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Everyone knows that Z is the last letter of the alphabet. Or is it? What would happen if the alphabet carried on? The narrator makes his case very strongly:
"In the places I go there are things that I see
that I never could spell if it stopped with the Z."'
So off we go on a journey through the rest of the alphabet, beyond Z for Zebra, meeting a host of peculiar creatures whose names start with the new letters, such as the long-necked, hairy Yuzz-a-ma-Tuzz, which starts with the letter YUZZ, and the Wumbus, a hill-dwelling whale, which starts with the letter WUM. In a wacky, rollicking spoof on the traditional 'A is for Apple' style alphabet books, Dr Seuss provides food for thought as he explores the vast linguistic possibilities of our rich and wonderful language.
This Dr Seuss book is aimed at slightly older children who are able to read independently and are familiar with basic linguistic rules. It is not suitable for non-readers or those who are just learning to read, because it would be very confusing, especially if a child hadn't got to grips with the conventional alphabet yet. It has some quite tricky language. However, for those children who are developing an awareness of word patterns, spelling, the different sounds that make up words and the rules and irregularities of the English language, this book has plenty to offer.
You expect Dr Seuss books to be zany but this one is particularly so. There are some quite abstract concepts to get your head around. If a boy called Conrad Cornelius O'Donald O'Dell wasn't weird enough to contemplate, wait until you encounter some of the creatures and find out about their bizarre characteristics. There is the Umbus, a cow-like creature with 98 teats. There is the Glikker, who spends his time juggling fresh cinnamon seeds. You can meet the Thnadners, a big one and a small one, and learn that, for some inexplicable reason, each has the other's shadow. Then there are the Vrooms, who live in a world near the sun, are 'built like brooms' and spend their time sweeping up. As usual, the illustrations are expressive, a great blend of chaos, bewilderment and exuberance.
This book is strange even by Dr Seuss standards. Usually you get a bit more balance between the familiar and the absurd so that children have something to relate to, but this really does have a surreal, off the wall tone to it. I would recommend it to those children who are already fond of Dr Seuss and accustomed to his style, but certainly not for those who prefer to read about things that are logical and predictable. If you 'get' this book, you will find it wonderfully quirky. If you don't, it will seem as if you are reading total nonsense and have you tearing your hair out.
I appreciate that Dr Seuss is not for everyone and, believe me, this is Dr Seuss at his most peculiar. But for those who find something liberating in apparent nonsense verse, this book will be most enjoyable and inspiring.
Being somewhat alternative in her approach to life even from a young age, my daughter always loved this book. I am sure some readers would ask the question, "Why on earth would anyone want to add new letters to the alphabet?" A child who is more tuned into Dr Seuss's thinking would retort, "Why not?" The message of the book seems to be that often, when you do something that is apparently crazy and for the hell of it, you discover something amazing. Who says the alphabet has to stop at Z? As with many Dr Seuss books, young readers are being encouraged to push the boundaries and look beyond what is considered normal. They are urged to open their minds, to search and be adaptable to new ideas, to take their creativity beyond the limits. That can only be a good thing, in my view.
Made-up creatures and made-up words are nothing new in Dr Seuss books, but in On Beyond Zebra he goes one further and introduces made-up letters. Not only does Dr Seuss give us the name of each new letter, but he provides a symbol for each new letter too. It won't take long to realise that for the rhyme to work, the Z must be given its U.S. pronunciation (Zee) rather than the English pronunciation (Zed.) Whilst this is not ideal, most British children will have already come across the Zed/Zee situation through their exposure to shows like Sesame Street.
All the new letters in the book are made up of combinations of the first 26 letters of the alphabet. So ironically, although the narrator spends the book trying to convince us that the old alphabet isn't enough, Dr Seuss is really showing us just what you can do with the existing 26 letters of the alphabet, and how you can combine different letters to produce new sounds. It's an amusing way of teaching children about the way words are constructed. For example, we meet some creatures with quite complicated made-up names, such as the Floob-Boober-Bab-Boober-Bubs and the Humpf-Humpf-a-Dumpfr. Although these names are very long words, a young reader can sound them out, syllable by syllable. If children can break big words down into their individual parts, they seem less intimidating.
There is method in the book's apparent madness. Dr Seuss uses crazy tongue twisters, which not only provide a fun challenge to the reader but also help children to become aware of subtle changes in word structure, how by swapping just one letter you can make a totally different word and a different sound. So we find out all about creatures called Nutches who live in small caves called Nitches, and the problems that are caused by having 'more Nutches than Nitches.'
The book shows children how sometimes rhyming words have the same structure as in 'number'
and 'cucumber'. It also provides examples of how words can rhyme but have differences in spelling, such as 'squeak' and 'weak.'
Although it may have the feel of a nonsense book, it is raising children's awareness of the quirks of the English language and encourages them to see that as fun and challenging rather than frustrating.
I think this book can inspire children to have some fun of their own with Dr Seuss's new letters and see what words they can make from them. My daughter would invent silly words like YEKK-FLOOB-FUDDLE-WUM or QUAN-HI-YUZZ-HUMPF and she would enjoy writing these words out using the symbols provided and designing creatures of her own to bear these weird and wonderful names. I think this book would particularly appeal to young children who are fascinated by writing things in secret code. Perhaps children could make up some new letters of their own and decide what symbol to give them.
I would recommend this book but it is really one for the ardent Dr Seuss fan. For some readers it might just cross the boundary from eccentric into downright loopy, but others will adore it for its creativity.