet. Learning the alphabet is usually presented to children in a simple manner, where A is for apple with an illustration of a glossy red apple, B is for ball, Z is for Zebra and so on. For toddlers, books are designed to teach them the letters: the phonetics, their shapes, and basic word associations.


One of the most iconic alphabet books was Rabindranath Tagore’s Sahaj Path , which introduced toddlers to Bengali as a beautiful picture book way back in 1930. The two-part series was accompanied by lino-cut illustrations by Nandalal Bose. The first part centered around the structure of the Bengali alphabet and its pronunciation, and the second used them in sentences and couplets. Then there’s the exquisitely created ABC: Touch and See (Karadi Tales) by Shobha Vishwanath, which is part of their Dreaming Fingers series. The handcrafted pictures are created with a collage of materials and textures, and the printed text goes along side Braille letters to make a tactile book. But ABC books are not just meant for toddlers. Alphabet books for older children, and even adults, are a great starting point to introduce novel ideas and concepts, and they also make for fun reading.

Prabha Mallya’s The Alphabet of Animals and Birds (Red Turtle) is a lovely way of getting children to learn about the collective nouns for animal and birds. The gorgeous illustrations show groups of animals with their collective names: A is for a shrewdness of apes, who are poring over a swarm of ants, while F is for a stand of flamingos, as they, well, stand among a skulk of foxes.

More recently, Duckbill published legendary naturalist, wildlife photographer and writer, M. Krishnan’s Book of Beasts: An A to Z Rhyming Bestiary . The alphabets lead the readers on a global jungle safari where they can meet some unusual animals. B, for instance, is for binturong, which the writer fears “may not be there for very long.” With its cat-like face, long body and prehensile tail, the curious looking animal, the reader finds out, “is very wild and very strong”. M. Krishnan wrote some of these animal verses for his granddaughter Asha Harikrishnan’s birthday, gifting the first set to her in 1990. The quirky poetry and facts are a lesson in conservation, at the same time, they point out the adverse impacts humans have on the natural world.

Alphabet books can be enchanting, irreverent or fabulously dark. Neil Gaiman and Gris Grimly’s The Dangerous Alphabet (Harper) is a subversive “piratical ghost story” where two children embark on a journey in a B for boat which pushes off in the dark in a R which is a river “that flows like a dream”, where E is for the “evil that lures and entices”. Ominous and riveting. Written by Jerry Pinto and illustrated by Sayan Mukherjee, Hey! That’s an A! (Tulika Books) is a delightful romp where the letters race around the page, accompanied by clever puns and verse.

Oliver Jeffers’ Once Upon an Alphabet goes beyond the alphabet. Each letter has its own story, rendered imaginatively, in the characteristic lucid yet dreamy form of Jeffers’ illustrations. And in his classic way, he explores themes in a few words – his verses are tinged with whimsy, fear, sadness, cleverness, and friendship.

Adults will love ABC3D (Tara Books) by French artist Marion Bataille, a book that takes the concept of pop-ups to another dimension, integrating design, architecture and movement. As you open the book, the letter C folds over to form a D, while the lower bar of the letter E retracts to become an F, and the letter V’s reflection becomes a W. The letters, which are rendered in black, white and red, move three-dimensionally across time and space, making the book a delight.

One of the most unlikely alphabet books was recommended to me by an American friend who works in sustainable fashion. He said both his daughter and he love A is for Activist (Triangle Square) by Innosanto Nagara. The board book teaches words that are important, but are not often found in picture books. ““A is for activist. Advocate. Abolitionist. Ally. Actively answering a call to action. Are you an activist?” writes Nagara. His warm and vivid illustrations are the perfect backdrop for his equally bold text. “Equal rights,” he writes, “black, brown, or white. Clean and healthy is a right. Every place we live and play environmental justice is the way!” Feminist, indigenous, immigrant, justice, LGBTQ, are not just words here. Nagara gives them meaning.

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