From A to Zed: Sara O'Leary on Canadian Alphabet Books

Owls Are Good at Keeping Secrets is the latest release by Sara O'Leary, illustrated by Jacob Grant, and it's going to find its way into many households this holiday season, because it's just purely delightful. A window onto the secret inner lives of our animal friends, secrets you always suspected, and which make perfect sense—of course dragons cry at happy endings, and meerkats love a parade. In this list, O'Leary shares some of her other favourite Canadian abecedaries in all their amazing varieties. 

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I’ve always loved alphabet books and now I seem to have accidentally written one. My initial reason for writing Owls Are Good at Keeping Secrets is contained in its title, which was a line cut from the final draft of my book This is Sadie. I was so determined to find a place for my secretive owls that I built a whole compendium of animals around the idea, from homebody iguanas to foxes who love the camera as much as it loves them. And as I thought of more and more animals, it made sense at a certain point for my little fanciful bestiary to also become an abecedary. 

When my firstborn was small, we were careful to teach him a Canadian alphabet. We stuck to the tried-and-true tune, but the song’s closing refrain was our own: “Now you know your A to Zed. Keep it in your little head.” Here are a few Canadian alphabet books we’ve enjoyed over the years.

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The Alphabet Thief, by Bill Richardson, illustrated by Roxanna Bikadoroff

The Alphabet Thief is a manic little mystery the disappearance of the letters one-by-one wreaks a very clever sort of havoc: "The Alphabet Thief stole all of the A's, / And all of the coats became cots. / All of the fairs were turned into firs, / And all of the boats became bots." It’s a great book to read aloud with a child who has a love of language, but honestly, I would buy it simply for the little hidden joke on the spine of the jacket case.

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Trunks All Aboard: An Elephant ABC, by Barbara Nichol, illustrated by W. Cornelius Van Horne

This one appears to be out of print so let this be my little plea to bring it back. Barbara Nichol is possessed of one of the more interesting minds around and building an alphabet book around a series of doodled Edwardian elephants sent by a railway magnate (Sir William Cornelius Van Horne) to his grandson residing in Montreal. 

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Alphabeasts, by Wallace Edwards

This book won a Governor General’s Award in 2002 and is one I recall reading to my small son. It’s an romp through an Victorian house filled with animals: "A is for Alligator,/ awake from a dream./ B is for Bat,/ slurping ice cream." The real joy is to be found in Edwards’s sumptuous illustrations. And how many books are likely to show you an octopus hanging from a chandelier or a jaguar descending a stair?

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Anne's Alphabet: Inspired by Anne of Green Gables, by Kelly Hill

This one isn’t even out yet but I’m not letting that stop me. I’m looking forward to buying it to give away as baby gifts for a good while to come. Kelly Hill was the brilliant designer on This is Sadie and I’m thrilled to see this series of board books she is doing around the beloved Lucy Maud Montgomery character. Look also for  and Anne’s Colors (always have to type that ‘u’ first and then take it out again!) which are on shelves now.

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Alpha, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

This is one I’ve just discovered and now plan to pick up. It is based on the phonetic alphabet used by NASA: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo…and so on. The book has the beautiful and slightly surreal quality of much of Maira Kalman’s work but with Arsenault’s distinct colour sense and flair. 

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T is for Tumbling

T is for Tumbling, by Julie Morstad

Before I leave you, I am going to recommend a very hard-to-find alphabet, one which isn’t a book, but a set of cards that could be used as an educational tool or could become art for your wall. These perfectly beautiful cards feature imagery familiar to Julie Morstad aficionados—kites, acrobats, forts, and a fox playing a violin—while on the cover of the original set (published as simply ABC) we see a very small and slightly familiar boy riding on the back of a turtle. It’s the sort of gift you buy for a child and keep for yourself.

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Once I start to look, I realise that there are many more alphabet books than I realized and it is interesting to see how specific they are. Here in Canada alone, we have: A Northern AlphabetA Mountain AlphabetA Seaside AlphabetGulf Islands AlphabetThe Canadian Shield AlphabetA is for Algonquin Park: An Ontario AlphabetC is for Chinook: An Alberta Alphabet, A Pioneer Alphabet, A Pacific Alphabet, A Newfoundland AlphabetArctic AlphabetA Prairie Alphabet, and I is for Inuksuk (to name just a few).  Did we really need another alphabet book? Perhaps not. But I hope you have as much fun reading mine as I did writing it. 

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About Owls Are Good At Keeping Secrets

Did you know that chipmunks love to stay up past their bedtime? Or that dragons cry at happy endings? I bet you'd never have guessed that iguanas sometimes get homesick at sleepovers.

Sara O'Leary pulls back the curtain on the animal world and gives us absolutely charming little one-line "facts" about an animal for each letter of the alphabet. Kids will love to see their own quirks reflected in these adorably-rendered creatures, and perhaps will be comforted to know that, just like them, narwhals can be perfectly happy all on their own and quail also get tired of being told to be quiet.

This is more than just an alphabet book—it is a charming, hilarious and touching look at the diversity of personalities in the world, worth many, many re-reads.

December 3, 2018
Books mentioned in this post
Trunks All Aboard

Trunks All Aboard

An Elephant ABC
edition:Hardcover
tagged :
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Alphabeasts

Alphabeasts

illustrated by Wallace Edwards
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook
tagged : alphabet
More Info
Alphabeasts

Alphabeasts

illustrated by Wallace Edwards
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook
tagged : alphabet
More Info
Gulf Islands Alphabet

Gulf Islands Alphabet

by Bronwyn Preece
illustrated by Alex Walton
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
tagged : alphabet
More Info
C is for Chinook: An Alberta Alphabet

C is for Chinook: An Alberta Alphabet

An Alberta Alphabet
by Dawn Sprung
illustrated by Lorna Bennett
edition:Hardcover
tagged :
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Arctic Alphabet

Arctic Alphabet

Exploring the North From A to Z
photographs by Wayne Lynch
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged : alphabet
More Info
I is for Inuksuk

I is for Inuksuk

An Arctic Celebration
illustrated by Mary Wallace
edition:Hardcover
More Info
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