Book Review: ALPHA, by Isabelle Arsenault

Available in bookstores nationwide, though official publication date not until September.

cv_alphaEveryone in the Booksellers’ office wanted to keep Alpha, the new children’s book by artist Isabelle Arsenault. I can see why: it’s a beautifully produced hardback with painterly and vintage-styled illustrations. Arsenault is an award winning Canadian artist who illustrated books such as Jane, the Fox, and Me and Migrant, which was a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book. Her art and wit make Alpha a book for both children and adults, as it works on a number of levels.

The book interprets the International Radiotelephony Alphabet (also called the NATO phonetic alphabet) which is used by emergency services: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and so forth. Each double spread gives the alphabetic code word on one page and a related illustration on the other. The link between the two is often playful and indirect – for example the word ‘Kilo’ has a picture of a piece of chocolate cake. Such whimsy allows room for a discussion about the relationship between the two, or as the book states, ‘each page, each letter, each word and each image invite investigation.’

I read the book a couple of times with my four-year-old son. He has just started to learn his ABCs and knows the traditional alphabet song. We sang the song as we turned each page, stopping our song on the appropriate letter. I would point to the letter at the start of the word, (which was highlighted, for example the ‘O’ in ‘Oscar’ is a bright yellow), and we talked about what the word meant. As we worked through the book he started to recognise letters, which he found exciting. There were certainly some favourite images, such as the scary looking man with the ‘X-ray’ goggles, and the picture of a paper plane for ‘Delta.’ Images such as the elephant for ‘India’ let me tell him about when I visited the country, and the bowler hat for ‘Charlie’ let him imagine why Charlie wasn’t wearing it (‘Maybe he is swimming,’ my son suggested). Overall, there book prompted much more discussion than I expected.

The book included quite a few new words for my son, which meant he started to tire towards the end. For younger children, reading the book over a number of sittings would be more enjoyable. Some of the image-word relationships were certainly lost on him, such as ‘Romeo’ and ‘Juliet.’ I was also doubtful he understood the enigmatic ‘Echo’ which has a picture of two twins in a classroom. Still – this morning I was yelling through the house that it was time to go and he said, ‘Mummy, an echo!’

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

ALPHA
by Isabelle Arsenault
Published by Walker Hardback
ISBN 9781406361834

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