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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 5, 2004

Pacific alphabet series a spellbinding collection

By James Rumford

Alphabet books — the "A is for 'apple,' B is for 'ball' " kind — are the oldest form of picture books for children. They probably had their day in ancient Iraq as cuneiforms on clay tablets, or in Egypt as hieroglyphics on papyrus. Today's alphabet books come in every conceivable form (plain picture books, tactile books, pop-up books) and on every conceivable subject (dinosaurs, flowers and pigs).

Alphabet books are highly collectable. Yearly, publishers call on the best artists in the nation to come up with exquisitely designed books that are sure to attract as many collectors as possible.

This year, some truly wonderful alphabet books have come from Hawai'i's own Bess Press, distributors of a series of alphabet books written by Dr. Lori Phillips, published by Pacific Resources for Education and Learning, and funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

These slim, colorful volumes — nine in all — make a beautiful rainbow across my bookshelf. Each one treats a different language of the Pacific: English, Hawaiian, Marshallese, Kosraean, Samoan, Carolinian, Chamorro, Pohnpeian, Chuukese and Palauan.

These ABC books were not illustrated by the most famous artists of our day but by the children of — and get this bureaucratic mouthful — the U.S.-affiliated Pacific. With bright oil-pastels, these children have drawn pictures of butterflies and volcanoes, coconuts and mangos — all to illustrate the words of their languages and the things that matter in their world. (I must confess that my favorite is the angry, red-eyed bat with black, outstretched wings, hovering just above the ground.)

It should be pointed out that these books were never published with the collector in mind. These books will be pressed into service as textbooks, as a means of promoting literacy throughout the Pacific. They are the first step in what Phillips sees as an integrated reading and writing program, one that combines picture-making and storytelling to improve language skills.

There is something else about these books I have found fascinating, something left unsaid but hidden in the very words Phillips and her many counterparts throughout the Pacific have chosen to use.

The vocabulary of each book reflects the shared ancestry of the people of these islands. Search through the N words and you will most likely find a word related to "niu," the Hawaiian word for coconut. There's "niu" from Samoa, "niyok" from Guam, "nœœ" from the Caroline Islands and "ni" from the Marshalls.

Evident, too, are the 500 years of Pacific-island contact with the outside world. There are many Spanish words, such as "flores" ("flower" in Chamorro), which reflect the nearly 400 years of Spanish presence in the Pacific. There are Japanese words, such as "denki" ("light bulb" in Carolinian), that attest to the 25 years of Japanese rule from 1919-1944. And there are sound-alike English words: " 'elepani" (Hawaiian), "ais krihm" (Pohnpeian) and "zippa" (Carolinian). All of these show the influence of American culture in the region, which began in 1821, when New England missionaries came to Hawai'i.

These American missionaries were the first to make alphabet books for Hawaiians. In 1822, they published a spelling book, or pi'apa. This was followed in later years by more elaborate editions. Eventually, these alphabet books became models for books that the American and Hawaiian missionaries created when they expanded their circle of influence in the mid-19th century to include Samoa and many of the islands of Micronesia.

Hawai'i always has played an active role in the promotion of literacy in the Pacific, whether it be by the good graces of the missionaries or the good offices of the state and federal governments.

And so, my hat is off to Pacific Resources for Education and Learning and Lori Phillips, as well as Bess Press, for continuing this long tradition.

James Rumford of Manoa is an author and illustrator of children's books. He and Jolie Jean Cotton alternate in reviewing children's books for this page on the first Sunday of each month.