Bonus letter Z!

As a Z-person, I went on alphabetic alert when, in a New York Times Magazine interview (in print 9/17), Roz Chast mentioned a 2007 picture book by her and Steve Martin, The Alphabet from A to Y With Bonus Letter Z! (That’s Roz Chast the American cartoonist, and Steve Martin, the “American comedian, actor, writer, producer, and musician” (as his Wikipedia entry puts it):

(#1) Chast’s cover for the book

Now: some very blurby words about the book. And then the two Z pages from it, Martin’s text on the right page, with ornaments by Chast; and Chast’s drawing on the left (illustrating the text, but throwing in many more words with Z in them). There are at least 28 words with Z in them mentioned on these two pages, plus one such word — zebra — that is, cleverly, evoked by drawings but not actually printed.

An ordinary alphabet book would end with Z is for Zebra; gigantically, that’s the standard choice for an exemplary Z-initial word*. This one ends with 5 drawings of zebras but not the word; you don’t need the word in print, because you get it as an automatic associate to the name or image of the letter.

[*note: very small sprinklings of the non-standard choices in these books: zeppelin, zipper, zodiac, zombie, zoo, zookeeper, AmE zucchini, a few others. Plus several stunningly non-standard choices like Zamboni (in A Hockey Alphabet) and ziti (in Food by Letter).]

That is, Chast and Martin chose — surely unknowingly — to exploit a massive mental association between the letter Z and the word zebra to evoke the letter entirely via drawings of zebras. That’s clever, and subtle.

The blurb for the book (from the Amazon site).

The acclaimed entertainer and bestselling author Steve Martin and the wildly clever New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast team up in a weird, wonderful excursion through the alphabet.

The ABCs have never had it so good. Created by two of today’s wittiest, most imaginative minds, The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z! is a sheer delight from A to Z. In twenty-six alliterative couplets, Steve Martin conjures up much more than mere apples and zebras. Instead we meet Horace the hare, whose hairdo hides hunchbacks, and Ollie the owl, who owed Owen an oboe. Roz Chast contributes the perfect visual settings for Martin’s zany two-liners. Her instantly recognizable drawings are packed with humorous touches both broad and subtle.

Each rereading — and there will be many — delivers new delights and discoveries.

There, hidden behind Bad Baby Bubbleducks, is a framed picture of a beatnik holding balloons; and the letter C finds clunky Clarissa all clingy and clueless adrift in a landscape cluttered with images ranging from a curiously comfortable clown to Chuck’s Chili stand. A smart, laugh-inducing introduction to the alphabet for young children, The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z! will also enchant adults with its matchless mix of the sophisticated and the silly.

The Chast & Martin words with Z in them. On the two Z pages.

(#2) The right-hand page: Martin’s couplet gives us zany, Zeno, zoomed, end zone, zucchini, and zero; Chast’s drawings add ZaZu (an “ear spelling” of the ZaSu of the name ZaSu Pitts, conventionally pronounced /zázù/), sez (a conventional ear spelling of says), lazy, and crazy, plus a drawing of a zombie, the word zombie being actually mentioned in her big drawing on the facing page

(#3) The left-hand page: Chast’s Z-panorama gives us ZaZu Pitts, zoo, Zak’s, zippers, [the snoring sound] zzz…, Zanzibar, zappers, zounds!, zero, zilch. zinger, Zebediah, zit(s), Zelda, zigzagged, and zombie, plus visual allusions to Zeno (the philosopher seen running down the field in a tunic and a football helmet, wearing cleats), the end zone, and a zucchini

The ear-spelling ZaZu is especially nice, because, like Zanzibar and zigzag, it’s a double-Z word. (Chast & Martin didn’t choose any –zzle words — dazzle, fizzle, sizzle, pizzle, nozzle, muzzle, puzzle, guzzle, etc. — that I can see; meanwhile, the American on-line marketplace named Zazzle (with 3 Zs!) launched in 2005, and Chast & Martin were probably unaware of it in 2007.)

A note on ZaSu Pitts. I’d imagine that the actor is a blank for most of my readers. It’s relevant that I was born in 1940, Martin in 1945, and Chast in 1954; we’re all of an age to be familiar with her, even though much of her most famous work came before any of us were born. So a few words about her. From Wikipedia:

(#4) An Al Hirschfeld caricature of Pitts (issued as a US stamp on 4/27/64), emphasizing her celebrated eyes

ZaSu Pitts (January 3, 1894 – June 7, 1963) was an American actress who starred in many silent dramas, including Erich von Stroheim’s epic 1924 silent film Greed, and comedies, transitioning successfully to mostly comedy films with the advent of sound films. She also appeared on numerous radio shows. Her career as an entertainer spanned nearly 50 years


2 Responses to “Bonus letter Z!”

  1. J B Levin Says:

    Very notably I remember Zasu Pitts from the TV show she played in for four full seasons, “The Gale Storm Show”. Later of course were the mostly older movies, but I’ll never forget “Nugie”.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I should have mentioned this, because it’s where I first encountered her. Then, as you say, in the movies. Back in the 80s, one of the Palo Alto movie theatres (now long gone) had an annual week of ZaSu Pitts movies, keeping the flame alive.

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