Age Range: 5 - 9
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When Cadmus came to Greece from Phoenicia and founded Thebes, he brought with him the Phoenician alphabet. Or so the legends say. Rumford (Traveling Man, 2001, etc.) here recounts the myth of Cadmus, using it as a vehicle to explain how the letters in the alphabet achieved their order. The illustrations are rendered primarily in black and terra cotta, taking inspiration in figural style as well as color scheme from the vase paintings of ancient Greece. The double-page spreads depict in succession the inclusion of various letters of the alphabet as the story progresses. The letters in question appear in their familiar Roman avatars in the upper corners, along with an explanation of their pictorial origins—"K showed the fingers and palm of a hand"—while appearing again, superimposed over the relevant parts of the picture. The text records in contrasting type their points of inclusion in the story—"He cupped the palm of his hand and drank." The concept and design are indeed ingenious, but ultimately flawed. As demonstrated by a concluding chart of the transformation of the alphabet from Egyptian pictograms through Phoenician and Greek letters to the Roman characters, there is frequently little resemblance between the modern character and the object it originally represented. While K may conceivably stretch to become the palm of a hand, the artist is hard-pressed to convince a reader that an S represents teeth. Moreover, there is no small amount of disingenuousness in the presentation of the story. At the beginning, the reader is told that the "ancient ones put the letters together in a special order to tell a story about their hero . . . " An author's note at the end, however, reveals that it is primarily his own supposition, fueled by "a lot of imagination—and help from thick, scholarly books," that the myth of Cadmus was intended by the Greeks to provide an order for their alphabet. To thus state as fact what one later reveals as a personal hypothesis makes for a straightforward text, but does not ultimately treat honestly with one's readership. (Picture book/nonfiction. 5-9)

Pub Date: Sept. 30th, 2002
ISBN: 0618221409
Page count: 40pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin