One of America’s greatest illustrators finds 26 kinds of drama in letters
The Z Was Zapped: The Alphabet Theatre Proudly Presents … A Play in Twenty-Six Acts. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, 56 pp., $18.95. Ages 2 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Great chefs often test their would-be assistants by asking them to make an omelet. Why? It’s harder to hide your mistakes when you’re working with just a few ingredients. And the good cooks don’t need more than a few to show what they can do.
In that sense Chris Van Allsburg is the Nobu Matsuhisa of picture books. If you want to understand why critics regard him as one of the greatest living author-illustrators, compare The Z Was Zapped with any other alphabet book at your library or bookstore.
Alphabet books typically illustrate letters with nouns, an approach that has drawbacks. One is that it can lead to clichés such as, “A is for apple.” Another is that because nouns are not “action” words as verbs are, they can result in inert — or just dull — books.
Van Allsburg avoids both problems by casting his letters as actors in a stage play in which they face mishaps illustrated by strong verbs and black-and-white drawings that have an air of mystery about them. He doesn’t tell us why “The K was quietly Kidnapped” or two gloved hands are lifting the K off the stage. This encourages children to create their own explanations for the strange goings-on. And the black-and-white drawings have the subtle but great advantage of drawing attention to the shape of letters (which is essential to learning the alphabet) instead of the color (which is irrelevant). Some alphabet books blaze with so much color that you wonder: How can children focus on the letters when there are so many distractions?
The Z Was Zapped has a structure that is no less original. Most alphabet books introduce a letter through words and pictures on a single page or spread. Van Allsburg shows a letter on one page, then makes you turn the page to learn its name and fate. This prompts children to try to guess the letter and what’s happening to it. It also fosters vocabulary-building and creativity, because at times more than one description might apply. Van Allsburg tells us that “The S was simply Soaked,” but “Splashed” would fit, too. If the F is “firmly Flattened,” children are more likely to be “fully Fascinated.”
Best line/picture: The picture for the letter B (“The B Was badly Bitten”) shows the snout of the bull terrier that is Van Allsburg’s signature and appears in each of his books.
Worst line/picture: You could argue that in “The H was partly Hidden,” the “partly” is imprecise. You can hardly see the H, so “mostly” or “largely” might have been more accurate.
Recommendation? A great gift for ages 2–4, likely also to appeal to many older children.
Published: October 1987 (hardcover), October 1998 (paperback) www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com. A review of Van Allsburg’s latest book, Probuditi! (Houghton Mifflin, $18.95) appeared on this site on Jan. 21, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/21/.
Furthermore: Chris Van Allsburg www.chrisvanallsburg.com won Caldecott Medals from the American Library Association www.ala.org for Jumanji and The Polar Express and a Caldecott Honor for The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.
Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She also wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners www.janiceharayda.com.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.