Abecedaria, Part 2

Not all alpha­bet books are for the pur­pose of ear­ly lit­er­a­cy, nor do they meet the cri­te­ria for tra­di­tion­al alpha­bet books such as con­tain­ing upper and low­er case let­ters, clean type­faces, and clear­ly iden­ti­fi­able objects. Some alpha­bet books tell a sequen­tial sto­ry. Oth­ers are a pot­pour­ri of objects with no con­nec­tion. Still oth­ers are the­mat­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed, as are the fol­low­ing two sets of Calde­cott Hon­or ABC books.

Jambo Means HelloThe first theme is African cul­ture. In 1975, Jam­bo Means Hel­lo: Swahili Alpha­bet Book won the Calde­cott Hon­or. Writ­ten by Muriel Feel­ings and illus­trat­ed by her hus­band Tom Feel­ings, they chose the Swahili alpha­bet because this lan­guage is “spo­ken across more of Africa than any oth­er lan­guage.” It is the offi­cial lan­guage of the African Union, and its offi­cial name is Kiswahili. How­ev­er, for simplicity’s sake, Feel­ings refers to the lan­guage as Swahili (Feel­ings, 1974, Intro­duc­tion). It is spo­ken by over 200 mil­lion peo­ple and is one of the world’s ten most spo­ken lan­guages. Though this book is almost fifty years old, the impor­tance of the lan­guage was recent­ly rec­og­nized by the Unit­ed Nations when they declared July 7, 2022, as World Kiswahili Day (UNESCO, 2022).

The Kiswahili lan­guage does not con­tain the let­ters Q or X, so the remain­ing 24 let­ters of the alpha­bet fea­ture words about peo­ple, cus­toms, and activ­i­ties of Cen­tral and East African coun­tries on dou­ble page spreads. Each word, its pro­nun­ci­a­tion, and mean­ing, is fol­lowed by a one or two sen­tence explanation.

Jambo Means Hello
illus­tra­tion from Jam­bo Means Hel­lo: Swahili Alpha­bet Book, illus­tra­tion © Tom Feel­ings. Writ­ten by Muriel Feel­ings. Pub­lished by Dial Books, 1974.

The illus­tra­tions extend the mean­ing of the words and pro­vide con­text. Feel­ings uses black ink, white tem­pera, and lin­seed oil on tex­tured board. A detailed descrip­tion of his process is pro­vid­ed in “A Note about the Art” in the back of the book. In repro­duc­ing the art, it is pho­tographed twice using a method called dou­ble-dot. The first pho­to­graph includes all the art and is print­ed in black ink. The sec­ond pho­to­graph includes only part of the art and is print­ed in the col­or ochre, a sort of brown­ish-tan clay col­or. “The sec­ond col­or is not obvi­ous in the final book, but has the effect of enrich­ing the repro­duc­tion and main­tain­ing the strength, sub­tle­ty, and warmth of the orig­i­nal art” (Feel­ings, 1974, A Note about the Art). The only oth­er col­ors in the book are brown in the African map show­ing the coun­tries where Kiswahili is spo­ken and green let­ters of the fea­tured alpha­bet word.

Both Feel­ings have lived and trav­eled exten­sive­ly in Africa, lend­ing authen­tic­i­ty to the illus­tra­tions. It is their hope that this book, and their 1970 Calde­cott Hon­or book Mojo Means One: Swahili Count­ing Book, would encour­age chil­dren of African descent to learn more about their ances­try. As Muriel Feel­ings states in her intro­duc­tion, “With new words come new ideas and an under­stand­ing of the peo­ple and envi­ron­ment which cre­at­ed the lan­guage” (Feel­ings, 1974, Introduction).

Ashanti to Zulu

Anoth­er book about African cul­ture won a Calde­cott Hon­or in 1977, just two years after the Feel­ings’ book. With Ashan­ti to Zulu: African Tra­di­tions, Mar­garet Mus­grove presents 26 dif­fer­ent African groups and their tra­di­tions and cus­toms. Leo and Diane Dil­lon cre­at­ed the art for this book in pas­tels, water­col­ors, and acrylics. “In order to show as much as pos­si­ble about each dif­fer­ent peo­ple, in most paint­ings they have includ­ed a man, a woman, a child, their liv­ing quar­ters, an arti­fact, and a local ani­mal, though in some cas­es these dif­fer­ent ele­ments would not ordi­nar­i­ly be seen togeth­er” (Mus­grove, 1976).

Mus­grove lived and stud­ied in Ghana and did exten­sive research to cre­ate cor­rect por­tray­als of the vari­ety of peo­ple found in Africa. The Dil­lons did fur­ther research to ren­der accu­rate illus­tra­tions. A map on the last page of the book shows where all the var­i­ous peo­ple live on the African continent.

Ashanti to Zulu
Ashan­ti to Zulu

Each alpha­bet let­ter presents a dif­fer­ent eth­nic group on a sep­a­rate page: A for Ashan­ti, B for Baule, and C for Chag­ga. The pages fol­low the same for­mal pat­tern with the illus­tra­tions placed above white text blocks. Text and paint­ings are framed by par­al­lel black and gold lines sep­a­rat­ed by white space. The black and gold lines are con­nect­ed at the cor­ners with Kano Knots which sym­bol­ize “end­less search­ing — a design orig­i­nal­ly used in the then-flour­ish­ing city of Kano in north­ern Nige­ria dur­ing the six­teenth and sev­en­teenth cen­turies” (Mus­grove, 1976). The fram­ing makes each illus­tra­tion dis­crete and sep­a­rates the unique peo­ple and their cus­toms rather than lump­ing togeth­er all Africans.

As hus­band and wife, the Dil­lons illus­trate togeth­er, hand­ing work back and forth, so it is not done by one or the oth­er but by what they call the “Third Artist.” Their work is some­times described as “dec­o­ra­tive real­ism” (Haber, 2020), but Leo Dil­lon said, “We gave away our sep­a­rate styles [with the Third Artist], and in doing so real­ized that we opened our­selves to every style that ever exist­ed on the face of the earth. We try to fit our style to the sto­ry that goes with it” (Teach­ing­Books, 2005).

The above books are the­mat­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed with each depict­ing dis­tinct African peo­ple and their cul­tures. Con­tin­u­ing with a the­mat­ic con­nec­tion, the fol­low­ing set of books focus­es on ani­mals, fan­tas­ti­cal or real.

Ape in a Cape

Ape in a Cape: An Alpha­bet of Odd Ani­mals won a Calde­cott Hon­or in 1953. Fritz Eichen­berg ded­i­cat­ed the book to his son Tim­o­thy and his friends, the fox and the hare that appear with Tim­o­thy on the ded­i­ca­tion page illus­tra­tion and also in the book.

His son, who was five at the time, watched him while he was cre­at­ing the illus­tra­tions. Though known as a mas­ter of wood engrav­ing, the illus­tra­tions are not wood­cuts. The illus­tra­tions are actu­al­ly a mono­type medi­um. Eichen­berg described the process in an inter­view. “The mono­type, as the name indi­cates, it’s a one-shot propo­si­tion. You can paint on a piece of glass with print­ing ink, or with oil paint, or even with gouache and put a piece of paper on top of it, and rub it, rub the back, and you come up with an image. It’s a rather prim­i­tive tech­nique. But it allows you tremen­dous free­dom, and you can work with great speed” (Brown, 1980). Due to the expense of print­ing in full col­or at that time, his edi­tor request­ed that he do col­or sep­a­ra­tions. So he did. “.…there were three col­ors each, three times 24, col­or sep­a­ra­tions, in black on acetate. It’s a kind of lith­o­graph­ic tech­nique, and they look like col­or lith­o­g­ra­phy, actu­al­ly” (Brown, 1980).

With its rhyming scheme and amus­ing pic­tures, Eichen­berg helps devel­op an aware­ness of words. All of the ani­mals, except the uni­corn, are real, but many appear in imag­i­na­tive sit­u­a­tions such as the “Ape in a cape,” the “Carp with a harp,” and the “Toad on the road.”

Ape in a Cape
Ape in a Cape
Ape in a Cape

illus­tra­tion from Ape in a Cape: An Alpha­bet of Odd Ani­mals, illus­tra­tion © Fritz Eichen­berg. Pub­lished by Houghton Mif­flin, 1952.

Hosie's AlphabetPer­haps more imag­i­na­tive than Ape in a Cape is the Baskin family’s Hosie’s Alpha­bet. Though most of the let­ters sig­ni­fy real ani­mals, four do not: The “D is for demon,” “G A ghast­ly gar­ru­lous gar­goyle,” “U The invis­i­ble uni­corn,” and for some rea­son, “X The drag­on of the alpha­bet.” Leonard Baskin illus­trat­ed crea­tures select­ed by his then three-year-old son Hosie, and Hosie’s broth­er Tobias and moth­er Lisa sup­plied the ele­gant adjec­tives, tru­ly a fam­i­ly endeavor.

The strik­ing water­col­or and ink illus­tra­tions cap­tured a 1973 Calde­cott Hon­or. The wrap­around jack­et por­trays a fan­ci­ful­ly col­ored heron in flight while the “H Hosie’s heron” shows a staid, stand­ing blue heron. The eagle and whale fill dou­ble-page spreads, but the rest of the crea­tures appear on the rec­to pages with let­ters and words fac­ing on the ver­so. No con­text is pro­vid­ed in the illus­tra­tions as the back­grounds are either col­ored or white neg­a­tive space. Fonts vary in size, style, cap­i­tal­iza­tion, and place­ment on the page with­out any appar­ent pat­tern or rea­son. Excep­tions include the “F A furi­ous fly” in a very tiny font to describe the lone small fly on the fac­ing page, and the “R The rhi­noc­er­os express” in a huge font. The “T A Scholas­tic Toad” appears in a goth­ic font, but there isn’t any­thing par­tic­u­lar­ly schol­ar­ly about the illus­tra­tion of the toad. A young child might not focus on the typog­ra­phy, but it cer­tain­ly adds interest.

The real­is­tic paint­ings depict com­mon ani­mals and some uncom­mon ani­mals, such as the kiwi and zebu, not ordi­nar­i­ly found in alpha­bet books. Baskin fol­lowed this unique alpha­bet book with the equal­ly delight­ful Hosie’s Aviary (1979), Hosie’s Zoo (1981), and Book of Drag­ons (1985), all assist­ed by Hosie.

illustration from Hosie's Alphabet
illus­tra­tion from Hosie’s Alpha­bet, illus­tra­tion © Leonard Baskin.
Con­tri­bu­tions by Hosea, Tobias, and Lisa Baskin. Pub­lished by Viking Chil­dren’s Books, 1972.

Gone WildThe final book has an ani­mal and envi­ron­men­tal theme. David McLi­mans won a Calde­cott Hon­or in 2007 with his illu­mi­nat­ed let­ters in Gone Wild: An Endan­gered Ani­mal Alpha­bet. The sta­tus of the fea­tured ani­mals range from vul­ner­a­ble to crit­i­cal­ly endan­gered, and some are famil­iar, such as the spot­ted owl, while oth­ers, such as the spot­ted-tail quoll, are less famil­iar. All are par­tial­ly incor­po­rat­ed into the form of the alpha­bet­i­cal let­ter that begins its name, one let­ter for each page.

An ani­mal depict­ed with­in a large black cap­i­tal let­ter dom­i­nates each page. A red upper and low­er case let­ter in anoth­er font is locat­ed beneath the com­mon and sci­en­tif­ic name of the ani­mal in the upper right cor­ner. Below that is a ver­ti­cal box with a red sil­hou­ette of the ani­mal. The box includes the animal’s class, habi­tat, range, threats, and sta­tus. Sit­u­at­ed against white neg­a­tive space, the same red sil­hou­ettes of the ani­mals appear on the end­pa­pers, thir­teen in the front and thir­teen in the back. The back mat­ter con­sists of 26 hor­i­zon­tal box­es with the sil­hou­ettes of the ani­mals in red against black back­grounds. More infor­ma­tion about the ani­mals can be found here, as well as a list of books for fur­ther read­ing and a list of orga­ni­za­tions that help endan­gered animals.

illustration from Gone Wild
illus­tra­tion from Gone Wild: An Endan­gered Ani­mal Alpha­bet, illus­tra­tion © David McLi­mans.
Pub­lished by Blooms­bury USA, 2016.

The copy­right page states, “The illus­tra­tions for this book were cre­at­ed using pen­cil, pen, brush, India ink, bris­tol board and com­put­er.” Using just black and red ink, McLi­mans cre­ates a clean, unclut­tered design for each page. He states in his author note that “The twen­ty-six endan­gered ani­mals fea­tured were select­ed because they pre­sent­ed visu­al opportunities….In a way, this alpha­bet is a return to pic­ture writ­ing. The chal­lenge for me in cre­at­ing these images was find­ing endan­gered ani­mals whose shape and form fit nat­u­ral­ly togeth­er with the let­ters that begin their names” (McLi­mans, 2006). He not only presents endan­gered ani­mals in an inven­tive way, he alerts peo­ple of all ages to the envi­ron­men­tal issues the ani­mals are confronting.

illustration from Gone Wild
let­ters from Gone Wild: An Endan­gered Ani­mal Alpha­bet, illus­tra­tion © David McLi­mans.
Pub­lished by Blooms­bury USA, 2016.

Many of the books dis­cussed in this arti­cle may not be famil­iar because they are dat­ed or out of print. As all of them are Calde­cott Hon­or books, all of the titles are note­wor­thy, but the hon­or books tend to receive less atten­tion than the medal books.

ABC books are plen­ti­ful, and they can be quite sophis­ti­cat­ed, serv­ing as intro­duc­tions to top­ics, jump­ing off points for fur­ther research, or just plain fun. What dif­fer­en­ti­ates them from one anoth­er is their clev­er­ness and/or their art­work. As pic­ture books, abecedaria seem more the work of the illus­tra­tor than the author. With all of its pos­si­bil­i­ties, the alpha­bet has inspired both authors and illus­tra­tors in the past, and con­tin­ues to inspire them today.

Picture Books Cited

Baskin, H., Baskin, T., Baskin, L., & Baskin, L. (1972). Hosie’s alpha­bet. Viking Press.

Eichen­berg, F. (1952). Ape in a cape: An alpha­bet of odd ani­mals. Voy­ager Books (Har­court).

Feel­ings, M. & Feel­ings, T. (1974). Jam­bo means hel­lo: Swahili alpha­bet book. The Dial Press.

McLi­mans, D. (2006). Gone wild: An endan­gered ani­mal alpha­bet. Walk­er & Company.

Mus­grove, M. & Dil­lon, L. & D. (1976). Ashan­ti to Zulu: African tra­di­tions. Dial Books for Young Readers.


ALSC (Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vices to Chil­dren). (2022). Ape in a cape: An alpha­bet of odd ani­mals. Book and Media Award Shelf.

Brown, R. (1980). Oral his­to­ry inter­view with Fritz Eichen­berg, 1979 May 14-Decem­ber 7. Smith­son­ian Archives of Amer­i­can Art. 

Haber, K. (2020, April). Leo and Diane Dil­lon: The third artist rules. Locus Online.

Teach­ing Books. (2005, Sep­tem­ber). Leo and Diane Dil­lon. TeachingBooks.net.

UNESCO. (2022, July). Kiswahili is a lan­guage that speaks to both past and present. African Renew­al.

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