Sunday, November 1, 2015

8:An Animal Alphabet

Now that Frances and Gloria are fairly fluent readers, we tend to use our reading time differently than we have in the past.  We are still reading tons of picture books together, but we do much more "participatory" reading than we ever have before.  Both girls are good readers, but I selfishly still want to read to them to h.  One of the things I'm seeing about both girls these days is that they don't have the reading stamina to tackle the longer books they want to read.  Frances particularly tries lots of books without success because she wants to read that book, but can't get through the longer chapters.  We tackle this with a number of strategies.  Frances and Gloria often take turns reading the dialogue in picture books.  If I am reading with just one of them, we often alternate pages so they can build up confidence on longer picture books and nonfiction.  I encourage Frances and Gloria to check out as many books as possible, even if they don't finish them (I've learned to ignore comments from the circulation clerks at the public library!).  This ends up being a combination of picture books, nonfiction, longer and shorter chapter books and graphic novels.  I've found that having a big pile of books means they 'll often find something they are eager to stick with.  And I reserve lots of books for us to explore together.  The more engaged they are with a book, the more likely they are to take it to bed with them that night, reading it over and over.  We pay lots of overdue fines, but it's worth it!

This is what happened when I brought home 8: An Animal Alphabet.  Cooper has created a deceptively simple plot in 8.  The book starts with an informational page, which is crucial in such a stark book as this.  He explains that on each page there will be eight of one particular animal.  Cooper footnotes the reasons why there are eight: "Because 8 is great.  Because 8 is round and adorable....Because 8 is my favorite number."  This explanatory page also references the back matter, which I love.  He tells you right up front that there is a section called "Did You Know?' to help identify animals.  I'll talk more about the back matter later, but I wanted to mention that Cooper points a reader's attention to the back matter right away.  I find it discouraging when you spend time struggling through a piece of nonfiction, only to discover once I've finished it that there was something in the back (most times a map) that would have helped me.  Maybe that's my own shortcoming as a reader, but I like to be reminded up front that there is information that I might need.

And I was surprised at how often we referred to the "Did You Know?" section as we read 8:An Animal Alphabet.  This book is a unique combination of concepts - it is definitely an alphabet book (it's in the name, after all!), but it's also a counting book.  Each page includes a large set of capital and lowercase letters in an easy to read font (Century Gothic for those of you who are curious).  Along the bottom of each page is a list of the animals which are included on that page, in alphabetical order.  As I mentioned earlier, there are eight of one particular animal on each page.  But the eight don't all look identical .  The newts, for instance, range in color, size, thickness and stripes or polka dots.  So it can be challenging to find the complete pack. On the panda page, children have to decide whether to count the mother-baby pair as one or two pandas.  It requires a little bit of analysis from the reader.

We used the book mostly as a seek and find type of book - racing to see who could find the tick or tarantula first.  And there were times that we needed the "Did You Know?' section for reference.  Cooper is careful to use a diverse mix of creatures, and I wasn't clear on the difference between an ibex and an impala, or whether an upupa  was a bird or a mammal.  When we consulted the "Did You Know?" section , there was one fact about every animal, again in alphabetical order.  There is also a thumbnail recreation of Cooper's illustrations so readers can match the animal with the larger page.  It was very useful, and even I learned facts such as that snails are more active at night or that rats can tread water for three days (shudder!).

Elisha Cooper, whose book Homer I featured here, has an illustration style that is well suited to an alphabet of animals.  He has a detailed, realistic style so it's clear what the specified animal really looks like.  All of the pages have a white background, and the animals stand out in crisp relief.  While there can be up to twenty animals on the page, they aren't interacting with each other either.  They are scattered around each page, but with the white space and lack of interaction, there is also a museum feeling about each page.

That museum quality to this book is also what gives it appeal to a wide audience.  This isn't a cutesy, themed concept book.  8: An Animal Alphabet  doesn't even have any text other than the listing of animal names.  It feels elegant and will be attractive to a wide range of readers.  It will be a great book for kids who know about animals and want to learn more.  And of course, I have to mention that I love it because Cooper included my favorite bird in this alphabet of animals - the kakapo!

8:An Animal Alphabet.  Elisha Cooper.  Orchard Books, 2015.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library