ABC books are as old as the unicorn and, depending on the age of the intended-target audience, more or less sophisticated in terms of the accompanying vocabulary content. Award-winning illustrator Frank Newfeld-who has designed such books as Dennis Lee's Alligator Pie
, Leonard Cohen's A Spice Box of Earth
, and Pierre Berton's The Klondike Quest
-has managed to come up with an alphabetic creature of a very different calibre, one that will surely delight, fascinate, if not intrigue, more "worldly" children and adults alike.
Creatures truly is a masterwork of consummate design and amazing inventiveness. Multi-textured, yes, at times silly, but always wickedly fun, the book takes us through a wordless, kaleidescopic tapestry that follows an alphabet specially designed by the author. Readers are ushered into a multitude of miniature worlds, each composed in a unique artistic style. The Byzantine mosaic, naturalism, art deco, medieval tapestries and illuminations, poster art, Klimt-we are presented with a veritable history of art through the ages as, engaging in an act of iconic identification, we try to identify the images that accompany each letter, and to decode or impose a narrative on signifieds bound together seemingly only by the first letter in their signifier. A guide for the at times perplexed to this visual representation of history and high and popular art is found at the end in the form of a glossary that provides a key to the treasures, jokes, and puns found on each page. From "An armadillo in Athena's apple orchard" and "Elvis Presley entertains an eruption of elves", through "Mr. Lincoln and the log cabin" and "Lillie Langtry lounges languidly on a lion", "Quetzalcoatlus and the queens" and "Robespierre and the French Revolution", to "A vampire in Venice" (which depicts a vampire, a violinist, two vultures, the Mexican revolutionary, Pancho Villa, and the Via Veneto) and, simply, "The zebra"-these lively descriptions are often accompanied by a concise explanation of a depicted historical or mythological figure (e.g., Ivan the Terrible, Lizzie Borden, Lucifer) or event (the Klondike Gold Rush) or even taxonomy (the names of butterflies and fish). Not stopping there, Newfeld mirthfully exploits the longstanding self-reflexive strain in art by juxtaposing a smaller, simpler visual image that sometimes serves to comment on its more complex companion image. For example, there is a miniature of Frankenstein eating a meal of fish opposite a catalogue of fish, and Grandma Moses (in a mute echo of Velasquez) is painting the head of the Gryphon depicted in full glory in the larger frame.
Creatures will undoubtedly provide an endless source of enjoyment for alphabet learners, art lovers, and book collectors, and will be treasured by its owner throughout those long years that transform the child into the adult.