Picture Books, Writing

Picture Books with P.U.N.C.H.: ABC Stories

IMG_1940ABC picture books seem like such an old standby – ever popular, yet so seemingly “done” – that I wondered as I embarked on this month’s story structure, if it was even worth examining them.  After all, just how many new twists can there be on alphabet books?  To answer that question and to crack the code on ABC story structure I read as many ABC picture books as I could, striving for a diverse sampling including old classics, as well as newer publications. In case you are interested, I’ve posted the ABC titles I read under the tab Story Structure Index.

ABC picture books use the alphabet in several ways.

ABC Primers:

The goal of many ABC picture books is simply to teach preschoolers the alphabet in a fun, colorful format. These ABC picture books lack a traditional story arc, instead relying on some fun theme to keep young letter learners engaged. Tasha Tudor’s now classic A IS FOR ANNABELLE, in which two girls dress their grandmother’s doll using items that begin with each letter of the alphabet, is my childhood favorite of this type. For a more contemporary example, I enjoyed Denise Fleming’s ALPHABET UNDER CONSTRUCTION (Henry Holt and Co., 2002) in which a mouse constructs a new letter of the alphabet on each page from  “found” materials.

ABC Topical Texts

Though there is some overlap with this and the primers above, the main difference with most ABC books of this type is that the primary goal is not to teach the alphabet.  Instead, they use the alphabet as an organizational tool. These books are geared to slightly older readers, who already know the alphabet, and are ready to dig into high interest topics broken into 26 related subtopics delivered in alphabetical order. Nancy I. Sanders D IS FOR DRINKING GOURD: AN AFRICAN AMERICAN ALPHABET (Sleeping Bear Press, 2009) is a top-notch example of this type, as is Liz Murphy’s ABC DOCTOR: STAYING HEALTHY FROM A TO Z (Blue Apple Books, 2007).

Plot-Based ABC’s 

My favorite ABC stories, however, cleverly incorporate the alphabet within a traditional story arc. The plots of these picture books stand alone, independent of the alphabet.  The letters, however, add a fun extra layer to the story, teaching kids their letters by clever immersion within the text. My favorite example of this ABC type is Michael Rosen’s AVALANCHE (Candlewick, 1998), in which a rolling snowball wreaks hilarious havoc as it rolls ever bigger through town.  In addition to being an ABC text, Rosen’s story is also cumulative which gives it yet another layer of reading appeal. I also enjoyed Susan Heyboer O’Keefe’s HUNGRY MONSTER ABC (Little, Brown and Company, 2007), a delightful rhymer in which hungry monsters interfere when a boy attempts to teach them the alphabet. Finally, check out Kelly Bingham’s Z IS FOR MOOSE (Greenwillow Books, 2012) for a clever spoof on the traditional ABC primer in which Moose keeps wondering when his part is.


Now that I’ve investigated the ABC structure, I happily conclude that it is still possible to write and sell an ABC picture book.  What you need, however, more than ever, is a fresh take. Want to give it a try?  If so, I challenge you to pick an ABC style that appeals to you and write your own ABC picture book.  That’s my plan! Enjoy!

18 thoughts on “Picture Books with P.U.N.C.H.: ABC Stories”

  1. Thanks for the lesson on alphabet books! I actually found Z is for Moose last week at a bookstore in Seoul and had a blast reading it since I had heard so much about it. ABC books can be quite complex to write!

  2. I wonder if alphabet books are as common in other countries as they are in the US. Anyone know?

    Fun post Laura!

  3. I’m with you, Laura, on preferring the ABC PBs that incorporated story/plot. When my kids were the ones I read these to (over and over, as the audience of that age requires) I looked forward to the good story ones, and almost dreaded the other kind. Kids can sense their parents’ feelings when they ask for yet another reading.
    “Our” (that is, mine, with my kids sensing this) favorite was The ABC Mystery by Doug Cushman. How he managed a complete Agatha Christie-style story in this format is beyond me. I was always happy to read it out loud.

  4. Great post! Funny, I never really considered doing an alphabet book. Hmmm. It would be fun to do one with a twist and incorporate a story. My kids really loved “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom!”, a true classic. Have you read “E-mergency”? Very funny and unique. I will check out the books you mentioned.

  5. Wonderful post! I love alphabet books. Z is for Moose ranks in my Top 10 all-time faves along with Melissa Sweet’s Carmine: A Little More Red and Zoopa: An Animal Alphabet by Gianna Marino. 🙂

  6. Great post, Laura. I love alphabet books, too. One of my favorites is Ashanti to Zulu. I will take a look at some of the ones mentioned. Not sure that I will be able to write one, though. I tweeted and liked this.

  7. This series is so helpful, Laura. Thanks for doing this! I’ve never really considered an alphabet book, but it would be a fun challenge. One I just read that was great is Everything to Spend the Night by Ann Whitford Paul. It’s one of the story arc/alphabet types.

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