(the buzz about) A is for Bee by Ellen Heck

#62 in an ongoing series of posts celebrating the alphabet.

Just when you think you know the alphabet, along comes a fun and inventive animal abecedarian that shows you what you’ve been missing. 

Set aside the predictable ‘A is for Alligator’ and ‘Z is for Zebra’ books. In Ellen Heck’s A is for Bee: An Alphabet Book in Translation (Levine Querido, 2022), we learn what 26 familiar animals are called around the world.

We speak to each other in many languages, and in some of them . . . A is for Bee.

Although the word bee begins with ‘B’ in English, in some other languages, it actually begins with ‘A’: Aamoo (Ojibwe), Abelha (Portuguese).

Next comes “B is for Monkey,” “C is for Parrot,” and so on, as we’re treated to a taste of Balinese, Hindi, Telugu, and Nahuatl.

 Each letter spread features Heck’s stunning scratchboard art and Jon Gray’s dynamic hand lettering. Heck has also incorporated the letterforms in her pictures for a fun seek-and-find element (look for the rabbit ears ‘L’, the monkey tail and branch ‘B’, and the trunk and tusk elephant ‘Z’)!

Heck, a printmaker, was inspired to create A is for Bee after reading a Lithuanian alphabet book with her son. What started out as an amusing game turned into a linguistically inclusive, captivating menagerie that engages, teaches, delights and unifies. 

Much research went into compiling this diverse word puzzle, which, aside from English, features 68 different languages – many of which I’d never heard of before (Amharic, Chechen, Hausa, Tamil, Wolof, Kannada). I enjoyed ‘traveling the globe’ with Finnish, Japanese, Korean, Latvian, Balinese, French, Icelandic, Spanish and Yiddish (to name a few), and it was nice to see Native American representation. In addition to Objiwe, Navajo, and Cherokee, there’s the Hawaiian word for rabbit (lāpaki).

In her extensive Author’s Note, Heck explains some of the many challenges she faced deciding on suitable translations, especially for words that do not use the Roman (Latin) alphabet. Transliteration (in this case Romanization) involves taking a word from a language with its own sounds and writing system, and using the closest corresponding symbols or letters to write the word in a different writing system. This way, even if someone doesn’t know the language, he/she is still able to sound out the word.

Add to that challenge the issue of regional dialects and general terms (bear) vs. species specific (black bear, brown bear) monikers. Finally, each of the words in the book was confirmed with native speakers. 

Another word about the art: Heck’s scratchboard pictures were created on small panels which were then enlarged and scanned to show texture, before being digitally colored and arranged.

Her emotive black and white depictions are set against richly colored backgrounds (rust, teal, indigo, mustard, forest green, red). Love the majestic tiger, the playful cat reaching for yarn, the ferocity of the lion, and the turtle’s contented smile. Must admit “X is for bear” is a special favorite:

Xióng (Mandarin)

Xóots (Tlingit)

Xers (Persian)

Of course I love Gray’s hand lettering –  different sized words whimsically arranged to enhance each animal image to striking effect. It looks like Gray had fun playing with the scale of the letters, as he alternated between upper and lower case with the animal names. And as with the best hand lettering, his chosen style infuses each word with its own personality, celebrating its distinct appearance and sound, inviting readers to point to and pronounce.

The gorgeously composed spreads resemble stylized posters which I can imagine in a calendar or as framed wall art. Wait till you see the endpapers (alphabet blocks resembling honeycomb?). 

Backmatter includes the aforementioned Author’s Note (my small bone to pick is that it’s difficult to read with its dark text printed on a dark background), an index of represented languages linking them to their respective letters, and a link to an Audio Guide where readers can hear native or fluent speakers pronouncing the words that appear in the book.

A is for Bee is a treasure trove for word lovers and linguists of all ages, as well as an entertaining teaching tool, especially for kids who already know their ABCs. How wonderful to consider how we’re all interconnected with our own names for these animals, and how empowering for kids to learn the new ones, as they proudly exclaim, “T is for Octopus”and “V is for Zebra.” Yes, really!

Enjoy this video of Ellen introducing the book:


A IS FOR BEE: An Alphabet Book in Translation
written and illustrated by Ellen Heck
hand-lettering by Jon Gray
published by Levine Querido, June 2022
Alphabet Book for ages 3-9, 40 pp.
*Includes Author’s Note and Language Index
**Starred Review** from Booklist
Amazon || Bookshop

Certified authentic alphabetica. Made by hand with love and cool animal words.

*Interior spreads, text and illustrations copyright © 2022 Ellen Heck, published by Levine Querido. All rights reserved.

**This post contains Amazon and Bookshop Affiliate links. When you purchase an item using a link on this blog, Jama’s Alphabet Soup receives a small referral fee at no additional cost to you. Thank you for your support.

***Copyright © 2022 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “(the buzz about) A is for Bee by Ellen Heck

  1. Wow! What a wonderful concept and beautiful scratch board illustrations. I love all the pictures, especially the lion. Thank you for sharing this amazing book!

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