Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Wednesday, August 2, 2023: Kids' Maximum Shelf: The Imaginary Alphabet

Pajama Press: The Imaginary Alphabet by Sylvie Daigneault

Pajama Press: The Imaginary Alphabet by Sylvie Daigneault

Pajama Press: The Imaginary Alphabet by Sylvie Daigneault

Pajama Press: The Imaginary Alphabet by Sylvie Daigneault

The Imaginary Alphabet

by Sylvie Daigneault

A menagerie of merry and meticulously embellished animals mingles with witty wordsmithing and a whimsical search-and-find component to create an extravagant abecedary for an extensive audience in Sylvie Daigneault's glorious, oversized picture book, The Imaginary Alphabet.

A quick glance at the cover piques curiosity, but a careful look tips off readers to the treasures in store. Fairies and frogs flank a fancy pair of ferrets--one ferret flaunting a feathered fascinator and clutching a fan in front of her flouncy gown, and the other looking fetching in a foulard and fustian formalwear. A fountain (housing a verdant fern) burbles behind them while flames flicker from nearby flambeaux. Five flowers rest at their feet. Daigneault frames the vignette with gold-foil mounting corners, as if the moment were captured for a photograph in an album. The scene is outrageously detailed, slightly absurd, and simply fun. And it is one of 26 such sophisticated scenes awaiting attentive readers within this elaborate alphabet storybook.

A brief phrase announces the primary animal, descriptor, and action, but readers can find in the paired illustration as many as 20 items beginning with the featured letter. "Agile Alligators Attempting an Arabesque" appear, dancing beneath an arch adorned with acorns upon which sit albatrosses. "Lazy Lemurs Licking Lemon Lollipops" sit atop a log by a lakeshore with a ladle at one's feet for their lemonade, as lilies grow nearby. In a rollicking spread with the sensibilities of Bruce Degan's Jamberry, "Reckless Raccoons Riding the River Rapids" crouch in a rowboat as a reindeer, a robin, and raspberry-munching rabbits flank the rolling river, with a rain cloud storming in the distance. The featured animals span an impressive array of size, skin, or fur texture, and varying degrees of likely familiarity to young readers. Descriptive vocabulary includes words like "clumsy," "orchestrating," and "velvety," and strikes a playfully erudite tone without veering into pretentiousness.

From those arabesquing alligators to a stampede of zippy zebras, Daigneault crafts fantastical scenes with attention to the tiniest detail. Each letter of the alphabet gets its own page: an intricately illuminated single initial on the left page proffers an object to locate in the accompanying animal illustration on the right. While "J" is drawn entirely of jellybeans, and jostled jellybeans feature prominently in the paired image of jumping jackrabbits, other illuminations spotlight more challenging clues. Knots of twisted rope wind their way through the "K" page, but the kite's tail they reference is a subtle element of the koalas' detailed orchard scene. Remarkably, Daigneault manages an equally complex illustration for that generally vexing animal abecedary obstacle--the letter X--focusing on the xerus, an African ground squirrel, with xenops birds above. The careful selection of animals and paired objects, all outside of their natural environs while feigning a convincing normalcy, is immersive, and the frisky sentence setting each scene melds beautifully with the artwork's spirited aesthetic.

The Imaginary Alphabet is not Daigneault's first abecedary--she illustrated C Is for Canada: Celebrating Our Nation in 2017--and her illustrative work for other children's books dates back decades (Sarah Saw a Blue Macaw, 1991). For this, her first book as author/artist, Daigneault spent nearly four years on the illustrations. Her commitment is evident in the details. She uses layers of colored pencil, digitally enhanced, to achieve her attentive artwork. Dedicated animal abecedary readers may liken this intricate, fantastical effort to Graeme Base's Animalia (1987), a classic of the genre. Daigneault's expansive and powerful use of white space allows her delicately shaded, jewel-toned drawings to pop on the page. As with Base's jam-packed rendition, a generous trim size nicely showcases this mid-century modern art. The search-and-find details extend the creation's appeal to an older audience than abecedaries typically enjoy.

Daigneault welcomes the audience in a preface that frames the story as "about nature and... filled with joy and magic for readers of all ages." In her effort "to present each letter with panache" she tucks "just under 300 little gems to be discovered" that start with the same letter as the one featured in the large illustrations. These letter-inspired objects and actions are listed, letter by illuminated letter, in an end section titled "Discover Sylvie's Alphabet World." The ornamental alphabet also appears on both the front and back endpapers.

The Imaginary Alphabet is quite a feat. Its artwork feels elegant and spacious while sustaining a fanciful tone with childish appeal. Its limited lexicon is sophisticated enough to satisfy linguists while still approachable for its intended audience of early and emerging readers. Animal lovers and I Spy series enthusiasts, especially those who appreciate elaborate detail in picture book art, should find special joy in perusing these pages. This ornate, alliterative, and interactive alphabetical adventure invites discovery as it delights admirers with its eccentric animal reveries. This is a dreamy addition to personal shelves and library collections. --Kit Ballenger

Pajama Press, $22.95, hardcover, 64p., ages 3-7, 9781772782998, August 22, 2023

Pajama Press: The Imaginary Alphabet by Sylvie Daigneault

Sylvie Daigneault: Alliterative Animals in an Abecedary Delight

Sylvie Daigneault has illustrated many picture books, including C Is for Canada: Celebrating Our Nation; Sarah Saw a Blue Macaw; and The Good Garden. She lives with her husband, Doug Panton, also an illustrator, in the Cabbagetown section of Toronto, Canada. Daigneault says that bedtime reveries inspired her intricate four-year passion project, the alliterative abecedary The Imaginary Alphabet (Pajama Press, August 22), her debut as an author/artist. Here, Daigneault discusses her artistic process, inspirational abecedaries, and the challenge of crafting a sensible unicorn.

How did this story come about?

The Imaginary Alphabet was a project I began for myself after illustrating other people's words for many years. In 2016, while my days were filled with fast-paced book assignments, I started inventing new narratives at night while I fell asleep. By 2018, my head was filled with playful words and beautiful animals. The Imaginary Alphabet was ready to take shape. I did not know then that it would fill the next four years of my life, including two very focused years of pandemic lockdowns.

Could you tell us about your artistic process? What does creation using "colored pencil with digital enhancement" entail?

Once I had all the sentences figured out, I started collecting all kinds of reference images. I have always challenged myself to draw with accuracy, so visual references are an essential tool in the early stages of composing a drawing. I found myself enjoying the time I spent researching. I love drawing animals and birds, and I knew how much my concept and composition would be improved by this process. The illustrations had not yet been started, but in my mind, they were coming alive.

My illustrations are created in colored pencils, which I have used for many years. Over my career, I have learned to start drawing very loose roughs by hand first, just to block in the idea. Then I superimpose a sheet of tracing paper over the rough drawing and make a new version. This can be repeated as many times as necessary. It is very much like using building blocks.

After this process, I scan my rough drawings and improve them in many ways with digital tools. I may use distortion for a more dramatic perspective, adjust the length of limbs, make trees taller, stretch and warp clouds, or reduce the size of a building in the background. I print all the changes and use them to draw the final linear. I then scan it and digitally clean up that image file by erasing pencil smudges or unwanted grey tones. I also play with values to end up with a perfectly cleaned background and a crisp line that is light enough to be unnoticeable under layers of color. This will be the illustration guide for the coloring stage.

Working with colored pencil takes time. The technique is all about carefully and patiently applying layers. Once the illustration is done, I scan it at high resolution, enlarge the scanned, colored illustration, then clean it, inch by inch, of all the tiny pencil debris the enlargement reveals. Finally, I enhance the contrast digitally and adjust the balance of colors if needed.

How did you choose the animals? Were there any you wish you could have used but didn't?

In choosing the animals in this book, I wanted an interesting variety of fur, size, coloring, texture, and origins--some are well-known, others more unusual and unexpected. I also considered their personalities, how they would play the part described in their sentence. The baboon in the bath, for example, I chose to be humorous and appealing to children who hate taking one. Noisy numbats would be sweet cuddled all together inside a tree trunk, similar to children hiding under a blanket as they avoid going to sleep. I did not end up discarding any of the animals I drew. I felt confident with my choices, having gone through many debates previously.

Which alliterative phrases flowed most easily during your creative process, and which animal(s) proved the most challenging to execute?

One of my favorite alliterations belongs to the ferrets. "Fancy Ferrets Feeling Famous and Fabulous" brought a smile to my face, and so did the illustration when I first drew it. It is difficult to pick another... maybe "Two Toucans Taking the Train to Town." It rolls off my tongue, and the repeated T sounds remind me of the chug-chug, toot-toot of the train.

The letter U was challenging because I had to find an animal, an adjective, a verb, and a compliment starting with the letter U to make a sensible sentence and infuse magic into it at the same time. I chose the Unicorn because it gave me the opportunity to introduce a mythical character that is loved by so many.

I expected X to be almost impossible, but the Xerus was a good size to play on the xylophone. I added a second xerus to create a more dynamic image and to show a happy playtime exchange. The most difficult animals were the hippopotamus and the sloth. Hippopotamuses are funny-looking with their fat, porky, leathery body, but they're also a little scary. The sloths look almost alien-like but are extremely gentle and tender.

Imaginary Alphabet is an intricate, fantastical work, and comparisons with Graeme Base's Animalia feel inevitable. Do you have favorite or inspirational abecedaries?

Since the beginning of my lifetime of creative exploration, I have been impressed by many other artists and illustrators, but when I start a new project, I refrain from looking at other people's work. I know too well that absorbing their influences would not allow that quiet space for my own ideas to emerge. I do have high respect for many abecedaries and how, in their own ways, they each bring a brilliant approach.

I love my favorite abecedaries for their artistic abilities, design, concept, and originality: The Z Was Zapped: A Play in Twenty-Six Acts by Chris Van Allsburg and An Artist's Alphabet by Norman Messenger. They are appealing to readers young and old, and they are elegant.

It has been brought to my attention that The Imaginary Alphabet might be compared to Animalia, where the illustrations are very detailed and elaborate. Any similarities are entirely coincidental. I am much more familiar with another animal alphabet that I admire also for its humor, Alphabeasts by Wallace Edwards.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell Shelf Awareness readers? Are you working on anything currently that you'd like to discuss?

At the moment, I am returning to a personal project I started years ago, a collection of monochromatic bouquets in colored pencils. --Kit Ballenger

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