Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review: CDB! and CDC? by William Steig

One of my favorite books when I was a child was CDB! by William Steig. It was full of black and white drawings, each captioned by a series of letters which, when read aloud, would sound like a phrase or sentence: for example, "CDB!" translates into "See the bee!" Some were pretty straightforward, but some were trickier; the simple, narrative illustrations helped you to decode the captions.

I remember finding the book on a bottom shelf of my neighborhood library. I seem to recall feeling vaguely uneasy about checking it out, as if the book was for "littler kids" than I was (even though I was still very young, myself). After all, I was already reading full sentences, and here was a book that only used letters, not even real words! But I was still fascinated with it, and I've remembered it ever since.

Several months ago, I was amazed to discover that Steig also created a sequel, CDC? I hadn't known about it, but that is probably because it wasn't published until 1984, when I was a high school senior. I requested both books from the library, curious to see what they would be like now, four decades after I first read CDB!

My first shock came with the appearance of the pages. Steig added watercolor to CDB! in 2000, and to CDC? in 2003. So the stark, diagrammatic pictures in my memory here were a bit softer and more gentle. And some of the deciphering was probably just as challenging now as it was when I was a child. I didn't recall there being complex "words," but here they were, especially with names, such as "L-X-&-R." And letters can sometimes sound like different words: S can be either "is" or "yes," depending on context.

Both books are very similar, although CDC?, apart form being about 20 pages longer than its predecessor, contains more grown-up characters, situations, and vocabulary. In one instance, a middle-aged man with a pipe sits and looks at another man, bearded and wild-eyed, who holds bits of a broken chair in his hands. The caption? "M I B-N 2 V-M-N?"

Each book contains, on its final page, an "answer key." I only really needed it once, for an instance in CDC?: what in the world could "D-P" stand for? Turns out it means "dippy." (The slangier the coinages, the more difficult they become to decipher.)

I had a lot of fun re-encountering a childhood friend and meeting its sibling after all this time. They weren't "beneath" me at all. S X-L-R-8-10!

by William Steig
Aladdin, 2003
ISBN-10: 0689857063
ISBN-13: 978-0689857065
48 pages, $7.99

by William Steig
Square Fish, 2008
ISBN-10: 0312380127
ISBN-13: 978-0312380120
64 pages, $8.99