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I've bought a lot of ABC books as I try to prepare my youngest for his first official year of home education next year. I've carefully avoided the very dull and babyish A is for apple type as he has no interest in listening to them, and instead sought out a wide collection of books that are truly fun to read, and just happen to teach the alphabet at the same times. I especially like books that really encourage the child to recognise the letter sounds, or phonemes, as well as the letter names. Animalia does just that, and quite a lot more. This book is not just for nursery age children. It's perfect for anyone who enjoys hunting for hidden objects in pictures, or who really enjoys art, because the pictures in this book go well beyond simple illustration, each one is beautiful and highly detailed work of art.
Animalia does have seperate letters printed. Each illustration has only a single line of text, with very nearly every word starting with the featured letter. It isn't exactly a proper sentence, as no punctuation is used, and frequently the text is all upper case, or every word is capitalised. Where lower case letters are used, the decision appears to based solely on artistic considerations. The text is artistic as well, and while most is easy to read, a few fonts are not the clearest, but by carefully pointing out the correct letter, the child can get the general idea. However I consider this book better for phonemic awareness than letter recognition. Of course I could just slap on my letter stickers, as I have done with many other books, but I refuse to add anything to this book as it would take something away from the beautiful pictures.
The text is well written, and suits each picture well. We have lines like "INGENIUS IGUANAS IMPROVISING AN INTRICATE IMPROMPTU ON IMPOSSIBLY IMPRACTICAL INSTRUMENTS". Of course many of these words may be unfamiliar to a very young child. Even my eight year old did not know what impromptu meant, but this is a good chance to build vocabulary as well. Normally I do not take like too many new words, as it takes something from the flow of the story to have to stop and explain what everything means, but there is no flow to this story. Each page is an adventure on its own, and it can easily take five minutes or more to go through one page - so my word to the wise here - do not let this book find its way to the bottom of the bedtime story stack. You might end up spending 2 hours reading it. If however you want something to keep the children occupied on a long train ride, a flight or when waiting hours in a doctors office - this is just the thing.
The illustrations in this book are absolutely beautiful. The art is flawless and the attention to detail is exceptional. The animals look so life like, except quite occasionally for colour as we have crimson cats and green gorillas. The expressions on the animals is especially well done. But what really makes this book magical is the number of objects on each page starting with the featured letter. A quick count for "C" and I am certain I have missed a great many yielded 58. Many are very easy to spot so even the youngest child will be able to find quite a few of the items different items. Other require quite a bit more searching, like a fairy ingeniously worked into a fern, or Frankenstein with a a fork carefully camouflaged in the trees. Some pictures a child may not recognise as starting with the letter. For instance a a child may not recognise the picture of King George on a recruitment poster, or know that a machine gun starts with K because it is really a Kalashnikov. Occasionally I come across an item, that I'm sure must start with the correct letter, but I'm not sure what it is called. Also, no matter how certain we are that we have found everything, we always seem to miss something.
My children both like hidden pictures, so my eight year old enjoys this book as much as the 4 year old. There are plenty of items for both to find. The oldest is of course well past learning his alphabet or phonemes, but he can still enjoy searching for things - although I do wonder why it is so much fun to look for an item hidden in a picture, but no fun at all to look for a shoe lost in room, meaning Mom must help search. But with my youngest I feel this is especially beneficial as it is encouraging him to think about what letter different things start with. For very young children, you can help out and suggest that they find the peacock, panda, penguin, or princess.
I feel that this book has a very wide range of ages it could appeal to, making it a good investment, which can be enjoyed for quite some time. It is expensive, £10.79 for a hardback copy with school and library binding, new and delivered from Amazon, but it should last for many years, or you can do as I did and choose a paperback copy. The paperback version is not available new anymore, but you can get one from Amazon Marketplace from £2.85 including postage. I bought mine for £2.49 with free postage from ebay, and enjoyed it so much I bought the counting book from this series as well.