an alphabet book with a real story - it's funny too!

by Maira Kalman – Penguin Putnam Inc, 2003
ages 2 to 8 years / funny, language

Alphabet books are great for reinforcing alphabetical order and connecting sounds with words. And the art is often brilliant. They’re usually not so great as a story though.

Enter What Pete Ate From A-Z !

This is a classic alphabet book in the sense that it progresses through every letter of the alphabet in order and in the sense that it is full of words to connect with letter sounds, but there’s a very funny story about a naughty but loved dog running through the whole book.

The story and the images are full of family and community with a healthy smattering of angst, conflicted love, and potential for conflict.

Pete impacts everyone around him – not always in ways they appreciate! (But then we’re all like that from time to time, don’t you think?)  

Dog lovers will relate to the ongoing affection that Poppy Wise has for her dog Pete, even in the midst of her exasperation with Pete eating anything and everything.

She becomes a fleshed out character as we are given little insights into her mindset, such as when Pete rips up the list that cousin Rocky keeps of all the times he has been insulted.

Polly says: “Personally, I am happy Pete did it.

This is a terrific book for young children who may be feeling a certain exasperation with all the reading practice they are doing.

It’s worth reading the whole book simply as a story the first few times – it really will stand alone as a narrative. 

Then, because each letter has its own page, it’s great to listen for the sound of the letter on the page. 

And then to look for the letter in the text itself. And to find the things that start with the letter in the pictures on each page.

Also to look for other things starting with the letters that are not mentioned in the text. 

There’s really so much to do with this book.

What Pete Ate is a quintessential Maira Kalman book – it’s cheerful and full of energy but still has a lot of important things to say. I love what she has to say about children’s books:

In a children’s book, the writing is more important than the illustration. If you had not such good writing but better drawings, I’d think the book wasn’t a success. But you could have mediocre drawings with wonderful writing. It’s not so much decorating as trying to find another way to say the same thing, and trying to explore the philosophy and humour visually.” 

Even so, I confess that when I sit down with a new Kalman book, I do pore over the illustrations first. I did with this one too when I bought it several years ago, but once I went back and started reading - well, that’s when I really fell in love. 

A perfect picture book has words that roll off the tongue without compromising the story, and What Pete Ate is like that – it’s easy on the reader.

The words flow beautifully and there are plenty of in-text hints for reading aloud: the text is carefully set out so that it’s easy to know when to pause, which words need a bit of weight and which words should be read with a sigh.

Because this is an alphabet book, it’s expected that there will be words starting with each letter of the alphabet. And one of the things that makes this one especially great is that those words are mingled with other words. So, the ‘Q’ page reads:

Brilliant stuff – there are heaps of ‘Q’ words to look for and listen for, but they are mingled with other words to create a story and to nestle them in real sentences. That’s where we really read and hear words after all.

Also ...if you like to get to know authors and illustrators a bit, like I do, you might enjoy this interview with Maira Kalman:

... plus, here's a collection of another 18 alphabet books that you might like:


... and an art site with gorgeous Maira Kalman prints.

You can buy What Pete Ate from A-Z via these direct links: Amazon - Book Depository - Booktopia

Names in What Pete Ate - Pete, Polly, Mookie, Rocky, Bennie, Buster, Olga, Doreen, Robert