Picture Book Roundup: letters, numbers, and apostrophes

I’ve missed doing picture book roundups, and I don’t think I’ve done a proper one yet this year so here’s a bunch of picture books I’ve enjoyed recently: Stephen T. Johnson’s Alphabet City, its companion book City By Numbers, and The Girl’s Like Spaghetti (Why, you can’t manage without apostrophes!) by Lynne Truss (illustrated by Bonnie Timmons).

The books were shamelessly scavenged, as usual — I’d been wanting a copy of Alphabet City for a long time and finally got it via BookMooch, and shortly after found a copy of City By Numbers for a very cheap P40 (less than $1) at a bargain bookstore. Then a few weeks back, I found Girl’s Like Spaghetti for P35! Wonderful additions to my ragtag picture book collection, none of which I buy brand new or full-priced, tee hee hee.

Alphabet City, a 1996 Caldecott Honor Book, is an alphabet book with an original concept (back then. I think it’s been copied many times over by now, in photography and whatnot). Aside from the Caldecott, it’s won a plethora of other awards, including an ALA Notable Award and the New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year.

“The idea for Alphabet City came to me while I was walking along a city street. I noticed an ornamental keystone that looked like the letter S. Then suddenly I saw the letter A in a construction sawhorse and the letter Z in fire escapes. At that moment, it became clear that in urban compositions I could discover the elements that form the letters of the alphabet,” Johnson states in his introduction.

It showcases the letters of the alphabet in beautiful, almost photographic, full-color paintings (looks like gouache) of sights around the city: lamp posts, buildings, bridges, and the like, challenging readers to spot the letters, which aren’t always apparent.

It’s an alphabet book and an art book at the same time, and I imagine busy moms using it as a tool to calm kids down during a car ride while reinforcing mastery of the alphabet. I imagine it will also keep me pretty busy while stuck in traffic (without a book, that is).

It’s also one of the most beautiful alphabet books that I’ve ever laid my hands on.

Here’s a peek inside the book:


City By Numbers, released two years later, works on the same principle, this time a counting book featuring the numbers 1 to 21.

“The idea for a number book evolved naturally while I was looking for letter shapes for my book Alphabet City. Inevitably I came upon urban subjects that resembled not only numbers but letters as well. Following the blueprint I created for Alphabet City, I have retained my various themes and self-imposed guidelines. Each image must be found in its natural position, out-of-doors or in a public space, readily accessible to anyone who looks carefully at our urban world at various times of day and during the cycle of the seasons,” Johnson writes in the introduction to this book.

I’m glad he came up with a number book, because it does go perfectly with the alphabet book, and kids who are learning the alphabet do have to learn the numbers alongside them. Surprisingly, it’s a little more difficult to spot numbers than letters. Maybe it’s because we don’t naturally think in numbers? Or maybe he deliberately added a little more challenge in this one.

Best of all, the book extends the visual feast that is Alphabet City with 21 more beautiful works of art in City By Numbers, and gives readers of all ages a little more to think about when they look out into the world around them.

Here are some number scenes:


The final book in this roundup, The Girl’s Like Spaghetti, the companion book to the bestselling Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. The book concerns a pet peeve of mine (along with my Grammar Nazi friends): misplaced (or missing) apostrophes (while Eats, Shoots, and Leaves deals with the comma). Like the comma, it’s just difficult to ignore an apostrophe in the wrong place because it can totally change the thought of a phrase.

For instance, the cover depicts two illustrations, showing the difference of adding an apostrophe to the title phrase. On the left side of the cover, there are three girls enjoying a heaping bowl of spaghetti (with meatballs!) , illustrating the thought behind the phrase the girls like spaghetti. On the right side of the cover, there is a twirly girl with a lot of noodle-like features, illustrating the thought behind the phrase the girl’s like spaghetti.

The book shows several more examples of this through side by side illustrations showcasing various meanings that change depending on where you place the apostrophe. It’s humorous and drives the points well; I wish I could reproduce this and give it out to the people who really need the enlightenment.


Top row: The giant kids’ playground vs The giant kid’s playground
Middle row: See the boys bat vs. See the boy’s bat vs. See the boys’ bat
Bottom row: The dogs like my dad vs. The dog’s like my dad.

It’s a cleverly disguised lesson, which apparently a lot of people need to learn.


Alphabet City, hardcover with dustjacket; City By Numbers, paperback; The Girl’s Like Spaghetti, hardcover with dustjacket, all 5/5 stars

Books 77-79 for 2010.



A 1996 Caldecott Honor Book
ALA Notable Award
A New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year
A 1996 Children’s Book of Distinction by Hungry Mind Review
A 1996 Children’s Books Mean Business ABA-CBC
A New York Public Library’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing
Gold and Silver Medals from the Society of Illustrators, New York, NY
Horn Book Magazine Starred Review and a Horn Book Fanfare Award
Parenting Magazine’s Reading Magic Award
Parents Magazine’s Best Books of 1995 and a Parents Pick of the Year
Publishers Weekly Starred Review
School Library Journal Starred Review
Children’s Book of the Year and marked for Outstanding Merit by The Bank Street Child Study Children’s Book Committee
Wisconsin Library Association’s Outstanding Achievement in Children’s Literature
Featured in it entirety on ABC’s Good Morning America with Charlie Gibson and Joan Lunden


“The 26 paintings by Stephen T. Johnson in Alphabet City must be the most beautiful set of images in a children’s book since Chris Van Allsburg’s Polar Express.… From the sawhorse that forms an “A” to the fire escape that makes a “Z,” every one of these richly colored full pages is a pleasure to behold.” 
– Paul Goldberger, The New York Times Book Review

“Celebrating the lines, curves and shapes of the letters, Johnson elevates the alphabet into art…A visual tour de force, Johnson’s ingenious alphabet book transcends the genre by demanding close inspection of not just letters, but the world.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“The pictorial equivalents of “found poetry,” the twenty-six studies command attention and encourage readers to conduct similar explorations of their own.  All are imaginative, stimulating, and striking.  A book to savor again and again.”
Horn Book Magazine, starred review

“I went into a bookstore and I found a book [Alphabet City] that I just fell in love with. Very, very cleverly done.”
-Charles Gibson, Good Morning America, ABC Television

“A thoroughly original look at the alphabet, exactly the way it appears to children in an urban landscape.  This simple yet astonishing book invites parents and children to find the hidden letters in everyday surroundings.”
Parents Magazine, A Parents Pick of the Year

“The Library of Congress cataloged Alphabet City as “juvenile literature,” which will probably do nothing to keep grow-ups from filching their kids’ copies of the book.  Artist Stephen T. Johnson “built” his city by finding capital letters in lampposts, fire escapes, the Brooklyn Bridge, even negative space and rendering them stunningly with pastels, watercolors, gouache, and charcoal.”
-Linda Hall, New York Magazine

“This is not only a beautiful book, but one that transforms the way we view the world.”
Hungry Mind Review, A 1996 Children’s Book of Distinction Award

4 thoughts on “Picture Book Roundup: letters, numbers, and apostrophes”

  1. My favorite parts in your blog are the book scans and pictures, your love of art and creativity really shines through. Looking forward to more eye candy from your blog…

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