Let me start by saying that I'm not sure I like this book. No, I like it. But my daughter doesn't. And she's the target age. Dangerous Alphabet is one of those hybrid books which are written for children, but which have a much older, more sardonic sense of humour in mind. Gaiman, a master of macabre, specialises in this. So while my five year old made me stop reading because she was "already getting nightmares and she hadn't even gone to bed yet", my ten year old absolutely loved it and kept trying to read it to his younger sister, despite her attempts to get him to stop and take that "horrible book away."
If you buy it for a child that is of picture book age, you may well have a similar scenario. This is, as the title suggests, an alphabet book. But forget about sweet glittery things. A may be for "always", but the youngsters that enter this sewer of horrors soon discover that "E's for the evil that lures and entices", and "F is for Fear and its many devices". There are muffled screams, pies cooked with human looking bones, chained up children, piracy, skulls, vile deeds, and lots of monsters. In short, as is his wont, Gaiman has tapped into the psyche to produce a terrifying trip through an amusement park horror show.
It's also extremely funny, in a black, gruesome way. Older children will love it. There is a little mix-up on the alphabet which children will feel good pointing out, and even a kind of happy ending as the boat comes through the tunnel to the letter Z, though I struggled to convince my daughter of that. The watercolour and ink illustrations are superb - incredibly detailed, with nightmarishly surreal imagery on every page. You might not want your child to look too closely though, as every element, from the chains on the author, the organs in jars, or the maggoty meat on a plate, comes straight from the deepest, most terrified parts of the human psyche. The humour (such as finding two well dressed lovebirds in a boat next to a monster--crossed tunnel-lines perhaps) requires an older perspective to appreciate.
So, while I enjoyed this book for its originality, its anti-cuteness, the amazing detail and intensity of its horror, and the depth and cleverness of its naughty humour, I'm not sure I'd recommend that you buy it for your five year old daughter or niece. Squeamish parents probably won't appreciate it. But ten year old boys will, definitely.
-- Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening