One-Minute Book Reviews

October 26, 2007

Steve Martin and Roz Chast Make Fun of Religious, Cultural and Physical Differences in a New Alphabet Book for Preschoolers — Is Your Two-Year-Old Ready for Ethnic Humor?

Maybe they should have called it “S” Is for Sucker

The Alphabet From A to Y: With Bonus Letter Z! Words by Steve Martin. Pictures by Roz Chast. Doubleday/Flying Dolphin, 64 pp., $17.95. Suggested ages: “Young Children” (Doubleday), “Baby/Preschool” (Powell’s), 9-to-12 (Amazon).

By Janice Harayda

Hey, kids! You’re never too young to laugh at people who are different from you! And if you’re an adult who wants to help, Steve Martin and Roz Chast are there for you! They use rhyming couplets to show 2-to-4-year-olds – the usual audience for alphabet books — just how easy it is to make fun of religious, cultural and physical differences!

Looking for the perfect Hannukah gift for a toddler? How about a book that explains the letter “K” by showing an ape-like woman (“King Kong’s aunt Frances”) saying, “Kids! Kome Back! Have Some Kosher Kasha!” Or need something to wrap up for Diwali? Why not a book that shows a funny-looking guy in a turban staring at a woman “indecent in her undies”? Those 2-year-olds have to learn about perverts sometime! And what could be better for kids celebrating the Day of the Dead than a book that introduces the letter “I” with a poster of “The Incans”? (Will those kids ever be surprised to learn that the plural of “Inca” is “Incans” and not “Inca” or “Incas”!) Martin and Chast even show how simple it can be to make fun of disabilities! And nuns! The “H” page says: “Henrietta the hare wore a habit in heaven, / Her hairdo hid hunchbacks: one hundred and seven.” And Martin and Chast aren’t talking about Quasimodo but people who look just like your Uncle Ed except with disabilities! Yes, they could easily have said “halfbacks” instead of “hunchbacks”! But they must have decided that people with disabilities are funnier than athletes!

Sure, you might see all of this as tasteless — not to mention, a little mature for kids who may be poring over Once Upon a Potty. So why didn’t the people at Doubleday pitch this book to the group who would enjoy it most, the adult fans of Chast’s New Yorker cartoons? Could it be that they figured out that they could make more money by selling it as a children’s book? Maybe they should have called it “S” Is for Sucker.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

10 Comments »

  1. Ugh.

    I need some more alphabet books for my library, but this is one I WON’T be getting.

    Thanks for the review.

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — October 26, 2007 @ 9:01 am | Reply

  2. You said it. “The Alphabet Book From A to Y” shows an incredible tin ear for the potential of this book to alienate even people who admire a lot of the work of Martin and Chast, as I do. Apart from all the jokes about religious and other differences: The humor in general is pitched to adults or at least adolescents — but you can’t imagine that the nursery colors and babyish cover will appeal to many of them, either.

    Have you looked at the Max and Ruby ABC book that came out within the past year or so? Rosemary Wells uses humor for that age group so much better than Martin and Chast do in this one.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 26, 2007 @ 9:27 am | Reply

  3. What were they thinking?

    Comment by lisamm — October 26, 2007 @ 1:55 pm | Reply

  4. One of the bizarre aspects of this book was that Doubleday took out a full-page ad for it in the New York Times this week that included a quote from the book … the supposedly funny line about the hunchbacks. I haven’t seen a book this year for which the publisher seemed so clueless about how it could backfire.

    “The Secret” was inane. But Simon & Schuster packaged it in a way that made it relatively easy to figure out whether it was for you and avoid it if it wasn’t. Doubleday packaged Martin and Chast’s in a way that encourages bookstores to sell it next to all those baby/preschool board books, which is exactly where my bookstore had it.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 26, 2007 @ 7:03 pm | Reply

  5. I wonder if your four-year-old are more ready for Coco Chanel than two-year.old for Ethnic Humor… I think none of them are!
    But taking the risk to be stoned, I think that this book is not so inadequate… the very small kids won´t understand, anyway. but to find something funny and appealing it is not necessary to understand it. I personally think, that it might be a book, which parents and children enjoy together…. if the parents are liberal enough! Kind of crazy, kind of shocking, kind of funny: a good recipe!
    But in all cases: I think one shouldn´t take too seriously the laughter about the differences, I don´t believe that it is meant to offend (of course I would need to look into the book to be really able to judge it). Religious, cultural and physical differences can be really very funny, so why not? Isn´t that the reason why caricature art is so popular?
    I admit that my judgement might be coloured by the fact that my mother, who so much dreamt to wear Coco Chanel, is called “H” for Henrietta!

    Comment by Miki — October 27, 2007 @ 7:14 am | Reply

  6. Children do benefit from reading “up” and always need to have books on hand that are a bit beyond them, because they’re attracted to what they don’t understand. And books that are beyond their grade or reading level encourage them to figure out what’s going on (especially if, as you say, adults help), so these books can be a great spur to reading. My parents had a lot of adult books around, and I loved dipping into them from a very early age.

    What bothers me about Martin and Chast’s is partly that it doesn’t seem well-conceived or thought out. For example, “halfbacks” would have been just as funny as “hunchbacks.” So why the gratuitous slap at people with disabilities? It’s just confusing. I’d love to have your comments if you ever see this book, because you might see a reason that’s eluded me so far.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 27, 2007 @ 1:11 pm | Reply

  7. Sounds like this book tops the board book that I saw about pretty tattoos for children. Remember, the purpose of a book is not the improvement of society, it is to make a profit.

    Comment by thedonofpages — October 28, 2007 @ 12:22 am | Reply

  8. Im not familiar with Chast’s work, but its interesting to note that Steve Martin (who has made some of my favourite comdey films of the last twenty years) has suffered of late from a lack of insight when making professional choices. He made two movies “Pink Panther” and “Bilko” that any sane person would have told him were tanatamount to professional suicide; he should never have tried to remake these classics. From what you say, it looks like his Midas touch has deserted him in the literary arena too.

    Comment by kevmoore — October 28, 2007 @ 1:13 pm | Reply

  9. Don of Pages: “Pretty tattoos?” What’s next, a book on body-piercings for infants who are nursing? Or on how to make your own Goth baby clothes?

    I love examples like that one about the tattoo book, partly because this site hands out the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. And I’m thinking of including writing in children’s books this year for the first time. Keep those candidates coming …
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 28, 2007 @ 2:23 pm | Reply

  10. Kev: The analogy with the “Pink Panther” and “Bilko” movies is perfect. Like those films, this book seems just misconceived. And neither Martin nor Chast is off the hook for it.

    Some cartoonists for The New Yorker have made brilliant transitions to the picture-book field — most notably, William Steig in such books as “Brave Irene” and “Spinky Sulks.” On the evidence of “The Alphabet From A to Y,” Roz Chast is unwilling or unable to adjust her style to the form, and the partnership with Martin didn’t help.
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 28, 2007 @ 3:47 pm | Reply


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