Reviews /

A is for Bee

Authored by Ellen Heck
Illustrated by Ellen Heck
Published by Pushkin Children's Books

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Just when you think there couldn’t possibly be another original way to write an alphabet book, A is for Bee comes along. It’s a book that celebrates and introduces children to the diversity of languages. Each letter of the alphabet is represented by an animal with the words for that animal in languages where the initial letter is the same. So, H is for tiger because it is huli in Kannada and harimau in Indonesian; T is for octopus because it is tako in Japanese, tmanum in Hebrew and tintenfisch in German. I could continue as each letter is as fascinating as these two.

Ellen Heck, when she talks about her books says it’s, ‘an embrace of all the things we lose in translation but also what we discover’. And this book is one of discovery on every page, not only in the words for each animal but she has also hidden the letter form in each of the illustrations: S in lion, O in eagle and so on. Not all are as obvious and easy to find so this in itself could be one focus of a shared reading of this book. It may even inspire children to create their own pictures with hidden letters too.

Heck is a printmaker and you can see this in her stunning illustrations, which also makes this book a brilliant stimulus with older children when exploring different mediums of art. Her artwork is fused with, as Ellen describes, ‘the bold colours and expressive lettering of designer Jon Gray’ and together they have created these stunning illustrations. Ellen describes it as a ‘clash of collaboration’ which works perfectly with the theme of the book. This overall design quality of the book is a stunning feast for the eyes, including the endpapers. On design matters and readability though I would have liked the Author’s Note written in a much more readable colour: it’s black text on a bright turquoise background. I found this uncomfortable to read and I would imagine many other readers may too and is one part of the book where practicality is needed over design.

There is also a wonderful resource at the back of the book: a QR code that has recordings of many of the words, where you can listen to native and fluent speakers pronouncing the words used in the book. It really enriches the reading of the book to hear the words spoken aloud. I also enjoyed reading the Author’s Note too where older readers can find out more about the words and languages in the book. It’s fascinating and where Ellen Heck tells us that 69 languages have been represented in the book (there’s a list of all these too and to which letter they correspond) which is only a fraction of the 6,500 spoken across the world. So, it really is a book that keeps giving.

This is a beautifully illustrated multilingual book to explore languages with children in such an original way with opportunities to open up great discussions. One for all ages from the very young pre-readers right up to adult and I would love to see it in every primary classroom and library.