By Elizabeth Wroten
Picture Book Review: My ABC’s by John W. Ensley II
On 08, Jan 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Published by Melanin Origins
From Goodreads: My ABC’s is an English alphabet learning tool that provides images associated with the cradle of civilization. This book provides a fun, colorful way for children to learn the alphabet and a little more about African culture in a manner unseen before.
Here’s the ABC book for all you modern parents with a clean aesthetic. This is such a beautiful book from a graphic standpoint (also from a bookish standpoint). The colors you see on the cover are the entirety of the color palette and it makes for a very clean, easy-on-the-eyes, but not boring, visual experience. It feels like something you’d see in one of those impossibly fancy Midcentury home magazines or on some hipster baby’s bookshelf. Each letter stands out boldly in white on the page with a red line inside it. If you’re using this in storytime, the classroom, or with your own child, have the kids run their finger along the red line to learn the shape of each letter.
From an educational standpoint this book avoids the pitfalls that many (most?) ABC books, cards, and products fall into. The vowels! So often I find alphabets that have a mix of long and short vowel sounds. Worse yet, sometimes they have indistinct vowel sounds such as when the “a” is mixed with an “r” or some other letter that changes the vowel sound enough that it’s impossible for children to isolate the sound. Books that do this may be beautiful or even amazing, but they’re functionally useless. Not so here. Each vowel is paired with the short vowel sound making it beautiful and useful. Then there are the letters that can have more than one sound! I have a number of alphabet books that have “g is for giraffe”. True, but only in writing. Otherwise the “g” is making the “j” sound. This is incredibly confusing for children trying to learn letter-sound correspondence. Again, My ABC’s comes through. The letter sounds are clear and easy to hear. Well, actually the letter “c” cleverly uses the word “circle”, a “c” word that features both sounds the letter makes.
Some letters have fairly generic words associated with them (“umbrella” and “vegetable”) but when they are embedded in an afrocentric alphabet that features “b for braid” and a picture of a man with braided hair or “s is for sankofa” they take on a far less generic significance. They can also be opportunities for discussing how these words relate to African and African American culture. For example, here in Sacramento we have a black-owned, urban farm in one of our historically black neighborhoods. The owners offer education and food to the community it’s nestled in. What a great conversation to have in a classroom or at storytime that can promote local entrepreneurship and community. Some letters celebrate African culture, again “sankofa”, while others celebrate important goals like “education” and “graduate” that show, respectively, a black man and black woman achieving these things.
I sound like a broken record hitting this idea again and again in my reviews of books with diverse content (read: books with few or no white people), but I’ll say it again because apparently people still don’t get it. There is something here for every reader. You do not have to be black to enjoy or appreciate or need this book. First off, it’s an ABC book. There are a ton of them out there, the vast vast majority of them are mediocre at best. Alphabet books are great well into the early elementary years as kids learn to recognize shapes, letters, letter sounds, and then eventually need help remembering how to write a letter (especially directions of some letters like “b” and “d”). Why not have one that celebrates African culture? Better yet, why not one that celebrates African culture AND is gorgeous? Secondly, the book celebrates Africa, African culture, and black people. African American children need to see themselves positively represented in books and quite frankly white children need to see that too.
The book is available in both paperback and hardback. I recommend the hardback considering the age of kids that will be reading the book, it’s just that much sturdier. School libraries and libraries that serve young children should have this one and need to promote it. I assure you, there are plenty of those mediocre alphabet books on your shelves already, so there’s no reason not to have this excellent ABC book there to outshine the others. Families should also consider this one for their collections. It can open up a lot of interesting conversations for all families around the various things represented by the letters.
Full disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I also bought myself a copy because I want to read this to my daughters.