Book Review: Alpha By Isabelle Arsenault

This book is one of my prized treasures from last year. I spied an early version of it coming to the US at a book sellers convention and it literally made me halt and gasp. It is a breathtakingly beautiful abecedarian. In a market where alphabet books abound in every manner of cleverness, this book stands out – not only in its physical characteristics with a cloth spine and uncoated paper – but also in its use of the NATO phonetic alphabet combined with unique visuals. Prepare to be captivated by an alphabet book. Here is Alpha by Isabelle Arsenault, 2015.

Alpha 2
Alpha 3
Alpha 4

“Alpha. Bravo. Charlie.” Those are the only words in this book I could have listed if quizzed. “Foxtrot” too, perhaps. Although I don’t know that I would have known to call them the NATO phonetic alphabet. Now it will be forever ingrained in my head. Look at how much I’ve learned from this picture book already. And I’m an adult!

The end of the book has a wonderful couple of paragraphs explaining a tiny bit about the NATO phonetic alphabet including when and why it was created in 1956. It is just enough information for this sleek alphabet book to give its reasoning and spark interest for those who want to learn more.

Alpha 5

I desperately love how sophisticated this picture book is. Not only do you get to feel smarter by learning a more unique alphabet than the average picture book; but you also have amazingly unique and often fun images to represent the words. It is like the cheat sheet to a super difficult round of charades. And I don’t know that anyone could look at this alphabet book and argue that it is strictly for kids. Very few, if any, children would know the iconic Charlie Chaplin hat without the guidance of a wise adult. And when is the last time you saw a glass of whiskey in a children’s book?

Alpha 8

The book begins uniquely even before it is opened. It lacks a dust jacket. The cover is stunning and trimmed with a cloth spine. I have seen this before, often in imports, and I love it. I do love a good dust jacket with an under cover reveal; but I have never understood having a dust jacket that looks the same as the cover beneath. And in reality, when children approach a dust jacket, the whole thing is just ridiculous. Hard to carry. Hard to keep from tearing. Never stays on. Just an all around pain when there is no delightful reason for its existence. So I appreciate books like this just cutting to the chase and giving us a truly lovely, hardbound book. And it fits the essence of this book too. The NATO phonetic alphabet was created for more clear and precise communication. This presentation is very straight-forward, with no frills to get in the way.

Alpha 6

Isabelle Arsenault is an incredibly lovely illustrator with many beloved books on her shelf already. Her illustrations have such a soft, narrative quality to them. Sophisticated is the word that continues to come to mind, with this book, and especially with her art. She uses a combination of watercolor, gouache, pencil, and colored pencil to create the art and the effect here is so strong and gentle and memorable.

Alpha 7

I also adore the typography. I don’t see any credits for a designer of the book, so I’m assuming Arsenault had her hand in that as well. The all caps text is beautiful, and also a bit surprising for a “children’s book” given that typically those learning to read are taught to read upper and lower case, rather than a san serif all caps. Another piece of evidence to this book being for a larger audience. The text is all in black, except for the key letter to each spread being in a color pulled from the accompanying illustration. The text even has a painterly quality to it, even though it is extremely tight and precise – upon closer inspection, it looks to have variation in tone and some wobbly edges. The overall effect is just so lovely.

Alpha 9

This picture book is a collection of works of art. Each illustration is powerful and swoon-worthy on its own. Put-together, they are a wonder to learn from and to admire. This is an alphabet book worth every penny. It has beauty, depth, interest, and intrigue for young and old alike. This is the best type of learning.

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