Alphabet books. If there's one thing that picture book shelves are bursting with, it's books for the abecedarian set. And for good reason - print awareness and letter recognition are two of the building blocks of early literacy, so we try to get kiddos interested in written characters pretty early. In fact some of the first books published for children were alphabet books. This was a popular topic for hornbooks, which consisted of a page covered with a thin protective sheet and bound to a handle (take a look at the history of hornbooks and similar productions).
Fast-forward to modern times, when new books on the subject are being produced every season.There are all sorts of conceits employed with alphabet-themed reads. Books are populated with adorable critters, paired with high-interest topics, and feature letters that are literally turned on their heads. Some of these are excellent, modern classics that will surely be around for generations - but sadly, many of them are mediocre at best. If you don't have a great idea for an alphabet book, a truly original spin on the topic, you should just leave the subject alone, in my opinion.
And that's where Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault comes in. Far from your average ABC tome, this alphabet book made it onto School Library Journal's list of 100 Books that Shaped the Century and is #23 on Elizabeth Bird's Top 100 Picture Books List from this year. I can just imagine the pitch for this book: "all the letters of the alphabet make their way to the top of a coconut tree, and then they all fall over." Mmm-hmmm. It doesn't sound like much, and I think that's probably the appeal of it. Certainly the vivid cover art by Lois Ehlert is enough to draw most young ones toward it - those colors! that ever-so-slightly leaning tree with its jaunty palm boughs! - but the real genius is in the way Martin and Archambault's text marries itself perfectly to the graphic style. The minute you crack the book open you know this isn't just another ho-hum abecedarian treatment, but rather a lively jumble of letters and colors and action that just make you want to read it over again the second you've finished.
What I think makes Chicka Chicka Boom Boom most compelling are the quirks of personality the letters manifest. A is a trickster, daring everyone else into the climb, and D isn't much better. H is along for the ride, and L, M, N, O, and P are pretty much giving in to peer pressure. And when everybody falls out of the tree - well, poor E and F are injured, and J and K just get overwhelmed. Sounds like common occurrence with a bunch of preschoolers, right? And that's got to be a big part of why this title has such staying power.
Sprout's at the age where he's just starting to recognize letters from his name on signs and in the books we read. He was endlessly thrilled to crack open Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and see HIS letters right there, big as life, inside the front cover. It wasn't long before he was reciting the tag line just as I'm sure the authors imagined it, loud and exuberantly. Dare I hope that this cake might be in our future??
Wayback Wednesday Verdict? Tons of ABC fun!
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault, published by Simon & Schuster
Sample: "A told B and B told C, 'I'll meet you at the top of the coconut tree.'"