In 1986 Mike Wilks produced one of my favorite books of all time, The Ultimate Alphabet. It was a beautiful book filled with twenty-six jam-packed illustrations. There was even a competition that went with it. The person who found the most words won a cash prize of, if memory serves, £10,000 (around $16,000). The closing date for the competition was August 1988, which to me, at the age of thirteen, might as well have been in the next century.
Well, here we are, almost thirty years later, in that next century. I never did win the money. I’ve barely found even a quarter of the things hidden in the book, but then there’s over 300 things on the “A” page alone. I was never a serious contender for the prize, but it didn’t matter a jot. I have lost hours in those paintings. I learned countless new words, and above all, chiming with its creator’s intentions, The Ultimate Alphabet changed the way I look at things.
As a teenager I loved puzzle books. Kit William’s Masquerade, his other one–the one without a title, and Jackson and Livingstone’s Tasks of Tantalon, I owned them all, and a good few other more obscure titles. In reality I loved the idea of puzzle books. I owned lots but I never came close to solving any of them. I didn’t know where to start. I just liked looking at the pictures. To be honest it’s a trend I haven’t shaken.
The beauty of The Ultimate Alphabet is that you can open it to any page and start. All you need to do is look at the pictures and you instantly start solving the puzzle. Better yet, it’s a marvelous collaborative effort; anybody who looks at the book can help you find something or notice an undiscovered detail. Even preschoolers can join in because just about every page has something easily recognizable. To test this I’ve just put the book under my three year old’s nose and been treated to “dog,” “drum,” and “dice.” The book is accessible to the whole family.
The Ultimate Alphabet and its companion The Annotated Ultimate Alphabet (which contains the answers) have sat on my shelves like a kindly aunt who lives overseas; infrequently visited but much loved. I have collected more or less all of Wilks’ backlist, including his excellent Mirrorscape children’s fiction series, a trilogy of books I thoroughly recommend you track down.
Any book by Wilks is worth having in the house, though none hold a place in my heart like The Ultimate Alphabet. When I heard it was to return, being reissued by Pomegranate books, I was thrilled. Pomegranate’s new incarnation is beautiful to behold. It has the two volumes packaged together in a sturdy, attractive slipcase.
If you don’t own either book, then this new package is a worthwhile investment. We may look towards to technology for our entertainment these days, but there is very little that can beat poring over the pages of a book like The Ultimate Alphabet, pulling vaguely remembered words out from the recesses of your brain or solving the author’s quirky puzzles that lead to yet more words; Spoonerism, anyone?
I must confess to being slightly disappointed there isn’t much that’s new here. Apart from a new foreword from Wilks, the books are straight reprints (though some of the text has been swapped around). Wilks states in the new foreword that to update his paintings with new innovations would be an endless task, which is undoubtedly true, and that to do so would diminish his original paintings, a sentiment I am inclined to agree with. As a long-term fan, I would loved to have seen perhaps one new picture with something fresh to feast my eyes on. The lack of new material does mean that this new edition is not an essential purchase if you already own the original books, but it is a nice to have a fresh vibrant copy, especially with its well-made slip case.
The Ultimate Alphabet is a great way to while away some family time. There is much to learn, discuss, and marvel over across 26 fascinating and beautiful paintings. Still as appealing as when they were first issued, the Ultimate Alphabet Complete Edition makes for a great addition to any family library.
Disclosure: I was sent a copy of the Ultimate Alphabet Complete Edition for review.