Monday, July 16, 2012

Re-Imagine the Basics: “The South African Alphabet” and “Pomelo Explores Color”

Picture Books We Love
Just about every pre-schooler’s library contains an A-B-C book and a book about colors. “A” is for apple; here’s three things that are red; you’ve probably seen countless examples. Two new books, The South African Alphabet and Pomelo Explores Color take these mainstays and turn them on their ear. Simple? Not by a long shot. These titles approach necessary topics—the alphabet and colors—and add extra educational value to the explorations and encourage readers to think in new ways. Sure, you can buy any number of simpler books on these topics but after you see these two titles, you may not want to.

If you’ve visited this site before, you know I’m already a big fan of South African author/illustrator Alex Latimer. His new book, The South African Alphabet is available in English and Afrikaans. Latimer told us that his goal was to create an alphabet where the illustrations worked in both languages. He said, “I must tell you that it was not an easy task at all, especially since Afrikaans doesn’t use the letter C or the letter Q.” Latimer found clever cultural icons for both: the Currie Cup trophy for C and a road sign to Queenstown for Q. Anyone who watched the last World Cup soccer tournament will appreciate that in South Africa, V is for vuvuzela. And doing a bit of research on the Currie Cup (for rugby) is a wonderful teachable moment in the history of South Africa. While you’re at it, you’ll find that D is for Desmond Tutu and N is for Nelson Mandela. How’s that for teachable moments?

The first step to literacy for people in a large chunk of the world is to learn the A-B-C’s. The South African Alphabet makes that part of the planet a bit smaller in all the best ways. We share so much with the peoples of the world. This book makes that clear. And our differences—like the presence of aardwolf and naartjie—are all there to be discovered. These vocabulary builders invite readers’ curiosity. The book (by Penguin) isn’t available in the U.S. but you can buy it online at or You may also purchase Latimer’s alphabet in poster form from The Littlest Mammoth.

Pomelo Explores Color was written by Ramona Bădescu and illustrated by Benjamin Chaud. It’s a charming follow-up to last year’s Pomelo Begins To Grow (well worth a look, too.) Pomelo is an adorable and curious little elephant. What I love about this book is that each color is a jumping-off point to an interesting and satisfying journey. For example, the book begins, “When everything begins to seem black and white, Pomelo looks around and suddenly rediscovers … the silent white of the blank page … the infinite white of winter … the foamy white of hot milk … the comforting white of his favorite dandelion … the white of an eye … and the white of an egg (which are almost the same).” As you can see, the writing is just lovely. And the charming illustrations have a delicate poetry all their own.

It’s not often a book about colors is downright profound. Not only is this a wonderful vocabulary stimulator, it suggests a way of thinking: that very different things can be similar because they share a color; and yet remain very different in their natures. Hats off to Bădescu and Chaud. Just when you think everything’s been done twice, something this original and touching comes along and feels like a cool drink of water in the desert of sameness. Pomelo Explores Color is published by Enchanted Lion Books and is available for pre-order. Both books are beautifully printed and bound, suitable for gifting (and loving).

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