Abecedaria, Part 1

Tra­di­tion­al­ly, alpha­bet books, or abecedaria, serve as begin­ning lit­er­a­cy instruc­tion for babies and young chil­dren to pro­mote let­ter, sound, and word devel­op­ment. But, greater poten­tial than instruc­tion exists in this form of pic­ture books. The pos­si­bil­i­ties of a sin­gle let­ter chal­lenge authors and illus­tra­tors to show­case their wide range of cre­ativ­i­ty and artis­tic styles. Their efforts have result­ed in ten books with wide appeal win­ning the Calde­cott Award.

There are three types of alpha­bet books accord­ing to Mat­ul­ka (2008):

  1. top­i­cal or based on a theme;
  2. sequen­tial, per­haps telling a story;
  3. pot­pour­ri, in which objects depict­ed by let­ters have no appar­ent connection.

Based on these cat­e­gories, the fol­low­ing arti­cle explores Calde­cott Award ABC books and dis­cuss­es what makes them unique among abecedaria.

An American ABC

The first alpha­bet book to win a Calde­cott Award was Maud and Miska Petersham’s An Amer­i­can ABC. It received a Calde­cott Hon­or in 1942. His­tor­i­cal in theme, it fea­tures high­lights of ear­ly Amer­i­ca through sym­bols, places, and peo­ple. Like many books pub­lished dur­ing and after World War II, it is patri­ot­ic, but not total­ly accu­rate or cul­tur­al­ly sen­si­tive by today’s stan­dards. For exam­ple: “C is for COLUMBUS….who was born before Amer­i­ca was known.” (Known by whom?) Also, “R is for REDSKINS.” Illus­tra­tions of African Amer­i­cans and indige­nous peo­ple are stereotypical.

An American ABC
illus­tra­tion © Maud and Miska Peter­sham, An Amer­i­can ABC, Macmil­lan

Arranged alpha­bet­i­cal­ly, but not chrono­log­i­cal­ly, (L is for LINCOLN comes before M is for MAYFLOWER), each let­ter is dis­played in either red or blue on the ver­so with a sto­ry about the word it rep­re­sents. Full col­or sin­gle-page illus­tra­tions alter­nate with black and white illus­tra­tions high­light­ed in blue and red on the rec­to. The pen­cil and water­col­or art is an exam­ple of pre-sep­a­rat­ed art “for which the areas to be print­ed with dif­fer­ent col­ors of ink are man­u­al­ly sep­a­rat­ed by the artist before being sent to the cam­era per­son to pre­pare for print­ing” (The Ker­lan Col­lec­tion of Children’s Literature).

In addi­tion to An Amer­i­can ABC, the Peter­shams wrote oth­er books that cel­e­brat­ed America’s her­itage includ­ing The Roost­er Crows: A Book of Amer­i­can Ryhmes and Jin­gles which won the Calde­cott Medal in 1946. Their work was con­sid­ered folk or peas­ant style, and they illus­trat­ed their pic­tures simul­ta­ne­ous­ly because Maud was left-hand­ed and Miska was right-hand­ed (Lacy, 1986). Chil­dren have almost inter­change­able doll-like faces through­out their work, and this style became known as “pure Peter­sham” (Rueter, 2002, p. 348).

All Around the Town

A sec­ond the­mat­ic ear­ly alpha­bet book, All Around the Town by Phyl­lis McGin­ley and illus­trat­ed by Helen Stone, won a Calde­cott Hon­or in 1949. The water­col­or illus­tra­tions are anoth­er exam­ple of pre-sep­a­rat­ed art with four-col­or illus­tra­tions alter­nat­ing with black and white illus­tra­tions. Though the scenes are neu­tral or even cheer­ful, they appear dark, some­times somber, due to heavy use of dark tones.

Rhyming poems fol­low each let­ter of the alpha­bet, usu­al­ly incor­po­rat­ing allit­er­a­tion with the ini­tial let­ters of the fea­tured words. Those words refer to peo­ple, places, or expe­ri­ences one might have in a city such as rid­ing a sub­way, encoun­ter­ing a police offi­cer, or observ­ing an exca­va­tion. While it could be any city, Stone has cho­sen New York City with the ice skat­ing scene in front of the Prometheus stat­ue at Rock­er­feller Center.

All Around the Town
illus­tra­tions © Helen Stone, from All Around the Town, J.B. Lippincott

Most of Stone’s art­work is expres­sion­is­tic, but she does include real­ism in some of the illus­tra­tions, such as the stamp in “L is for the Let­ter-box — The place to leave a let­ter.” The lilt­ing poet­ry could per­haps be sung to the tune of “The Side­walks of New York,” a song that includes the lyrics “All around the town.” But, the 3‑cent stamp from 1938, as well as the horse-drawn wag­ons and vin­tage auto­mo­biles, date the book, and it most like­ly would not appeal to mod­ern children.

An Alphabet City

A more recent the­mat­ic alpha­bet book about the city is Stephen T. Johnson’s Alpha­bet City that won a Calde­cott Hon­or in 1996. The pho­to­re­al­is­tic paint­ings, cre­at­ed with “pas­tels, water­col­ors, gouache and char­coal on hot pressed water­col­or paper” (John­son, 1995), focus on the let­ters them­selves with no print­ed words to accom­pa­ny the illus­tra­tions. In fact, the let­ters have no asso­ci­a­tion with the object in which they are found oth­er than the fact that they either look like the let­ter or the let­ter can be found with­in the object. For exam­ple, a stop­light does not begin with the let­ter E, though from the side, the stop­light resem­bles the let­ter E.

Alphabet City
illus­tra­tion © Stephen T. John­son, from Alpha­bet City, Viking Books

John­son describes the para­me­ters for his illus­tra­tions in his author’s note. “All let­ters had to be cap­i­tal let­ters, found in their nat­ur­al posi­tions, out-of-doors or in pub­lic spaces such as the sub­way, read­i­ly acces­si­ble to any­one who looks care­ful­ly at our urban world at var­i­ous times of  day, and dur­ing the cycle of the sea­sons” (John­son, 1995). The paint­ings cap­ture all the sea­sons: the O forms the sup­port rail­ings on a park bench in the snow, and the R is locat­ed in the cracks of a side­walk lit­tered with autumn leaves. The white fram­ing of each paint­ing adds to the pho­to­graph­ic impression.

Alphabet City
illus­tra­tions © Stephen T. John­son, from Alpha­bet City, Viking Books

John­son lives in Brook­lyn, New York, and it is easy to see from his let­ters C and M that the city he paints is New York City because the C depicts the rose win­dow in the Cathe­dral of St. John the Divine (minus the cross stat­ue), and the M is def­i­nite­ly the icon­ic Brook­lyn Bridge with the sus­pen­sion cables and the wav­ing flag.

Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine
Brooklyn Bridge

With no words or let­ters on the pages, read­ers must search the paint­ings to see the let­ters. John­son hopes that his art­work “will inspire chil­dren and adults to look at their sur­round­ings in a fresh and play­ful way.” (John­son, 1995).

The Graphic AlphabetThe fol­low­ing year David Pel­leti­er also required read­ers to exam­ine and intre­pret illus­tra­tions in The Graph­ic Alpha­bet to see how the let­ters rep­re­sent the print­ed words. In some cas­es, this is easy, such as the P for Pipe. In oth­er cas­es, it is less obvi­ous, as in V for Vam­pire in which two let­ter Vs rep­re­sent the vampire’s teeth.

Pel­leti­er won the 1997 Calde­cott Hon­or for his cre­ative vision of the alpha­bet. His graph­ic design back­ground is reflect­ed in the clean, square for­mat of the book and the illus­tra­tions that he cre­ates dig­i­tal­ly. The author’s note indi­cates that “the illus­tra­tion of the let­ter­form had to retain the nat­ur­al shape of the let­ter as well as rep­re­sent the mean­ing of the word” (Pel­leti­er, 1996). In order to do this, some­times the let­ters are cap­i­tal­ized, and some­times they are low­er case. They may be tilt­ed or rotat­ed to meet require­ments. Black back­grounds with­in white frames make the col­or­ful let­ters pop.

The Graphic Alphabet
illus­tra­tions © David Pel­leti­er, from The Graph­ic Alpha­bet, Orchard Books

As John­son does in Alpha­bet City, Pel­leti­er presents the alpha­bet from a unique and play­ful per­spec­tive. Because none of the words are relat­ed, this would be an exam­ple of a pot­pour­ri alpha­bet book.

AlphabaticsIn her first book, Suse Mac­Don­ald won a Calde­cott Hon­or in 1987 for Alpha­bat­ics, anoth­er whim­si­cal pot­pour­ri alpha­bet book. Using bright col­ors against stark white back­grounds, MacDonald’s let­ters on the ver­so twist and turn like acro­bats to evolve into labeled objects or ani­mals on the rec­to. A two-page spread is devot­ed to each let­ter pre­sent­ed in upper­case and low­er­case sans serif type. The clean­ly designed illus­tra­tions are flat, but vibrant with humor and movement.

illus­tra­tion © Suse Mac­Don­ald, from Alpha­bat­ics, Simon & Schuster

Alpha­bat­ics is an idea that came to me while tak­ing topog­ra­phy in art school. In the course, I worked exclu­sive­ly with let­ter forms, shrink­ing and expand­ing them and manip­u­lat­ing their shapes in var­i­ous ways. I was intrigued by the process and felt there were pos­si­bil­i­ties for a book” (Mac­Don­ald, 2022). MacDonald’s uncom­pli­cat­ed let­ter trans­for­ma­tions encour­age her read­ers to stretch their imaginations.

Through the years, Calde­cott Award alpha­bet books have become more inven­tive, as can be seen with the five books in part 1. Five more cre­ative Calde­cott Award ABC books will be dis­cussed in part 2.

Picture Books Cited

John­son, S. T. (1995). Alpha­bet City. Viking.

Mac­Don­ald, S. (1986). Alpha­bat­ics. Simon and Schus­ter Books for Young Readers.

McGin­ley, P. & Stone, H. (1948). All Around the Town. J. B. Lippincott.

Pel­leti­er, D. (1996). The Graph­ic Alpha­bet. Orchard Books.

Peter­sham, M. & M. (1941). An Amer­i­can ABC. The Macmil­lam Company.

Photo Images

Abson­di­tus, S. (May 2, 2009). The Cathe­dral Church of Saint John the Divine, New-York. Wikipedia.

Stef­fen. (June 20, 2021). Brook­lyn Bridge. Lov­ing New York


The Ker­lan Col­lec­tion of Children’s Lit­er­a­ture. (2022, March 8). The mak­ing of pic­ture book illus­tra­tions: What is pre­sep­a­rat­ed art? 

Lacy, L. E. (1986). Art and design in children’s pic­ture books: An analy­sis of Calde­cott Award-win­ning illus­tra­tions. Amer­i­can Library Association.

Mac­Don­ald, S. (2022). Suse Mac­Don­ald. Ama­zon. 

Mat­ul­ka, D. I. (2008). A pic­ture book primer: Under­stand­ing and using pic­ture books. Libraries Unlim­it­ed.

Rueter, S. L. (2002). Peter­sham, Maud; Peter­sham, Miska. In A. Sil­vey, (Ed.), The essen­tial guide to children’s books and their cre­ators (pp. 347 – 348). Houghton Mif­flin Company.

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