The Numberlys, by William Joyce and Christina Ellis; Atheneum Books, $17.99, 56 pages, ages 3-7.
This latest offering from Emmy Award-winner William Joyce presents a metropolis inhabited by orderly number craftspeople, where everything is gray, predictable and there is no alphabet. The roads, towns and food have no names, only numbers. One day, five curious friends wonder if there might be more to life than just counting, and they surreptitiously begin experimenting with new projects, eventually fashioning an alphabet. The story is a little thin, serving as a setup for some outsize art. As the alphabet forms, the book slowly shifts from black and white to sepia tones, and eventually to full technicolor.
Debut picture-book illustrator Christina Ellis’ Art Deco city of the future is full of tall skyscrapers and large cranks recalling Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, minus the dystopia and anxiety. These large, symmetrical shapes require most of the book be read vertically. While unique, perhaps the book might have been better served (and more dramatic) by an accordion layout or by publishing the book in folio format.
Children will no doubt enjoy cheering on the sprightly folks who bring literacy to their community. Tech-savvy parents are invited to investigate an augmented reality app where the book ‘comes to life’ and children can manipulate machines similar to those in the book, creating letters of their own. Joyce’s previous book The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore employed a similar digital tie-in to great success. The Numberlys is slick and glossy, yet the physical book feels like a prop for the more whiz-bang online elements. Still, parents could certainly find less educational apps to feed their children, and this is one of the better hybrids currently available. Brave new world, indeed.