Sunday, November 13, 2011

Book Review: Alligators All Around by Maurice Sendak (1962)

This alliterative alphabet book is one of four titles in Maurice Sendak's Nutshell Library. A family of expressively drawn alligators introduces us to each letter of the alphabet with simple two-word phrases that describe what one or more of the alligators is doing in the illustrations.

Some pages are pretty mundane and serious, such as "M making macaroni," where the little boy alligator watches his mother stirring noodles in a pot, and D doing dishes, where mom washes and the little boy begrudgingly dries. Other pages reach the height of silliness, with activities like "entertaining elephants," "keeping kangaroos" and "wearing wigs." Some pages are even a little bit disturbing, such as the one for P pushing people, when the young alligator shoves a little boy and then stands there looking smug. My favorite page of all is L looking like lions, where each of the alligator family members wears a hairy mane around his or her neck and creeps in a menacing way off to the left-hand side of the page. I can't imagine how he pulls it off, but only Maurice Sendak could make alligators look like lions and alligators at the same time.

For the most part, I think this book is brilliant and maybe even the best alphabet book I've ever read. There is only one problem, and that is the one flaw that truly dates this book. For the letter I, Sendak shows the alligators "imitating Indians." Because I know this is considered offensive nowadays, due to the inaccurate and degrading way it portrays American Indians, that one page does prevent me from sharing the book with kids in a public forum. It also keeps from including the book in my list whenever a parent asks for recommended alphabet books. Still, though, it's impossible to deny Sendak's brilliance, even with this flaw.

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