“There are so few words that begin with X, to find them would any poor writer perplex”
The alphabet book emerged as an early literacy tool, born from the tradition of children learning to recite the alphabet as a precursor to actual reading. Rather than teaching children how to discern the meaning of words from context, the emphasis of alphabet books is on phonic instruction. By making use of alliteration, personification, rhyming, images, and/or a combination of these tropes, alphabet books reinforce the letter-sound connection for young readers, but some alphabet books are more effective than others at promoting this auditory and visual connection. To be a successful phonic device, the book’s images and words must be easily identifiable and understood by the child. Choosing “poodle” for the letter P, for example, might cause confusion as the child could misidentify the picture as a dog, not understanding the distinction between a dog and a poodle. The reliance on classifications, here, requires the child to have a more specialized knowledge, which makes the alphabet book less accessible to younger readers and, therefore, a less practical instruction tool. Despite this, though, alphabet books frequently depend on classifications and more complicated themes to determine letter-word associations, signifying a shift in the book’s intended purpose and audience.
Catering towards older children and occasionally even adults, some alphabet books have functioned to supplement moral and religious teachings while others have been used to promote political causes, including the expansion of the British Empire and the abolition of enslaved people in America. In these instances, the aesthetics and structure of the alphabet book are less concerned with phonics and more invested in selecting words and images, which convey the author's message.
Overall, the alphabet book genre affords authors and illustrators tremendous flexibility and freedom, which has led to a great variety in the books’ appearances, content, and intent. The goal of this online exhibition is to explore the creative ways in which authors have flexed the freedom afforded to them when dealing with the troublesome letter ‘x.’
"No reasonable little Child expects a Grown-up Man to make a rhyme on X."
Exhibition materials were gathered from the items digitally available through Princeton University Library in August 2022.
Curated by Kate Mitchell, Special Collections Summer Fellow, Firestone Library