Currently Reading: Ella Minnow Pea

Ella Minnow PeaNo longer may we speak of the topaz sea which laps our breeze-kissed shores. Nor ever again describe azure-tinted horizons sheered by the violent blazes of our brilliant island sunrises.

Hundreds of words await ostracism from our functional vocabularies: waltz and fizz and squeeze and booze and frozen pizza pie, frizzy and fuzzy and dizzy and duzzy, the visualization of emphyzeema-zapped Tarzans, wheezing and sneezing, holding glazed and anodized bazookas, seized by all the bizarrities of this zany zone we call home. Dazed or zombified citizens who recognize hazardous organizations of zealots in their hazy midst, too late--too late to size down. Immobilized we iz. Minimalized. Paralyzed. Zip. Zap. ZZZZZZZZZ.

Author: Mark Dunn

Synopsis: On the independent island of Nollop, named for the (fictionalized) writer of the sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”, the people discover letters falling from the famed sentence’s display under writer Nevin Nollop’s statue. Believing that the great Nollop has decided those letters should not be used, the island’s council removes them from the inhabitants’ vocabulary, with serious penalties for those who slip up. Brave resident Ella Minnow Pea and friends campaign to free Nollopians to use all the letters of the alphabet, by attempting to write a shorter pangram* than Nollop’s.

[*Pangram, as described in the front of the book: “n. a phrase, sentence or verse composed of all the letters of the alphabet: A quirky novel with pages of zany, jumbled lexicon.”]

Notes: Looking at the front cover, I’d guess this was a kid’s book. But I wonder at what age most children would choose to read it. The first pages are written with such over-the-top formality as to be excessively challenging to get into.

It isn't written that way without reason, however. This novel is told in epistolary form—all in letters exchanged between the characters—and Nollopians take everything to the wildest extreme. From the formal forms of address to the flights of vocabularic fancy, to the Council’s setting up Nevin Nollop as a demanding god, the islanders don’t bother much with practicality or simplicity. It’s humorous, once you get past the buzzing in your head from all the crazy word choices.

What I loved most about this book was the concept itself and the structure. I got fascinated watching the characters attempt to write without first Z, then Q, then J, then more commonly used letters. And as a writer myself, I kept thinking of the various challenges of creating such a book, including running searches on each section for the forbidden letters. It must have been a lot of fun—and perhaps a very large headache at times—to write.

It’s a bit of a headache to read a few of pages near the end, as so much of the alphabet has gone that sound-alikes “hear-twins” are used. Ella’s brief manifesto of determination reads like this: “...I no tat Nollop isn’t trewlee going awae. Tee reason: I am not going awae. I will learn to tawg in noomerals. I will learn sign langwage—anee-ting to stae in Nollop.” It’s impressive, kind of hilarious, and fortunately under a page and a half in length. At that point, of course, there’s no stopping for any reason. The reader must read to the end, to find out what happens.

Almost anything linguistics-related interests me, so of course I delighted in the various attempts to write a shorter pangram. The challenge made for a fun plot twist, too.

The use of the worn-out treatment of religion as totalitarian wore on me a little, but the concept wouldn’t have worked without it, and at least it’s original and obviously cultic. It’s portrayed as something impossibly silly, but then, in a kids’ book, silly has every permission to exist.

Which brings me back to the sort of age-defiance of the story itself. Is it for children, or adults? Considering the things I was reading between eight and twelve, I don’t think I’d have hesitated to pick it up. But as Myla Goldberg comments on the back cover, the book seems written more as “a love letter to alphabetarians and logomaniacs everywhere.”

Recommendation: Read it for brain food and humor, especially if you’re a kid who needs higher-level reading material, or if you’re a word geek.


  1. Interesting! Can you imagine writing a book like this? or editing it?

  2. It's so creative--it probably would have been exciting to write, albeit challenging. But what a nightmare to copyedit! :)


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