Ox, House, Stick: The History of Our Alphabet
Written by Don Robb; illustrated by Anne Smith
Charlesbridge Publishing; $16.95
48 pp.; ISBN-13: 978-1570916090
Review by Amy Brozio-Andrews
The alphabet is one of the most important things kids learn in school, and who can't remember the pride with which their child first learned to print her own name? But beyond the practicalities of learning which letters make what sounds and how they form words, who thinks much further about the how and why of the alphabet? Why, Don Robb, that's who, and his enthusiasm for his subject, paired with Anne Smith's illustrations, carries what some kids might at first think is a dry subject.
Ox, House, Stick: The History of Our Alphabet is a kid-friendly introduction to the origins and development of the modern alphabet as used in English. While oral communication between people has occurred since earliest times, the use of written communications, first in the form of pictures and later symbols that stood for the sounds expressed in a particular language, was first established around 4,000 years ago. Robb traces its development from the most ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to the advent of the modern alphabet through trade and conflict through the Sinai Peninsula, Phoenicia, Greece, and Rome over the course of centuries.
After giving readers a broad and brief overview of the history of the modern alphabet, Robb walks the reader through each of the 26 letters, tracing how they changed from Sinaitic to Roman style in appearance, sound, use over time, and placement in the alphabet. Interspersed within these pages are fun facts and trivia, including the trouble we have identifying what the letter A for example, would have sounded like 1,500 years ago and the fact that letters O, P, R, and S are based on the words for the parts of the head used in Sinai and Phoenicia.
It's surprising how obscure and ambiguous the origins of some letters and their meanings/original representations are. Robb is quite candid with what scientists and linguists know and don't know, and how they go about doing their work. His writing style is lively and engaging, blending history with language arts ideas in a colorful fashion that's matched by Anne Smith's artwork.
Completing the book with a chart that shows the first two letters and their names in languages around the world highlights the similarities between ancient alphabets and modern ones, including Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian. A bibliography for children and adults paired with a short list of related websites gives young readers added opportunity to pursue their own interests in the subject. An index would have been helpful, especially for children who may be using the book for school projects.
Ox, House, Stick is very much an English-language alphabet oriented book. Robb does point out the picture-based written forms of other languages like Chinese, for example, giving them brief mention at the end of the book for readers who may want to further explore other written languages.
With strongest appeal in older elementary school kids who are already learning language arts skills and mechanics (i.e., the difference and uses of vowels and consonants), the book is engaging and full of interesting details that refresh a very old subject.
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