Punctuation Ends Confusion!

Babble!: And How Punctuation Saved It – words by Caroline Adderson, pictures by Roman Muradov
Tundra Books, 2022

Babble! Is one of the most inventive illustrated children’s books that I’ve seen in a long time.  Begin with the somewhat improbable concept of making the meaning of punctuation both exciting and accessible to young readers. Then, add a fable-like tone that immediately brings to mind James Thurber at his best. Finally, add pictures that combine the wry essence of mid-century language textbooks with European traditions of comics and animation, and you have a quietly powerful lesson that respects the intelligence of children, and allows adults to join them.Is punctuation an appropriate topic for kids? Yes, it is! While there is a young readers’ edition of Eats, Shoots, & Leaves, that useful volume simply does not serve the same purpose as Babble! Caroline Adderson (I’ve reviewed her other work here and here) and Roman Muradov have created a universe of symbols and turned them over to the quirky residents of a village.

These people have problems! Conflict is the norm and chaos reigns. Then, one day, a small child who “wore clothes that were older than she was” as well as a cloth bag around her neck filled with some mysterious and magical items arrives.  She brings the gift of punctuation, converting senseless babble into the art of communication.  Periods are tiny dots which you can carefully lift and examine.  Question marks are existential symbols: “Is this bear chasing me? Should I look back?”  Quotation marksgrant each speaker autonomy and demand responsibility: “They knew they were speaking when they spoke and that they were thinking when they thought.”

The book’s design by John Martz (himself the brilliant illustrator of Crocodile Hungry and How to Give Your Cat a Bath in Five Easy Steps) combines carefully spaced text in black font with pink punctuation marks, along with pink and black illustrations offset by plenty of white space.  Reading the book is both relaxing and challenging. How is the reader expected to pronounce each symbol she encounters? Not all sentences demand that the reader articulate the name of the symbol: “Grab it!” a father calls to a girl flailing in the water. The baseball bat appearance of the exclamation point lands dramatically on several pages.  In other sequences, such as the gift of a period to stop speech in its tracks, the reader admires the tiny dot without a name: “The stranger let the mother hold the  .  on the tip of her finger.  The mother brought it very close to her eyes.” (image that tiny dot in red, as it is in the text.). How could something so small change everything?  Naturally, the superpower of a nano particle is a fact which children will trust and appreciate.

And who better than kids to understand the role of the exclamation point, shouting “Look at me!” in a well-deserved bid for attention. This gift deserves a party, and it gets one. A feast, a fountain, and kinetic activities celebrate the new reality, where residents can now speak, listen, shout, whisper, and both ask and answer questions.  Humor surfaces on every page, as when the humble comma gets to transform their town by assuring that “Soon we will eat Grandpa” becomes an invitation, not an act of barbarism.  Adderson and Muradov ensure that readers leave the book with a healthy respect for words and the tools they need to do their job. Babble!’s subtle mix of practical knowledge and poetic fancy will send readers back to the book many times, waiting for the girl to patiently make meaning out of chatter.

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