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Alphabeasts

by Wallace Edwards

How would an alligator go about sitting in an easy chair? Toronto artist Wallace Edwards props his alligator’s chin on a well-cushioned footstool, while its tail drapes down over the chairback and its front legs dangle at ease. In this unusual alphabet book, each animal is painted with detailed zoological accuracy, while ingeniously placed in an incongruous domestic setting in an old-fashioned house. A zebra takes a bath, a giraffe balances a tray of glasses on its head, and a mandrill sits by the telephone, “expecting a call.”

Edwards’ first picture book evokes a contemplative mood, inviting us to feel the beautifully rendered textures of skin and fur, and to speculate about the pictured situations as a hippo prepares to play a violin and a yak paints itself into a corner. A tarantula arriving for tea has evidently caused some consternation, as the teapot is overturned beside a shattered cup. And what is going on with the dancing swan, wearing one red ballet slipper and with a black feather in its beak? Apart from the swan, most of the animals are in dreamy moods, and there is a stillness about the pictures that enhances their surrealism and draws the viewer into their mystery.

The brief texts often play with words: the elephant with a toy train is “on the right track,” and the cat “reflects on its self” in a mirror, seeing a tiger. Perhaps Edwards identifies himself with the frog, paintbrush under its arm, taking a flying leap into the unknown. While his magic realism recalls the picture books of Anthony Browne, Edwards is not didactic like Browne, but lets his beautiful, mysterious pictures operate on the imagination as they will.