Books On Books Collection – Ellen Heck

A is for Bee (2022)

A is for Bee: An Alphabet Book in Translation (2022)
Ellen Heck
Casebound, decorated doublures, sewn and glued book block. 40 unnumbered pages. Acquired from Amazon, 10 November 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of Pushkin Press.

Earlier animal abecedaries’ efforts to nudge us toward more multilingual awareness led with English and either limited themselves to animals whose names in other languages are the same or simply surrounded the English name with the names from other languages. Ellen Heck leads with the usual English formula “A is for …” but has the reader turning somersaults when the named animal is one whose name in English does not begin with the formula’s letter; rather the initial letter belongs to the animal’s name in several other languages.

There are many bilingual abecedaries. Naturally there are fewer multilingual ones and even fewer whose main purpose is to challenge the reader’s English-centric mindset. More than most of those neighbors, Heck’s work is colorful and full of character — and in both the portrayal of the animals the letterforms. The letters in “bee” and the initial and final letters of “monkey” are hairy and furry like their namesakes; “P” and “t” of “parrot” are feathered; and perhaps more subtle, the pose of the bee forms the letter A, the monkey’s tail and the branch being climbed for the letter B; and the parrot blocks out a segment of its ring to form the letter C. The more detailed shots of the artwork do not do justice to the textures it conveys.

The related website and app to which the QR code at the book’s end leads offers recordings of native or fluent speakers pronouncing words. Since such a feature is not assured to outlast updates to devices and their operating systems, users will no doubt look for hacks to capture the files. More lasting will be the author’s comments on the challenges of writing across languages: sorting the singular name in one language that is plural in another, dealing with a species name from one culture that explodes into multiple sub-species in another, juggling transliteration from languages with non-Latin alphabets and more.

The book deserves well the accolades it has received: New York Times‘s 2022 “Children’s Book of the Year” and for Words Without Borders’ “Best Books of 2022“.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Borlenghi, Patricia and Piers Harper. 2016. A To Z: An Animal Alphabet in Five Languages. Manningtree: Pudding Press.

Leeper, Angela. 15 March 2022. Review. Booklist Online. American Library Association. Accessed 9 November 2022.

Vo, Young. 2022. Gibberish. Montclair: Levine Querido. Not an abecedary, but has a similar multicultural purpose.

Wang, Andrea and Hyewon Yum. 2022. Luli and the Language of Tea. New York: Holiday House. Also not an abecedary and more akin to Vo’s book.

Winston, Sam. 2022. One and Everything. London: Walker Studio. Again not an abecedary, but nevertheless a book about alphabets and language by another powerful artist.

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