The best picture books that play with words

Julie Paschkis Author Of The Wordy Book
By Julie Paschkis

The Books I Picked & Why

Ounce Dice Trice

By Alastair Reid, Ben Shahn

Book cover of Ounce Dice Trice

Why this book?

This book is an ode to the pleasures of words - their sound, look, and meaning. It consists of lists of words such as "words to read backward" including drows, mulp and gubdeb. Or "heavy words" such as duffle, blunderbuss, and galoshes. "Words for times of day" include dusk, owl cry, dewfall, and gloaming.

It is perfectly illustrated by Ben Shahn with black and white line drawings. The scratchy, uneven, expressive lines perfectly capture both the humor and gravity of the words. I have loved these books since I was a child and The Wordy Book sprang out of that love.

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Alpha Beta Chowder

By William Steig, Jeanne Steig

Book cover of Alpha Beta Chowder

Why this book?

Jeanne Steig wrote a giddy delightful poem for each letter of the alphabet. The poems are replete with weird and wonderful words. The goofy illustrations by William Steig tickle your eyes. One of my favorite poems is "Mishmash". Notice all of the many M words in Mishmash: mallet, misguided, minimize, mix, milk. Could Myron majestically mash potatoes? Mmmm, no.

Making mashed potatoes, Myron?
Must you mix them with the hammer?
This bizarre, misguided method
Causes quite a katzenjammer.

Might you add the milk and butter
In a more majestic manner?
Might a mallet not be better?
That would minimize the clamor.

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By William Steig

Book cover of CDB!

Why this book?

Another book by Steig! Yes! This book was written and illustrated by Wm. Steig. It does not contain CDB oils. It doesn’t actually contain words either. It only contains letters. When you read the letters out loud you hear words. Some of the sentences would be confusing, but Steig’s illustrations help you to figure out the meaning.

For example, C D B means See the Bee.
He talks about emotions: I N-V U
He describes situations: D N S 5 X. That one might be confusing if it didn’t have a picture of the hen and the x that she just laid.

This book makes you hear and see words differently, and it is funny. If you find this book X-L-R-8-N then you will be happy to know that there is a sequel - C D C! Dip your toes into the deep blue C of letters and sounds.

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Martha Speaks

By Susan Meddaugh

Book cover of Martha Speaks

Why this book?

This book is well written. It is not a cavalcade of exotic words. It is not filled with clever conundrums. It is a rock-solid story about a dog that starts to speak after eating Alphabet Soup. Who could resist that idea? Also, once the dog starts talking she can’t shut up, and I can relate to that as well.

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Alphamaniacs: Builders of 26 Wonders of the Word

By Paul Fleischman, Melissa Sweet

Book cover of Alphamaniacs: Builders of 26 Wonders of the Word

Why this book?

Alphamaniacs is subtitled: Builders of the 26 Wonders of the Word. Fleischman profiles 26 people who explore and delight in language. The book is a kind of gateway drug for language lovers. After reading this book I had to look for more books. I needed to see Anguish Languish by Howard Chace. Anguish Languish is almost the English Language: the words make up stories that you know, but the individual words have different meanings than you expect. Can you recognize the story of "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut"? Hint: the hut is part of a red cape, and the story includes a big bad woof.

Chace is just one eccentric wordsmith of the many introduced by Fleischman. Sweet’s collaged and painted illustrations play with the ideas in the book and use words as part of the imagery. The art is lovely and smart.

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