"B is for Balloon:
The Billows Balloon was a sight to be seen
It could carry a speaker, a clock or a screen
Steam powered thrusters and hot air for lift
Would keep it in place instead of adrift." from the book
“A” is still for apple in Iwata’s first children’s book (which began life on Kickstarter), but his is “an apple-shaped music box made to revere/ the Capital’s founding of two hundred years.” A wood-and-brass apple appears opposite, complete with a keyhole and gears, and 25 alphabetical eccentricities follow, from a steam-powered candle with an light bulb to an mechanical fish outfitted with “surveillance devices.” Sidebars in a handwritten font share additional details about the history and workings of Iwata’s imagined mechanisms, which will pique imaginations young and old, along with his lovingly detailed images. Ages 26. (June) - Publishers Weekly
Having just finished China Mieville’s Railsea, I was in a steampunk kinda mood when I entered the Horn Book office on Friday morning and, as I passed the “Out of the Box” box, saw Nathanael Iwata’s The Steampunk Alphabet (Cameron + Company, June 2013) right at the top of the pile. Perfect.
This book is exactly as it sounds: it is a children’s steampunk alphabet. Beginning with “A” and moving through to “Z,” each letter of the alphabet is equipped with a bold, and colorful illustration of an artifact and an explanation of its use. The alphabet begins quite classically “A for apple” but the illustration makes it clear that this is no ordinary apple: it appears to be wooden and is covered with dials and gears, has a keyhole, and is emitting a cloud of smoke. The description informs us that the apple is “an apple-shaped music box made to revere/ The Capital’s founding of two hundred years” and that the item is “rare, as most of them were lost in the colony wars.”
The Steampunk Alphabet continues in this vein, depicting one unique steam-powered item after the next (a magnetic nest, an armored umbrella, a mechanical fish), all presumably from a past the reader must decipher from the textual clues. While the linear story that these items relate back to remains a mystery, the imaginative building of that tale can be fantastically fun.
Though Iwata has succumbed to the use of verse to make it clear that his work is for children, The Steampunk Alphabet is an enjoyable read. In my opinion, this alphabet book is really for the parent who wants a twist on the “A is for apple” setup. The adult reader can create her own imaginative steampunk past while reading aloud perfectly kid-comprehensible “F is for fish, G is for goggles, H is for helmet” sentences.
Overall, an odd, but very cool book.
- The Horn Book
Letter by letter, Iwata builds a steampunk world for a story that does not exist and formats it for an audience that can't possibly comprehend it. This alphabet board book presents gizmos galore, each handsomely presented with puffs of steam and ornate clockwork decorations. Through the artifacts described, adult readers can begin to understand the civilization that spawned them. A is for Apple (an apple-shaped music box, that is); J is for Jar (a self-opening one); Y is for Yarn (actually, a device that unravels knitwear and re-spools the constituent yarns). Each contrivance is depicted in loving detail, colors applied with an airbrushed (or digital) polish. A short gloss explains its origin and/or use, and it is celebrated in limping verse, as for Helmet: "With steam-powered engines in every household / A good fuel source was more precious than gold / Miners dug deep in the earth and discovered / They stood more of a chance if they kept their heads covered." Except for the roughly 6-inch-square trim, board pages and large capital letters (presented against a too-busy background of interlocking gears), there is nothing in this book for the traditional board-book audience. The handsome production values and sincere enthusiasm can't be denied, but it's hard to imagine the right audience for this book. (Board book. 13 & up)