I began considering collecting alphabet books in 1989. ZYX: 26 Poetic Portraits, a book published that year by the Society of Typographic Arts in association with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, hooked me on the artistry and imagination of alphabet books. As a librarian schooled in traditional alphabetization, classification and other organizing systems, the perversity in the act of reversing the letters ZYX very much appealed to me.
is still a favorite in my collection. With its large blue clothbound cover, it incorporates many elements of distinguished and fondly remembered alphabet books from my childhood. Each of the book's 26 letters is interpreted by an individual artist using a full-page colored illustration, design, or photograph. The alliterative text, a device commonly used by alphabet authors, was written by Rhodes Patterson. Other similar titles abound. For example, in Maurice Sendak's ABC book, Alligators All Around, he has his alliterative alligators doing dishes and bursting balloons. The traditional English language tongue twister, "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers," is perhaps the best recognized surviving text remnant of the letter "P", and it comes from Peter Piper's Principles of Practical Pronunciation, a book published in London probably as early as 1813.
Bibliophiles will especially appreciate the Mergenthaler Linotype Company's edition of Peter Piper's . . . with each rhyme accompanied by the work of a well-known book designer or illustrator, including Bruce Rogers, Edwin and Robert Grabhorn, and W.A. Dwiggins.
For authors of alphabet books, the most difficult letters to illustrate are X Y and Z. Some treat them as a trio of letters as in Peter Piper's . . . , and others ignore them completely. Hilaire Belloc sums it up succinctly in A Moral Alphabet: "no reasonable little child expects a grown-up man to make a rhyme on X." For me, X Y and Z have become the quick litmus test of artistic creativity and inventiveness.
The word "alphabet" commonly refers to a collection of symbols known as letters and is drawn from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha and beta. The focus of my collection and of this exhibit is primarily on the Roman alphabet. The Alphabetum Romanum is a facsimile from the Vatican Library of a 1460 manuscript and is illustrated with detailed drawings and contains handwritten, precise instructions for the reproduction of the letters as inscriptions on buildings or public monuments.
The discovery of the trade edition of The Alphabet Creation, with drawings by Ben Shahn, introduced the Hebrew alphabet into my collection. The legend documents God's creation of the world through letters and was originally written in Aramaic in the 13th century.
Another reason that alphabet books intrigue me is because authors and artists have at their disposal an endless array of subjects to illustrate their point, including, for example topics as diverse as dinosaurs, farms, and even moral lessons, as in N is for Nicotine, from Alcohol ABC's. Through their innovate designs, many twentieth-century artists have been able to capture drama and other emotions in a single letter of the alphabet. For example, Wanda Gág's ABC Bunny uses dark woodcuts and large red capital letters combined with unusually successful rhyming text to accomplish its mission. Bruno Munari's ABC has become a modern classic with bold colors and unusual designs. His choice of words and art to illustrate the letter "K", knotholes, knife and knot, has been criticized by some educators who object to using words that begin with a silent letter.
Alphabet books for adults often combine the sophisticated use of art and design with unusual language. For example, The ABC's of Booklovers is a miniature book suitable for the small hands of a child, but is in fact a limited edition title for adults. It is illustrated with samples of marbled paper for the letter "P", and the book's colophon, dedication, numbering and signatures all make up the actual text. Additionally, Alan Robinson's An Odd Bestiary combines wonderful wood engravings with text from classics of travel and natural history. Alternatively, Robert Sabuda's modern pop-up book, A Christmas Alphabet, delights with the elegance of surprisingly white designs against colored background pages and few words. And, there are no words at all in Ronald King's double-sided, accordion style Alphabeta Concertina. On the other hand, words are paramount in David Hockney's book made to benefit an AIDS charity. Still Another Alphabet Book, an actual title by Seymour Chwast and Michael Stephen Moskof, might be one's response after having been subjected to so many variations on the early alphabet theme. Conversely, Edward Lear's visual and verbal freshness in dealing with traditional alphabet book themes, as in "A was once an apple-pie . . . Pidy, Widy, Tidy, Pidy, Nice Insidy, Apple-pie!" continues to delight and charm the reader.
The challenge of visually and verbally illustrating the letters of the alphabet has appealed to well-known artists as diverse as Leonard Baskin, Walter Crane, Man Ray, Clare Newberry, Dr. Seuss, and Ludwig Zeller. But in fact, many early alphabet books were published without identifying the artists or authors. They were simply recognized and sold under series titles such as Father Tuck's Play and Pleasure Series ABC, or Dean's Untearable ABC Books. Because they were so heavily used, these sturdy and practical hand-colored alphabet books from another era are almost impossible to find.
I am still in the beginning stages of acquiring and
developing my collection of abc books. There are gaps in the collection and it
contains titles both in pristine and tattered condition. I claim no favorites
yet, except maybe
ZYX, and I continue to search out "still another alphabet book."
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