Amazing Abecedariums: Eight Alphabet Books from 1672 to 2010
Learning the alphabet may be "as easy as ABC," but there are many creative ways to teach it. From traditional rhymes to space age adventures, alphabet books are an ever expanding genre of children's literature.
Our Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books has a unique collection of alphabet books dating from the 17th century to the present. Sometimes called abecedarium, these books present the letters in order. With each alphabet book taking a different approach, the variations on this simple theme are endless.
Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1672)
Orbis Sensualium Pictus was one of the first children's picture books published in Europe. First published in what is now Germany, this Latin textbook is titled The Visible World in Pictures in English. Orbis Sensualium Pictus teaches learners Latin words for nature, commerce, human biology and more. The book's alphabet section teaches letter sounds through animal noises. Those animal noises might sound strange to modern readers, with phases like "Lamb blaiteth" and "Grasshopper chirpeth."
Osborne Collection's copy of Orbis Sensualium Pictus is an English edition from 1672. Orbis Sensualium Pictus' English translator admitted that the book's German phrases did not always easily translate to English. This explains the confusing phrase "[t]he Crow cryeth" representing A.
The History of Apple Pie (1808)
In the 19th century, the popularity of illustrated alphabet books expanded rapidly. Printing technology advanced making illustrated books easier and cheaper to produce. The market for children’s books also grew. Middle-class parents were eager to supply their children with books. The History of the Apple Pie (see digitized book or record for print copy) was an early example of this new demand for alphabet books.
The book teaches the alphabet through a relatable narrative about craving apple pie. (At the time, the word "history" was also used to mean "story".) A hungry set of siblings approach the apple pie and continue to bite, cry and dance their way through the alphabet. The book's text comes from an old alphabet rhyme, which was first written down in 1671.
An Illustrated Comic Alphabet (1859)
An Illustrated Comic Alphabet (1859) by Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon (1826–1874) is the earliest known Canadian picture book. Originally from England, Howard-Gibbon lived in Sarnia, Ontario when she created the book. Howard-Gibbon's alphabet illustrations were never published during her lifetime. She gifted the original pen-and-ink illustrations to her friend Martha Poussette in 1865. In the 1960s, Howard-Gibbon's illustrations were donated to the Osborne Collection. In 1966, Osborne Collection published a reproduction edition of her An Illustrated Comic Alphabet art.
Howard-Gibbon's book uses the "A was an Archer" alphabet rhyme. The "A was an Archer" rhyme first appeared in print in the early 18th century. The popular rhyme was used for centuries with many illustrators putting their unique spin on the poem. Howard-Gibbon's characters all have child-like faces and proportions, which contrasts with the adult-themed rhymes such as "D was a Drunkard, with a red face" and "G was a Gamester, and he had ill luck."
Space Alphabet (1964)
While other alphabet books use traditional rhymes and common words, Space Alphabet (1964) takes readers to another planet. Space Alphabet was published at the height of the space race. Writer Irene Zacks introduces readers to new technology, with sentences like "R is for rockets ready to GO!" and "S is for the satellites that probe outer space." Space Alphabet is optimistic about space travel's future. The letter W stands for "the wonders you may someday see in space," and Y stands for "you in your new space suit."
Alphabet Book (1968)
Kids create their own ABCs in Alphabet Book (1968). This book features illustrations by elementary school students from Kettle Point First Nation. Working with their teacher Anne Wyse, 36 students between the ages of five and eight contributed to Alphabet Book. The book reflects the students' diverse interests. Illustrations range from turtles and ice cream to Lesser Yellowlegs (a type of bird) and Zorro.
The Eclectic Abecedarium (1983)
Measuring just 3.5 cm long, The Eclectic Abecedarium (1983) is Osborne Collection's smallest alphabet book. The book was created by the irreverent and eccentric Edward Gorey, a 20th-century illustrator dubbed "the granddaddy of Goth." The Eclectic Abecedarium is a parody of 19th-century moral education poetry. Gorey's alphabet couplets give off-beat advice, which loosely feature letters of the alphabet.
ABC3D (2008) introduces readers to an alphabet in motion. French illustrator and graphic designer Marion Bataille created this alphabet pop-up book. Letters appear and transform as readers turn ABC3D's pages, C becomes D and a mirrored V becomes W. Beyond the ABCs, designer Bataille has also created counting books 10 (2011) and Numero (2013).
Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer: L'alfabet di Michif / Owls See Clearly at Night: A Michif Alphabet (2010)
Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer: L'alfabet di Michif (2010) by Julie Flett is a dual-language alphabet book featuring text in Michif and English. Michif is the language of the Métis people. Cree, French and other Indigenous languages combined to create a unified Michif language. Michif is an endangered language. Flett's alphabet book is part of efforts to celebrate and preserve Michif.
Like English, Michif uses the Latin alphabet, but with some differences. There are no Q or X sounds in Michif, so Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer features a 24 letter alphabet. The alphabet book celebrates Métis culture and Michif language. It features words important to Metis culture, like G for "La Galet" (bannock in English) and V for "Li Vyaloñ" (fiddle in English).
- Illustrated Children's Books by John Barr (only available in person at the Osborne Collection or Toronto Reference Library)
- The Norton Anthology of Children's Literature: The Traditions in English edited by Jack Zipes, Lissa Paul, Lynne Vallone, Peter Hunt and Gillian Avery
- Play with Language and the Nonsense of Alphabet Books lecture by Robin Hoffman
- Michif Dictionary from the Gabriel Dumont Institute of Native Studies and Applied Research
- Orbis sensualium pictus from The British Library
- Hand-Held Alphabets, a "Grammatico-Allegorical Ballad" and Other Early Educational Books for Children blog by TPL