Abecedary of Awful

h1 September 9th, 2008 by jules

Alphabet picture books and picture books in rhyme are—admit it—very difficult to do and often done quite poorly. Raise your hand if you pick up an alphabet book and then wonder with a bit of ennui what the author could possibly manage to pull off for the letters “x” and “z” this time.

Well, here’s what I found to be a breath of fresh air when it came to alphabet picture books AND in rhyme: Linda Ashman’s M is for Mischief: An A to Z of Naughty Children (Dutton Children’s Books, July ’08), illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. Really, you will not hear me praise books-in-rhyme very often. Not ’cause I raise my nose at them — but because they’re very difficult to do well. But Ashman does it well here and does it with style. Naughty style. Ooh, sizzle!

What child isn’t going to revel in this, page after page of terrible, awful, no-good, very bad behavior — one for each letter of the alphabet? Eva eavesdrops, Oscar is offensive, Ruby is rude, Daphne doodles (on her sleeping father, no less), Vern is vile, and…You know you’re waiting for it: “X” is for “Experimenting Xavier”:

Xavier gets excited mixing extracts in the sink.
Mama takes exception, says, “You’ll make us all extinct!”
Explains to him explicitly, “You lack the expertise
To execute experiments as difficult as these.”

Xavier exclaims to her, “It’s just a simple potion!”
But Mama cannot hear him on account of the…


Aw snap snap, that’s an “x” and then some. Really, each rhyme brings you as many possible words that begin with the highlighted letter, yet Ashman never makes it sound forced. When you read “Picky Penelope,” just be sure those around you have handkerchiefs, what with all the plosive Ps.

Come on, you know you want to delight in the devilry and rock the roguery of these cautionary tales. This book is just plain fun. And funny. And hallelujah it does NOT end on some crippling and sappy note about being good. Instead, we get: “And, now, for some advice: / Don’t struggle to be perfect, / But—on most days—do be nice.” Well, now, this is just good advice for all.

And the illustrations? Have you seen Nancy Carpenter’s work in Jenny Offill’s 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore? It’s like that, dear readers — what I am assuming is once again pen-and-ink and digital media, or a merging of her art work and real objects. It’s all hyperactive, spastic, frantic fun in this title, a good match for Ashman’s text. And, what? Is Carpenter the go-to illustrator now for picture books about mischief? Atta girl. I’ll partake in those any time.

BONUS: See a spread here at Linda’s site.

12 comments to “Abecedary of Awful”

  1. Oooh, this looks really good, delicious naughtiness!

  2. I inadvertently let out a little “squee” when I saw the cover, because I so loved 17 Things . . . and I recognized the artwork as being from the same artist.

    I shall definitely look for it, since this is the second rave I’ve seen about the book. Although I still love Gorey’s book, and Gaiman’s Dangerous Alphabet.

  3. Kelly, Neil Gaiman’s Dangerous Alphabet is a piece of work, huh? I had that for weeks and weeks from the library and wanted to say something about it here at 7-Imp — but wasn’t sure quite what to say! I did, for the record, try to get in contact with someone at the pub who could email me some images from the book — you know I love to share art work — but I got no response. Wah.

    Let me know what you all think of Ashman’s book. I really like it. Talented people amaze me. It would take me probably about ten years to come up with the kinds of rhymes/poems she has concocted for this title.

  4. Second Kelly’s comment on Gorey’s Gashlygrumb Tinies. It freaks out some people — all those Dickensian children make them think of the urchin in the Broadway Les Miserables poster, I think. But kids (once they get to a reasonable age — double-digts, anyhow) seem to love it. I’ve had a signed “P is for Prue trampled flat in a brawl” on my living-room wall for 20+ years now. 🙂

    And I love the sound of this book — so happy you gave us the X passage!

    (There’s another Gorey book, not an alphabet book, called The Beastly Baby. The BB may have grown into one of the children in this book.)

  5. Sounds like a goodie!

  6. Hilarious!!! Can’t wait to check this out…

  7. This looks terrific–I just put it on reserve! Thanks.

  8. Those rhymes are brilliant! Of course, it would be difficult for anything to replace Edward Gorey’s “The Ghashlycrumb Tinies” as my favorite alphabet book.

  9. Oh, also, did you see that “M is For Mischief” only has two reviews on Amazon, and one is an ALL CAPS REVIEW that gave it one star? You should write a quick review over there so that it doesn’t have three stars, overall. What a sad thing for a good book to have!

  10. Thank you for the great review, Jules. I love your blog–the witty writing, fabulous interviews, and the outstanding art and design–I’m so pleased to be included!

    And Dana, thank you for pointing out the Amazon review. I just read it–ouch!

  11. I found it awfully good!

  12. […] Seven impossible things before breakfast … […]

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