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Next time won't you sing with me
on November 28, 2004
Alphabet books remain the bane of children's librarians worldwide. Tons of these puppies come out every year. Sometimes they appeal to only certain demographics (like the racecar alphabet books, for example). Sometimes they're incredibly hip and modern and hold zippo interest for the children that they are (supposedly) intended for. Sometimes they're deathly dull affairs that offer nothing new or brilliant and sometimes they're so packed with brilliance that it's difficult to remember what the book's initial importance was in the first place. Step back in time then and view the 1960 creation, "Bruno Munari's ABC". Created by an author/illustrator that, "began his career by exhibiting with the second Futurist movement" in Italy (or so his bookflap says), Munari was an excellent graphic designer in his day. And he gave the world this ABC book, one that remains so incredibly popular that it has appeared on the New York Public Library's "100 Pictur Books Everyone Should Know" for 2004. It's a thick sturdy affair, with pages that would take more than the mere strength of toddlers to tear. More importantly, in spite of its very basic design and concept (showing objects that begin with each letter presented) it remains beautiful to look at and interesting to read.
Your first image in this book is of a luscious orange/red apple sitting in a white space. On its stem crawls a realistically rendered black ant with the only words on the page, "an Ant on an Apple". Then you turn the page to a full double spread of a brilliant Blue Butterfly. It's a deep royal blue, but of a shade that brings to mind deep pockets of the ocean and long shadows late in the day. Munari uses watercolors to their fullest in this book. A careful reading through each page displays objects on white with simple words and recognizable objects. To my mind, the only object here that struck me as a little out of date was the rendering of an old rotary-dial telephone. And in any case I sincerely doubt that your kids will find it unrecognizable. Munari has also included in this book a small fly that breaks out of its own F page to buzz into other interesting shots. There is a mild understated commentary that remarks on this. When, for example, the fly alights on a pink ribboned hat that may soon be crushed by a hammer, the commentary gasps, "look out, fly!".
It's the range of colors in this book that really let it stand out though. Whether you're viewing a purple violin, the pink flesh of a watermelon, the brown of an owl, or the green of a leaf, the book is a visual cacophony of shades and images. There's something about Munari's sparse style that continues to appeal, even to this day. If you want alphabet books that blow you away with their wit and wonder, they exist I assure you. There are probably tons of them out there that seek to impress far more than this creation. But if you want something classic and classy that teaches the alphabet without distracting or obliterating its original message (which is to say, teaching the alphabet in the first place) then "Bruno Munari's ABC" should be a first choice.