Take a trip to the attic - and learn the alphabet, too

Children are collectors of small things. The Ark in the Attic (David R. Godine, $18.95), a new alphabet book, takes that observation and illustrates it in a most charming way.

Through detailed color photographs and narrative poem text, photographer Starr Ockenga and painter/writer Eileen Doolittle take readers on an alphabet adventure.

Each 8-by-10 photograph shows unusual objects and miniatures - all beginning with a particular letter of the alphabet - wonderfully cluttered on a painted background. The objects range from antique toys to flowers, foods, odd trinkets, and unique novelties evoking a feeling of a childhood treasure hunt.

``Children live in a world where everything is so big. Precious little things that they can hold in the palm of their hands carry a special magic,'' said Ms. Ockenga at the opening of the book's exhibition at the Children's Museum in Boston. So many children have a little purse or box full of small objects, she observed.

In the delightful text, a young girl invites readers to join her in preparing for a trip on an ark she finds in her attic. Using the alphabet as a guide, children help the girl find objects that start with the same letter to fill the ark. Here's the text for the ``B'' page: Before the tide begins to rise, and beasts and bugs all disappear; let's gather up a bird, a child and other creatures tame and wild, and keep them safely in the ark 'til leaden skies begin to clear.

And later, on the page illustrating the letter ``I'': I'll take some ink and send a note to an infant newly born. Not to choose an insect, I think, is most unkind; but icicles and ice skates - well, those I'll leave behind.

``The Ark in the Attic'' is meant for curious children of all ages. In the photographer's note, Ockenga says that the pictures are an open-ended puzzlement game, to be played on many different levels.

``We invite the smallest child to point to the fairy or flamingo and to give it a name, Felicity or Freddie. We hope the discovery of intriguing objects will spark adventure of imagination,'' she writes.

Continuing, she suggests that older children could invent stories with alliteration such as Felicity the freckled flower fairy ... falls from a flamingo.

Since not all the objects are easily identifiable, the back of the book contains a key; thus ``The Ark in the Attic'' serves as an educational and creative springboard. The Amelia Earhart doll on the ``E'' page might provoke a discussion, as might the Venus cone shell on the ``V'' page.

Ockenga, whose photography is part of permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Biblioth`eque Nationale in Paris, supplemented her personal collection of objects with many artifacts from the Children's Museum. Both Ockenga and Doolittle sought out other sources, including private collections, the Wenham (Mass.) Museum, and a dollmaker, to complete the frames of arranged objects.

``We began our arrangements in an attic, that symbolic storehouse of relics with which we cannot part,'' writes Ockenga. ``We adhere to a common belief that some objects are imbued with the life of long-past events.''

After agreeing that the alphabet would be the perfect method of organization, the two women set up 26 trays and began sorting their collectibles according to letter. During their arranging, Ockenga and Doolittle engaged in alliterative conversation.

``... Alice airs the attic in the afternoon; kings with kites know their knots; or a diva named Desdemona desperately diets on doughnuts in the desert. We became hooked on our own game,'' says Ockenga.

In many ways, ``The Ark in the Attic'' captures a child's style of collecting with utmost realism. Children don't always collect things that are lovely and set them out for display on coffee tables or shelves. Sometimes they collect things that grown-ups would consider junk or even garbage. Yet these collectibles catch their curiosity, and children often gather them together in bunches and hide them.

The exhibition ``The Ark in the Attic'' will tour nationally next year.

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