Alphabet City

by Stephen T. Johnson


Stephen T. Johnson's Alphabet City

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 4-8


Finding the letters of the alphabet in what you see

I wish someone had given me this book growing up. Unfortunately, I was already grown up when it came out.

One of my (many) failings is that I'm not a very visual person. I have friends who are artists, and I feel like an aesthetic nincompoop around them. My family emphasized words over pictures.

So here I am. Writing. About pictures. Go figure!

The idea for this book came to its creator when he was walking along a city street and detected an "S" in an architectural element. Shortly afterwards, he saw an "A" in a sawhorse. (Pictured on the book's cover. See above.)

At that point, he challenged himself to find all the letters of the alphabet (Capitals only) in his urban environs, and then to commit them to canvas. The result is this book.

Some were clearly easier to come by than others. But in all likelihood you've walked by examples of all of them. I know I have.

Alphabet City is textless, save for Johnson's letters, one per page, starting with "A" and proceeding to - you guessed it - "Z". If this adult had had his druthers, the artist would have said a little something on each page about where and how he happened upon the letter.

(Johnson earned a 1996 Caldecott Honor for the book, regardless of my druthers!)

Johnson's book is the purest demonstration of how much there is to see if you only think to look. When I was growing up, in the family car we played a letter game we called Geography. You would say the name of the place, and the next person had to name another place, the first letter of which was the last letter of your place.

I realize now we could have also been playing Alphabet City, spotting the letters in the spaces around us. Let Stephen T. Johnson show you how.

D holds a tree, E is a stoplight

More Caldecott honorees.

Webmaster's note: Another alphabet book that finds letters where you least expect them (this time in nature) is called The Butterfly Alphabet (reviewed on this site).

More of Steve's reviews.

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