“Animalia” – the creation of Graeme Base’s genius – is infinitely more than just an ABC book. It was included in the 1987 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Picture Book of the Year Honour List. First published in 1986, it has sold over 3 million copies worldwide and counting. Graeme Base refers to it as “the book that changed my life. Animalia went gangbusters in Australia and the US, and turned a hobby into a career.” 
Each letter of the alphabet presents a hilarious absurd idea communicated through a complex alliterated sentence, which is then replicated visually in an insanely detailed illustration rich with graphic puns and visual riddles.
“Animalia” will appeal to your intelligence in Literature, History, Arts, and Sciences. It abounds in references, including from Music (can you spot a nod to Jethro Tull’s “Heavy Horses” album cover?) and Politics (like “No Nukes for NZ” newspaper article on “N”) and more.
Fun with “Animalia” is proportional to its reader’s desire to engage with detail and is relative to the depth and breadth of their intellect. It is also a huge testament to the depth and breadth of Graeme Base’s genius.
Each illustration centres around its main characters who are surrounded by a cornucopia of other things, figures and objects, all beginning with the respective alphabet letter.
“Diabolical Dragons Daintily Devouring Delicious Delicacies”
“Ingenious Iguanas Improvising an Intricate Impromptu on Impossibly Impractical Instruments”
“Lazy Lions Lounging in the Local Library”
“Two Tigers Taking the 10.20 Train to Timbuktu”
“Youthful Yaks Yodelling in Yellow Yachts”
While it’s hard to pick a favourite “V” probably does it for me with this 13-word sentence (not counting its prepositions) :
“Victor V. Vulture / The Vaudeville Ventriloquist / Versatile Virtuoso of Vociferous Verbosity / Vexatiously Vocalizing at the Valhalla Variety Venue”
With English being my second language my first encounter with “V” has sent me to the dictionary more than once and I have originally assumed that “Ventriloquist” was a made-up term (like one of the idiosyncratic words invented by Dr. Seuss). “Ventriloquist” is, however, as much an English word as “Vulture”, defined as a person who can make their voice appear to come from somewhere else, typically from a dummy of a person or animal. I had to consult the Russian dictionary next as had not the slightest idea what a Ventriloquist is called in my mother tongue. It happens to be Чревовещатель :))
Some things and corresponding words could be quite easy to unpack (gearing for youngest readers), while some identifications require a richer vocabulary and a few references are riddles that have taken me quite a while to crack and I am sure I’m not through it all still. Have a look at the “D” page below:
A toddler would point to 3 Dogs in the picture, while an older child can identify them as the “Duchshund Dog” (in the bottom right corner), “Dalmatian Dog” (at the top of the window on the left) and possibly even a “Dingo Dog” (see image below). Has taken me a while to ID the last dog as “Dingo”. It is shown in a photo frame against the backdrop of what is indisputably the Australian Red Centre known as Uluru Rock (Aboriginal name) or Ayres Rock (European settler’s name). I realised early on that very little (if anything) in Animalia is an accidental inclusion and was wracking my brain as to why does Uluru show up on “D”, not on “A”, “U” or “R”. Eventually it dawned that it is pointing to the dog in the photo being a dingo native of the Australian Northern Territory, which is home to Uluru.
Have a look now at the left-hand side scene behind the window. It’s easy to spot a Double-Decker on the road, a Dirigible in the sky, two Domes on the towers and what looks like Destruction from some kind of explosion at the base of the tower. There is a letter D atop of a Doric capitol column emerging from behind the smoke. For years I have been seeing this Princess dressed in red, leaning out of the tower wondering why was she not on “P”. One day it has just randomly occurred to me that this Princess in her cone-shaped medieval hat is clearly a reference to archetypal medieval Damsel in Distress waiting to be saved by a knight.
The section of the illustration zoomed into above is no more than a square inch in the actual book and I am still discovering all the D-things it’s packed with. Eg. why are there two Dinosaurs and a Camel next to them? The camel with one hump is called a Dromedary – that’s why. The more you look the more of “D’s” you see.
The stuff that really blows my mind though comes from this other square inch of the “D” page:
A Dessert bowl, white Doily, Dumbbell, Dripping syrup – all easy stuff. A crab with the letter “D” imposed over it? More complicated but if you Google search “crab family” you’d learn that science calls them Decapod crustaceans. “6th June 1944”? I had to Google it again, but erudite historians out there will surely know it as D-Day: the day in WWII when the Allied troops have landed along the coastline of Normandy in France to fight Nazi Germany in what is now referred to as the D-Day battle.
Above the “6th June 1944” are “OI, OU, SH OA”. These are (right up my alley) Digraphs or combinations of 2 letters making one sound and Diphthongs or combinations of 2 letters with the first vowel sound gliding into a second.
The very bottom left: “1977-1987”, i.e. 10 years, which is a Decade, from “deka” in Greek referring to “ten”. This offers a clue to what the fragment of the 10 Commandments from the Bible is doing here on the “D” page (see on the far right “Thou shalt have no…” etc). From the Greek “deka” again for “ten” and “logos” for “word”, the 10 Commandments are also known as Decalogue.
A lengthy post and just 2 square inches of “D” page have been decoded, likely partially still :)) I’ll let you do the rest of A to Z’s yourself.
The last quirk I’d mention is the image of the boy in a stripy shirt and blue jeans that are hidden throughout the book (see verse below). My son and I found him hiding in each letter’s page (“Where’s Wally?” type of quest) except on “B”, “J” and “V”. If any of you know where the little guy is hidden in these three pages please share. If you help us complete this search I shall gift you our copy of “Animalia” or any other alphabet book I will be reviewing this month (will mail it to anywhere in the world at my expense). Though reading the below verse yet again have noted that it doesn’t refer to every page, could the boy be intentionally missing from “B’, “J” and “V”? Just doing our heads in, my son’s and mine…:)
Browse more of “Animalia’s” finely detailed illustrations of the fantastic beasts of Graeme Base below.
For other Alphabet book review click on this link.