- The Post-Modern Alphabet:Extending the Limits of the Contemporary Alphabet Book, from Seuss to Gorey
The alphabet book, a genre which has been important to children's literature from the beginning, is a narrowly defined form which is, nevertheless, flexible enough to have engendered imaginative and almost numberless examples. A recent catalogue from a rare book dealer offered 240 different volumes for sale, including traditional, humorous, and foreign versions (Caravan). Didactic almost by definition, the alphabet book has evolved in our time into a statement of the lack of faith in didacticism.
From its overtly didactic beginning, the alphabet book has always reflected the time and culture from which it springs. Thus the New England Primer, the influential school text of the late seventeenth century, shows its obvious Puritan origin:
A In Adam's Fall We Sinned all. B (Bible) Thy Life to Mend This Book Attend.(Norton 43)
In our own time, specifically since the explosion of picture books in America, dating from the 1950s, we have been flooded with many conventional alphabet books as well as a great number of anti-alphabet books, those which exploit the expectations of the genre and reflect the expanding of children's literature into other forms, formats, and markets. These anti-alphabet books also reflect the anti-didactic mood of our time.
Any number of straightforward contemporary alphabets, however, reflect the state of the American picture book. For instance, Mary Azarian's A Farmer's Alphabet (1981), with its masterful woodcuts, and Margaret Musgrove's Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions (1977), with striking colored paintings, display the evolution of the picture book into a piece of fine art. Some critics, Jacqueline Rose among them, see this as the reduction of the children's book into an object of value to attract the adult buyer, having lost sight of its original audience. Daniel Menaker, in a review of recent alphabet books, writes, "the appearance of such books will appeal to adults in the same kind of way that pet food packaging is designed to appeal to humans" (39). In addition, both of these large format books reflect social concerns of the time as well as of the artists who produced them. Azarian, a student of print-maker and book designer Leonard Baskin, uses a so-called old-fashioned technique (woodcut) to extol the virtues of rural New England life. Musgrove's alphabet, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, shows twenty-six African tribes portrayed with dignity and pride; her book won the Caldecott Medal for 1977.
There also exist those alphabets which follow the traditional format, but which offer the ironic and cynical message that this model of dutiful learning ignores the reality of unruly children. One of these is Maurice Sendak's Alligators All Around, part of the 1962 boxed collection of four small books, The Nutshell Library. Like his popular Where the Wild Things Are, which appeared a year later, each of these books offers one of Sendak's rebellious, independent protagonists. Although Alligators All Around shows a child, mother, and father alligator in 26 alliterative scenes, they all act like children, not only "making macaroni" and "doing dishes," but also "getting giggles," "imitating Indians," and "forever fooling." They get along as a family but the reader sees the rascality of these characters who are "quite quarrelsome," "shockingly spoiled," and "very vain." On the "P" page Sendak introduces the only human character, Sal from The Sign on Rosie's Door, who is the victim of "pushing people." The book is funny, brightly colored, and written with an ear for the spoken word.
Remy Charlip and Jerry Joyner's 1975 Thirteen is a remarkable series of thirteen double-page water-color paintings in which a number of stories evolve, changing from page to page like a flip-movie in slow motion. Some of these picture-stories are optical illusions, some are mirror images, and one a preview in miniature of the next pages' double-spread. But all exploit the visual quality of their images, the flatness and the perception of pictures. The format of this book is hidden but it was obviously determined by one of its...