Emily’s Library, Part 4: Ten Alphabet Books

Continuing my series on building the “perfect” children’s library (for criteria, see first post), here are some great alphabet books.  The first post listed Dr. Seuss’s ABC (1963), Crockett Johnson’s Harold’s ABC (1963), and Bill Martin, John Archambault, & Lois Ehlert’s Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (1989).  Here are ten more alphabet titles I’ve recently sent to my niece (Emily, currently 10 months old).

Sandra Boynton, A Is for Angry (1983): coverSandra Boynton, A Is for Angry (1983)

In a book subtitled an animal and adjective alphabet, Boynton illustrates “B is for BASHFUL” with a small bunny looking up at a bashful bear, who is partly concealed behind the letter “B.”  While a fox flees flying fish overhead, “F is for FRIGHTENED.”  As is ever the case, the remarkable emotional range of Boynton’s animals’ faces interacts perfectly with her words, and makes me laugh.  Accompanying “T is for Tangled” is a turkey tangled in a telephone cord.  The turkey is labeled “turkey,” and the telephone is labeled “turkey trap.”  More Boynton books are listed on the first “Emily’s Library” list.

Michael Cheswick, Alphaboat (2002)

A pun-lover’s picaresque which, yes, is undoubtedly too advanced for my 10-month-old niece. But, in a few years, she may appreciate the humor.  The story begins like this: “One day i chanced to stop for t / and listen to sweet Mellow D, / in her old H beside the sea, / sing of her long-lost Mister E.”  And off go the letters on a journey for hidden treasure, accompanied by abundant wordplay.

Donald Crews, We Read: A to Z (1967)

Perhaps best known for Freight Train (included in the first “Emily’s Library” list), Crews made his debut with this book… which was never intended to be a book at all.  A graphic designer, he made it to freshen his portfolio.  It’s less an alphabet book than it is an alphabetically organized book about space.  On the left page, c is for “corner: where the yellow is.”  On the right page, a field of orange, with a yellow square in the bottom-right corner.  Later, a left page gives us h for “horizontal: from side to side,” accompanied by a right page consisting of eight thick horizontal lines that alternate between a lighter green and darker blue.  This book should be brought back into print.

Donald Crews, We Read: A to Z (1967): Mm

Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, Bembo’s Zoo (2001)

This, too, should be brought back into print.  Using only the Bembo typeface, each letter names an animal, and the letters within that name create the animal.  J is for Jaguar, and iterations of “J,” “a,” “g,” “u,” “a,” and “r” get be rearranged to create the shape of a jaguar.  Ingenious.  Mr. de Vicq de Cumptich has a website devoted to the book.  Check it out.

Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, "Jaguar" from Bembo's Zoo (2001)

Alison Jay, ABC: A Child's First Alphabet Book (board book version, 2005)Alison Jay, ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book (2003)

The board book version (2005, pictured at right) is nearly identical to the picture book.  The only two differences (apart from slightly smaller size, & boards instead of paper) are minor: (1) the cover, and (2) the omission (in the board book) of the final page of text that lists all the other items named by the letter.  For instance, the “M” page tells us “m is for moon,” but it also shows a mountain, moose, and map…  and refers to other pages.  One of the many pleasures of Jay‘s book is following the recurring characters and motifs.  The “M” page also has the nest of eggs that appear on the right-hand page “n for nest,” and again on the “o is for owl” page, which itself has the young woman from the “n is for nest” page holding up what she was drawing — a picture of a panda.  The panda is on “p is for panda,” having a picnic with the man who was reading the map back on “m is for moon.”  And so on.  Anyway, I sent Emily the board-book version because it’s nearly the same as the standard picture book and she’s still more in the “chewing” phase of book appreciation.

Stephen T. Johnson, Alphabet City (1995)

I suspect one reason this book appeals to me is that it recalls my own childhood experience of letters. Having learned my letters at a very young age (thanks to Sesame Street and The Electric Company, on public television), I began seeing letters everywhere. A car’s tire contained an “O.”  Looked at from the right angle, a hardback chair revealed an “L” or an “H.”  In twenty-six paintings, Johnson’s book explores this idea, finding an “E” in a stoplight, “P” at the top of a railing, and a “Z” in a fire escape. In so doing, he encourages readers to seek the alphabet in the landscape.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Delphine Durand, Al Pha’s Bet (2011): coverAmy Krouse Rosenthal and Delphine Durand, Al Pha’s Bet (2011)

With words by Rosenthal and pictures by Durand, the book explains how the alphabet came to be in precisely that order.  See, this was back when things were just being invented — including the twenty-six letters. And there was this guy named Al Pha, and he made a bet with himself: he would find a way to organize this (at that time) pile of disorganized letters.  It’s both a joke on why the letters are in this accepted but seemingly arbitrary sequence, and an almost-plausible explanation of how they came to be in this order.  As is always the case, Durand’s pictures are perfect.  And a bit loopy.  I highly recommend her work — some of which you’ll see in the first post devoted to French books.  (Her work is also available in English translation.)  This is the second book by Rosenthal in Emily’s Library.  The first — Duck! Rabbit! — is on the initial list.

Dr. Seuss, On Beyond Zebra! (1955)

She already had this one, courtesy of Linda (her mother’s) and my childhood.  But I wanted to list it here with the alphabet books because it’s not your standard A-B-C book.  One of Seuss’s bestiary books, this catalogue of imaginary animals invites you to invent your own alphabet.  It’s a lesser-known Seuss work that deserves a larger audience.

Paul Thurlby's Alphabet (2011): coverPaul Thurlby, Paul Thurlby’s Alphabet (2011)

Although new, this alphabet book is in the style of mid-twentieth-century advertising & graphic design. It’s also visually inventive.  As Crockett Johnson’s Harold’s ABC does, Thurlby’s book incorporates the letter into the shape of the object it names.  In “J for Jazz,” the “J” is a saxophone being played by a musician.  The two circular parts of “B” contain balls that have just bounced there — because “B” is for Bounce. “Y” shows a man doing yoga, his body forming a letter “Y.”  “E for Embrace” shows two capital letters “E” locked in an embrace: the “E” on the right is flipped horizontally so that its three prongs (ending, respectively, in a head, hand, and foot) and slide in between the prongs of the right-facing “E.”  Very clever.  On the cover, you’re seeing “A for Awesome.”

William Wondriska, A Long Piece of String (1963)

William Wondriska, A Long Piece of String (1963): cover

Recently republished by Chronicle Books, Wondriska‘s nearly wordless story follows a piece of string around an alligator, a bird, a castle, a dog, an elephant,… all the way to zipper.  But the book does not name each animal until the very end of the book when, on a single page, it lists all twenty-six words.  So, as you read, you get to supply the name yourself.

William Wondriska, Sur Le Fil: Mon premier imagier anglais-français (2011) [A Long Piece of String (1963)]

William Wondriska, Sur Le Fil: Mon premier imagier anglais-français (2011) [A Long Piece of String (1963) in French]

A bilingual edition of A Long Piece of String, this version writes the English and corresponding French word on the string near each item.  Some of the English and French words share an initial letter, but not all do — which, I suspect, may have inspired the decision to include the word with each picture.  Interestingly, the book works just as well with the word accompanying the image.  The bilingual edition uses the same typeface as Wondriska’s original, and places the word so that it rests precisely on the string.

Incidentally, I’m on the look out for good ABC books — and good children’s books generally — that were originally published in French. (Emily is being raised in French and English.)  Part 2 of Emily’s Library lists most of the French books I’ve sent so far.  And, at the end of that post, Clementine B & Deborah Freedman both offer promising suggestions, which I’m in the process of checking out!

When possible, I’ve bought each of these books locally, ordering via Claflin Books & Copies.


Amazon.com is a sweatshop, and (when I can) I prefer to buy from places that are not.

Looking for other great children’s books?  Try these blogs:

Related posts on Nine Kinds of Pie:

That’s it for this installment, but there will be more “Emily’s Library” features in the future.

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A Is for Art: Stephen T. Johnson’s Abstract Alphabet

Stephen T. Johnson, A Is for Art (cover)Part children’s book and part lesson in twentieth-century artistic movements, Stephen T. Johnson’s A is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet is at the avant-garde of alphabet expressionism. Cubism is here, but the work explores the influence of dada and its children—surrealism, pop art, and conceptual art—and other styles such as abstract expressionism and color field painting. The result is a provocative meditation on art and language.

Invoking the mid-twentieth-century French avant-garde lettrist (letter-centered) work of François Dufrêne, Johnson in Arrangement No. 1 tears type from, as he describes in a caption accompanying the work, “an array of abstract bits of advertisements,” arranging them across strips of vivid orange. Stephen T. Johnson, A Is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet.  A.  Arrangement No. 1Amplifying the “A”s, Johnson describes how he has aligned small “apostrophes, ampersands, accents, and an asterisk,” around a dark “angled letter A.” Recalling American artist Man Ray’s Mystery of Isidore Ducasse, which is a blanket-and-twine-wrapped sewing-machine-sized object (it is a sewing machine, but the viewer cannot see it), Johnson’s Wrapped Wishes — devoted to letter “W” — invites the viewer to imagine what she or he sees. Wax, wool, and wire wrapped around unknown objects entice us to “wonder what is within.” In the aptly titled Recycled, a readymade assemblage of red and blue rubber bands spans a resin-filled frame. Encouraging the proliferation of “R”s, Johnson calls it a “rectangular receptacle,” and describes the bands as “rendered rigid by resin.”

In his art, Johnson maximizes the possibilities of each letter. The punnily titled Ice Cream Floats presents, as he writes, “an installation of individually illuminated, isolated, immobilized immersed and inverted identical insoluble imitation ice cream cones.” As that description suggests, these objects are multi-layered alphabet games, with images and captions that resonate in many directions. Stephen T. Johnson, A Is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet.  U. Untitled.The op art (optical art) piece, Untitled (from the Undulation Series, 2006-2007), incorporates an “upside down, underlined upper case U with umlaut,” against an ultramarine blue background that appears to undulate. Jambalaya offers an homage to French-born American artist Arman’s “accumulations,” such as his Poubelle Papier (Wastepaper Basket) , while exploring “J” with, as Johnson’s caption notes, “Jampacked juxtapositions of jagged, jammed, joined and jumbled junk.” Careful examination reveals multiple iterations of “J” tucked into a fold of metal or at the intersection of one aluminum slice and another. As with all of Johnson’s works, the more you look, the more you see.

A is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet takes the letter-hunting game of Johnson’s Caldecott Honor-winning Alphabet City (1995) to another level. That book’s clearly articulated, easy-to-find letters should please those for whom the alphabet is a recent acquaintance or a passing interest. Stephen T. Johnson, A Is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet.  Q.  Quiet Time QuiltBut An Abstract Alphabet is for hard core abecedarians, alphabetic connoisseurs who crave a richer experience. As such, Johnson’s work is among those alphabet books—such as Dr. Seuss’s On Beyond Zebra! (1955) and Michael Chesworth’s Alphaboat (2002)—that probe the paradox of language, a system practical and impractical, a means of communication and a game played for the fun of it.

Oscillating between each side of the paradox, Johnson’s densely allusive works abstract letters from their function and bind them to their function. Packing each alphabetic portrait full of references makes meanings multiply, reminding us how words always have indications elsewhere. Yet, even as it highlights language’s slipperiness, Johnson’s An Abstract Alphabet also forges connections between words and things. Indeed An Abstract Alphabet might also be called Concrete Alphabet: Johnson offers comically literal renderings of each letter, complete with witty, alliterative captions like Quiet Time Quilt’s “Queen size quilt, quartered by quadrants, with quadrilaterals, question marks and quotation marks.” The work has all of these features, along with the attributes of examples of late-1960s American art such as the geometric stripes of Frank Stella’s shaped canvases or the bold typography of Robert Indiana’s sculptural poem LOVE.Stephen T. Johnson, A Is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet.  H.  Hoopla!

Beyond exploring language and artistic approaches, Abstract Alphabet catalogues Johnson’s artistic versatility. As an artist, he is capable of rendering realistically detailed portraits, painting abstract mathematical ideas, and creating minimalist installations. As a realist, he gives  details to the parrot in Pop Quiz, such as the texture of the bird’s red feathers and a sharp curved beak. Exploring mathematical concepts, his Golden Sections depicts the golden ratio, incorporating a Fibonacci Spiral — a mapping of the Fibonacci Sequence, where each number is the sum of its two predecessors (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so on). The hanging hollow hula-hoop forms in Johnson’s Hoopla! recall the pliant minimalist works of German-born American sculptor Eva Hesse (another “H” word!). Through painting, collage, sculpture, and readymades, Johnson’s Abstract Alphabet is playful, questioning, and profound.

Note: this originally appeared in Alphabet Soup: Work by Stephen Johnson, Jim Munce, Tony Fitzpatrick (exhibition at Beach Museum, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, 4 April – 3 Aug. 2008); an earlier version accompanied An Abstract Alphabet: New Works by Stephen Johnson (exhibition at Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, 19 May – 5 Aug. 2007).

Stephen T. Johnson, A Is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet.  P.  Pop Quiz

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Cockney Alphabet

Today’s post is a version of the inaugural entry on my MySpace  blog.  I’m re-posting it for three reasons.  First, who reads MySpace blogs, anyway?  Chances are, you’ve never seen it.  Second, it is the sole interesting post from that abandoned experiment.  Third, I’ve been obsessed with the alphabet since I was a child… and this is alphabet-themed.

When I was a boy, I learned “The Cockney Alphabet” from my parents. I also learned the standard alphabet, of course.  But, “The Cockney Alphabet” — which my parents learned when they lived in London, c. 1965-1968 — is funnier.  To get the humor, you’ll need to read each of these with a Cockney accent.  Otherwise, much will be lost. Ready? Put on your best Cockney accent, and read the following out loud:

A for horses
B for mutton
C for yourself
D for dumb
E for brick
F for vescence
G for police
H for retirement
I for Novello
J for oranges
K for ancis
L for leather
M for sis
N for a penny
O for the garden wall
P for relief
Q for rations
R for mo’
S for you
T for two
U for me
V for l’France
W for a bob
X for breakfast
Y for heaven’s sake
Z for breezes

Some of those are going to be a bit obscure, even if you get the accent right! Here are a few notes on some of the possibly more confusing ones:

I: Ivor Novello was a popular Welsh singer and actor.
J: Jaffa oranges were a brand of oranges.
K: Kay Francis was an American actress.
Z: zephyr breezes are a type of mild breeze.

There are other versions of this alphabet floating around. Under the title “Twentieth-Century Alphabet,” I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book (ed. Iona & Peter Opie, illus. Maurice Sendak, 1992) prints a slightly different version. Here are a few differences:

I for tower
K for teria
N for dig
P for comfort
Q for a bus
U for mism
W for tune
Y for husband

For the entire thing — augmented by Sendak’s illustrations — see I Saw Esau, pp. 100-105.

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