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ALPHAMANIACS by Paul Fleischman Kirkus Star


Builders of 26 Wonders of the Word

by Paul Fleischman ; illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Pub Date: April 14th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-7636-9066-3
Publisher: Candlewick Studio

Fleischman profiles a merry, idiosyncratic (and by no means comprehensive) selection of 26 (of course) philologists, linguists, etymologists, and gamesters who have tinkered with letters, words, and books in surprising and entertaining ways.

None featured was born more recently than 50 years ago. Most are white. Three women are profiled, including Wampanoag linguist Jesse Little Doe Baird, whose work revived the Wôpanâôt8âôk language of her ancestors. Fleischman also includes chapters about typographical artist and poet Mary Ellen Solt, Klingon language inventor Marc Okrand, “stylometrist” David Wallace (who used a computer to analyze the writing styles of the authors of the Federalist Papers), obsessive diarist Robert Shields, and Georges Perec, whose “erotic” (a word that goes undefined) novella Les Revenentes uses no vowels but “e.” Sweet’s illustrations accompanying each three- to five-page profile provide a beautiful pacing and design for the book, with precisely detailed backgrounds that often incorporate lined paper; maps and diagrams and cartoon interpretations that are both amusing and elucidating; and splashes of her signature warm reds and pinks that energize here and calm there. The ebullient charms both of Fleischman’s breezy accounts and of the work of those profiled are considerable but possibly not universal. Yet for anyone who enjoys words, or books themselves, there’s much to love here in the catalog of serious and silly ways in which language and letters have been deployed, reworked, analyzed, and improved on. The backmatter includes source notes and a list of resources for “Further Entertainment.”

Marvelously diverting.

(Nonfiction. 10-14)