Monday, October 31, 2011

The Dangerous Alphabet

As much as I'm looking forward to the upcoming collaboration between Adam Rex and Neil Gaiman, Adam doesn't quite fit with Neil's more macabre work (although seriously, Adam Rex and Neil Gaiman!!!, two of my favorites in one book. I'm going all fangirl). For Neil's darker work, I was taken with his collaboration with Gris Grimly on The Dangerous Alphabet. A perfect book for Halloween. It was enough to creep me out.

The story (because this alphabet book has one) follows two brave children and their trusty pet gazelle (gazelle?) through the underbelly of the city. Shortly after they start their journey the girl is lured by strangers into taking candy and gets snatched. Facing pirates and monsters, the young hero manages to save his sister from being kidnapped. So there is a happy ending. But there is a lot of creepiness to get through before you get there. Unlike other alphabet books, Gaiman doesn't focus on creating a literal word connection. This is no "A is for Apple" book. Instead we find more clever word associations like "C is the way that we find and we look", a pun on C and see as homonyms. Others like "I am the author who scratches these rhymes" for "I", will unnerve after we have gotten used to the pattern of B is for Boat. But by the time we reach "I" in the book we are already unnerved. This is not a safe children's story that you put them to bed with. It is creepy and dark. Children often like to be scared (in a safe setting of course) and these will accomplish that. "J is the joke monsters make of their crimes", was a particularly creepy page for me as we see children chained up or in cages. Or the "O is for ovens" page where we see pies being made with distinct parts sticking out.

Grimly's illustrations are macabre and unusual. There is something about them that reminds me of old comics I used to read, but can't seem to place. The heroes are almost skeletal looking themselves although the gazelle has large Disney eyes that are a little out of place for a strange unnerving book like this. But that only adds to its charm. The book is filled with sewer tunnels and horrible looking gangster monsters and floating eyeballs. The backgrounds are all tans and browns and the characters are mostly rendered in fine line ink. The text is wonderful but it would be lost without the images. Grimly takes the sparse text and brings it to life in all of its horror. "D is for Diamonds, the bait on the hook" would be far less scary without the dead dog floating in the water or the hideous fisherman holding the pole. In fact it is Grimly who makes this book scary. Every detail in the pictures is geared to unnerve. And of course to illustrate the letter. It took me a couple of reads before I started noticed the garbage and ghosts on the "G" page or the milk, maggots, and mice on the "M" page. I should have. The out of place llama on "L" should have been a direct give-away.

I don't normally list an appropriate age for books. I feel that children should not be limited by their age range. I was reading 6th grade book in third grade. I was reading adult titles in middle school. But I will suggest reading this one first before reading it to your child. You know best their tolerance for creepy stories. And this one fits the bill. It's a fun book, particularly for Halloween and the word play makes it one of the better ABC books I've read. Gaiman and Grimly create a creepy classic. Just make sure that your child won't be too disturbed.

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