This is an ABC book. But, as we all know, ABC books can fulfill any number of functions. Take for example, Edward Leary’s A Nonsense Alphabet, a forte of the subtle art of English Humor. Or the recent A Zeal of Zebras: Alphabet of Collective Nouns put out by Woop Studios. You’d be lying if you said it taught you nothing. Or, the classic of all classics, The Gashlycrumb Tinies (aka After the Outing).
Alphabet books provide a free pass. The concept is structured, but the theme is not, leaving an author with a stepping stool into a genre that reader’s instantly comfortable in (much will not be expected of you other than a basic understanding of the alphabet). But in my opinion, the best of these books have themes that are sustained throughout the work. Though each letter is allowed to speak for itself in an alphabet book, a theme brings them all together into the cooperative effort of a tale. Both Gorey’s and Woop’s are great examples, each letter an addition to the theme (in these cases, collective nouns and children’s deaths). If there is no cohering theme, the book will be less a story and more meanderingly pedantic (though still often enjoyable).
Jim Aylesworth’s story and Stephem Gammels illustrations make Old Black Fly one of the better themed abecedarian books I’ve seen. It’s a straightforward story: Old Black Fly has been having a very busy day being bad; he does all sorts of badness; then, justice comes, he gets swatted, and “he won’t be bad no more.” Written in a song-like, rhythmic kind of way, complete with rhyme and the oft repeated “Shoo fly, shoo fly, shoo”, it begs to be read aloud in that slow way of an old man sitting on a hot porch, listlessly waving his hand at a fly buzzing round his head. The tone makes the SWAT! at the end particularly effective. But then, it’s right back to the slow tone that eclipses the messy undoing of an evil, dirty fly.
While the slow tone slows down the gore, the bright colors do the same for the evil, evil pictures. If you happened to be of my generation, you might be familiar with the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. These were the ones where the poodle gets microwaved, the chihuahua is actually a huge sewer rat, the spiders explode out a lump in the guys head… and the pictures were these leaking black and white pen drawings of the most grotesque nature. Well, that, as it turns out, was Stephen Gammel. These scary stories were meant for kids, and when I look back at those pictures I wonder what parents and publishers were thinking. As if R. L. Stein’s painfully written vilifications weren’t scarring enough.
If those stories were for kids, I guess the leap from teen illustrations to ABC book illustrations shouldn’t seem too big. Looking at Gammel’s style in both, it’s not. The main difference is the use of bright colors, but boy, what a difference. The pictures seem like they’re moving across the page, splashes of color blending everything into a giant ball of motion. It’s a style he uses in all of his books. (I recommend checking out Ride and Mudkin for his work at its height.)
Am I, once again, recommending a book because it’s scintillatingly dark? Because the fly gets squished and the pictures creep me out in a… funny way? Maybe a little bit. There must be something gleeful in the morbid singing of an untimely death, especially when it’s in a giggling child”s voice. Seems like Gammel gets it that way. But the logic of Aylesworth, parents, and publishers must also have its say: that no one likes a spiteful fly, even if he is the hero and namesake of a child’s rhyming ABC book.