For several generations now, readers have grown up with Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie books. Unless you happen to be from the Midwest, however, you probably have only a vague visual picture of our nation's prairies. This unique habitat comes alive in Claudia McGehee's beautiful new picture book, A Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet, which features a series of luminous scratchboard-with-watercolor illustrations. Each page reveals a different feature of the prairie: A is for aromatic aster, a field of bright purple flowers admired by a man and three hiking children. B is for butterfly weed, with red clusters of flowers. C is for coyote, which wanders through the asters. The prairie comes alive in every nook and cranny. Readers get an underwater glimpse of swimming trout-perch (a species that resembles both of its namesake fish). Then we head underground to see the northern prairie skink and the ornate box turtle. McGehee shows night scenes (a jumping mouse exploring by moonlight and a staring short-eared owl, for instance) and all the seasons (such as the little bluestem covered with snowflakes). One realizes that prairies aren't simply vast, open fields; instead, they're brimming with life and beauty.
In notes at the end of the book, McGehee adds details about the plants and creatures on each page, such as the fact that pioneers often called coyotes prairie wolves. And indeed, her coyote casts a wily, wolf-like leer. In a book with only a word or two on each page, these end notes give readers an incisive look at the big picture.
Young children will enjoy this unique alphabet while older children and adults as well will find this an easy, enjoyable environmental lesson (the scientific name of each item is also included in the notes). McGehee's delightful illustrations are guaranteed to stay with you long after the book is closed, and readers' views of the prairie will be forever expanded. Alice Cary writes from Groton, Massachusetts.