Alphabet book spells out what's great about our state

Blue crab, a natural choice, beats out the Bay for the Maryland title

Family Matters

October 10, 2004|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

And you thought the A-B-Cs were simple. So, at first, did the author and illustrator of B is for Blue Crab (Sleeping Bear Press, $17.95), the new Maryland alphabet book for children. But when it came to representing the state in letters, the process evoked surprising passions.

"Everywhere we went ... when I would say I'm working on an alphabet book for Maryland, they would say, `What's `A'?" said Laura Stutzman, the book's illustrator. "It got to be hysterical how people could not resist guessing what the letters were."

Or offering their opinions on what the letters should be.

Take that "B" from the title, for instance. It was originally supposed to stand for the state flower, black-eyed Susans.

"I love flowers," said author Shirley C. Menendez of North Potomac. "But we were trying to think of a title for the book that would relate to the state, and not too many people know black-eyed Susans are the state flower for Maryland."

Meanwhile, Stutzman was having a series of lunch meetings with people she knew and trusted in her Garrett County community of Mountain Lake Park, soliciting their advice about what should go in the book.

Rob Michael, a local insurance agent and longtime friend, practically insisted on the cover crab.

When he travels around the country, Michael says, people who hear he's from Maryland invariably want to talk about crabs.

"It gives them the opportunity to name the crab," he said of the book's young audience. "It's something that they can easily see, and it's almost a trademark for the state in some ways."

Matching letters, topics

So what, you ask, is "A" for? Why, Annapolis, of course - the capital city, and the only city in the state that gets a letter. "Z" was another easy one - for the newly re-christened Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

But the letters in between were another matter. "Blue crab" ended up with `B' in part because `C' was already taken. " `C' had to be for the Chesapeake Bay," Menendez said.

But what, then, to do with the Civil War battles that took place in Maryland? If "A" was taken, where would Antietam go? Menendez settled for "H" for "historic battles," where she could also discuss the battle of Monocacy, known as the "Battle That Saved Washington."

Annapolis also nudged out the National Aquarium from top billing. (It's prominently featured under "I," for Inner Harbor.)

"M" came to be Muddy Creek Falls, the state's highest free-falling waterfall, near Oakland - instead of the song "Maryland, My Maryland" - largely because Stutzman wanted to draw snow and a well-known Western Maryland landmark.

There were other judgment calls. "F," originally for flag, became Fort Frederick State Park - another way to work Western Maryland into the book. "L" is for lighthouse, not lacrosse. "P" is for Preakness, not Edgar Allan Poe.

For some letters, coming up with anything was tough. What important Maryland place or person would start with "U"? Menendez was stumped until her husband, a football fan, came up with Johnny Unitas. "X" was a thorny one, too, until the creators agreed it would provide a good way to recognize Johns Hopkins Hospital, where lots of children go for X-rays.

Authentic Maryland

Once Stutzman and Menendez had settled on the letters, they had to research their choices.

The book is designed to appeal to children 4 to 10. For younger readers, there are pictures and poetry ("A special bird brings us to O -/The Oriole's colors are bright./ With a black hood and breast of orange/he is a beautiful sight.")

On the same pages, older children get several paragraphs of history about each institution, person or place.

Menendez, who recently retired as director of housing services at Georgetown University, composed many of the poems while sitting in traffic on the way to work. A former librarian, she called upon the research she and her husband Albert Menendez had gathered to write a 1992 book called Maryland Trivia (Rutledge Hill Press, $7.99).

Stutzman ventured further. Her illustrations depend on photographs and models to capture realism, so in many cases she wanted to take her own pictures.

Even that wasn't as easy as it sounds. Because she and Menendez wanted to work a Chesapeake Bay retriever into the book, the illustrator poked around the Eastern Shore until she found one dockside. For the Unitas picture, she asked the local high-school quarterback to strike the Colts legend's classic throwing pose.

Along the way, Stutzman found herself reminded of the old adage that Maryland is America in miniature. "I tried for as much authenticity as I could," she said.

Part of a series

B Is for Blue Crab is one of the last books to be published in Sleeping Bear Press's Discover America State by State Alphabet Series, which began with a Michigan alphabet in 1999.

When Menendez heard that the Maryland book had not yet been commissioned, she contacted to the publishers and asked to write it.

"It was such a fun thing to do, and so different," the author said.

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