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ABC Books or Alphabet Books

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature

Vanessa Joosen

ABC Books or Alphabet Books. 

Also called abcedaria, abcee, abcie, or absey books, ABC books contain, in addition to the alphabet, depending on their historical function, a selection of illustrations, rhymes, a syllabarium, prayers, biblical texts, or stories. Originally alphabet books were developed to teach children spelling and reading, but soon they started to serve more purposes than the mere instruction of the order, sound, and shape of the letters. The genre evolved into an instrument of religious and moral instruction, and nowadays most ABC books mainly serve to amuse children with illustrations, stories, and rhymes when they already know the alphabet.

ABC Book.Click to view larger

ABC Book

. Illustration from Elton's Pictorial A, B, C (New York: T. W. Strong, 1848). Collection of Jack Zipes

Early History of the ABC Book

The rise of the alphabet book has been associated with a separation from the Catholic Church in Protestant countries such as England, Germany, and the Netherlands. This Reformation happened in the 16th century: religious texts were made available in the vernacular instead of only in Latin so that the common people could read the Bible themselves. However, since a large part of the population was still illiterate, alphabet books and other reading materials had to be developed.

Probably the oldest teaching device containing the ABC was the hornbook, which was in common use from the 16th century to the 18th century. On this flat piece of wood (usually oak) with a handle, a printed sheet was attached with the alphabet. The surface was covered with a protective layer of horn, hence the name hornbook. The letters of the alphabet could be printed in uppercase (capitals), lowercase, or both, usually in roman and sometimes also in gothic script. Other elements could be added to the hornbook, such as the figures from zero to nine in roman or Arabic numerals, a separate list of the vowels, the Lord's Prayer, or the Grace. Often the hornbook and later ABC books contained a syllabarium or syllabary, a list of the most frequent combinations between consonants and vowels. The hornbook alphabet is sometimes called the “criss-cross row.” According to Pat Garrett, this name refers to the cross that preceded the letter A, although it may also be linked to an earlier form of the alphabet: a string wire made of letters in the form of a crucifix.

ABC tracts may have served as a reading supplement to the hornbook. They combined the alphabet with religious texts, such as the Paternoster (Our Father) and the Ten Commandments. Thomas Petyt’s The BAC [sic] Bothe in Latyn and in Englysshe (1538) is the oldest alphabet print that has survived. It contains the alphabet, the Lord's Prayer, and other basic religious texts.

In the 16th century, most ABCs did not contain any illustrations, but there are a few exceptions. The first known English use of the picture alphabet is John Hart’s A Methode; or, Comfortable Beginning for All Unlearned (1570), which showed a letter and a noun together with a woodcut of a concrete object. It is not an ABC book in the strict sense, since some letters are lacking and others do not feature in the usual order, but nevertheless it can be seen as a precursor for the illustrated ABC book. The word “comfortable” also precedes many illustrated alphabets that stress in the title that they want to make reading “easy,” such as Reading Made Quite Easy and Diverting (1784) or William Chinnery’s Writing and Drawing Made Easy, Amusing, and Instructive (1750).

Very innovative in the 17th century was Johann Amos Comenius’s Orbis Sensualium Pictus. Orbis Pictus, as it is usually called, was first published in 1658 and was translated into English a year later. In the alphabet that it contains, letters are combined with the names (in English and Latin) and pictures of animals. The letters are not the start of the names of these animals, as is the case in most picture alphabets, but refer instead to the sounds that the animal produces. The letter K, for instance, is combined with a picture of a duck together with its sound: “kha kha.” Multilingual ABCs like Orbis Pictus seem rare in English, but in Germany they did appear occasionally. Elias Hutter’s Alphabetum (1597), for instance, contains four “Hauptsprachen” (main languages): Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and German. These languages were probably chosen for their importance in religion and humanism. A more worldly selection can be found two centuries later, in Das Groβe Alphabet in fünf Sprachen als Deutsch, Böhmisch, Lateinisch, Französisch, und Wellisch (The Great Alphabet in Five Languages as German, Bohemian, Latin, French, and Swiss-French, 1794).

In the middle of the 18th century, Benjamin Collins, a Salisbury printer, started marketing a learning tool called a “battledore,” which remained in common use until the middle of the 19th century. The battledore was a piece of card of approximately thirteen by twenty centimeters that was folded into a small book shape. Most battledores were illustrated with woodcuts and contained the alphabet, sometimes together with a syllabarium or a few rhyming couplets. Sometimes they even contained instructions for teachers or parents, as is the case with Gaffer Goodman's Picture Horn Book No. 1: The Alphabet of Words of Two Letters (no date), which today is held in the Bodleian Library's Opie Collection of Children's Literature. Anne Rowe also notes the importance of the needlework sampler, which was, alongside the battledore and the hornbook, a means to teach children the alphabet and the nine digits. Alphabet cushions and stitch patterns can still be found in shops today.

The ABC also featured in many primers for children. Primers were originally religious booklets that evolved into more general books of instruction. The page or booklet containing the alphabet and other religious texts, such as the Ten Commandments or the Creed, was slipped into a prayer book. An early primer containing four ABCs is The Prymer in Englyshe for Children after the Use of Salisburye (1556). In Germany and the Netherlands, a rooster usually decorated the title page of the primer—hence the names “Hahn” (rooster) in German and “haneboek” (rooster book) in Dutch. The rooster was a Christian symbol that was praised for rising early and therefore linked to discipline and diligence, two qualities that the primer encouraged in its readership. Occurrences of the rooster can sometimes be found in English books as well, for instance on the first page of The Child's Instructor or Picture Alphabet (1825?), where it says:

“Good Girls and good Boys prefer Books to Toys, and with the Cock rise to read and grow wise


As the religious texts gradually disappeared from the primer, the genre evolved to comprise true reading books for children, as becomes clear from the title of George Fox and Ellis Hookes’s A Primmer and Catechism for Children; or, A Plain and Easie Way for Children to Learn to Spell and Read Perfectly in a Little Time (1670). Nevertheless, in Benjamin Harris’s New England Primer, religion was still strongly present. This was a Protestant manifesto from the late 1680s (possibly 1689), published in Boston and based on Harris’s Protestant Tutor for Youth. It started a whole series of primers that were popular in the United States in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The typical alphabet rhyme of the New England Primer, “In Adam's Fall, We sinned all,” has been criticized for its multiple references to the child's sinfulness and death: “Time cuts down all, both Great and Small” and “Xerxes the Great did die, and so must you and I.”

ABC Books in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Many ABC books in the early 18th century still served morally and religiously to instruct young children. This becomes clear in William Ronksley’s The Child's Weeks-Work (1712), where each letter is the beginning of a moral instruction. For A and B it commands: “All do, my Dear, as you see here / Be sure you pray both Night and Day.”

As a result of the Enlightenment, new methods of teaching were developed to replace rote learning, and the content of alphabet books gradually moved away from religious instruction. During the 18th century, the ABC became more and more a part of the child's amusement, not only in book form but also in games and toys. In the mid-18th century, Benjamin Collins sold an alphabet game consisting of paper squares with letters on them. A similar game was included in Mary Cooper’s The Child's New Plaything (1742), where readers could cut out squares with letters themselves. Alphabet dices or carved ivory letters were other toys on the basis of the ABC, as the game of Scrabble still is today.

Educationalists of the 17th and 18th centuries such as Johann Amos Comenius, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau helped to validate play, experience, and curiosity as methods of learning. This evolution had an effect on both the content and the form of the absey books. Toys featured in illustrations linking the alphabet books to the nursery environment. Themes became more profane, characters became more daring, and the books incorporated stories, jokes, and rhymes. In The Renowned History of Gilles Gingerbread (1764), for instance, a baker is aware of his son's difficulties in learning the alphabet and thus feeds him letters made of gingerbread. The Father's Blessing Penn’d for the Instruction of His Children (1712?) uses a different method to make the alphabet attractive: it contains several riddles, the answers to which appear in alphabetical order. Knowing your ABC thus helps to solve the puzzle.

Alphabet rhymes were not an invention of the 18th century. Already in some Latin poems, Pat Garrett notes, the alphabet was used as an ordering device in combination with rhymes. Early English books featuring alphabet rhymes are, for instance, The Battaile of ABC (1587) and Thomas Petyt’s The BAC [sic] Bothe in Latyn and in Englysshe (1538). The most famous alphabet rhyme is probably A, Apple Pie, also known as The Tragical Death of A, Apple Pie. Garrett names John Eachard’s Observations upon the Answer to an Enquiry into the Grounds and Occasions of the Contempt of the Clergy as its first occurrence in 1671, although the rhyme probably circulated in oral form some time before that. It has been published both as a part of another book and as a separate booklet, for instance by John Harris in History of the Apple Pie, Written by Z (1808). The pie can be Baked or Bitten; Cut or Cried over; Dealt, Divided, or Danced with; and usually ends up being Wanted or Warbled. X, Y, and Z are often omitted in this rhyme, since the English vocabulary does not offer many verbs starting with those consonants. Kate Greenaway’s colored version from 1886 is one of the best-known versions of the apple-pie rhyme. She found a clever way to deal with the more difficult final letters of the alphabet: “UVWXYZ all had a large slice and went off to bed.” The publisher Mary Cooper combined “A was an apple pie” with another famous alphabet rhyme, “A was an Archer” in The Child's New Play-Thing (1742). Children could cut out the letters and play an alphabet game with them.

“A was an Archer” first appeared in T.W.’s A Little Book for Little Children (probably first published around 1712). The rhyme is also known as “Tom Thumb's alphabet,” which refers to its first American occurrence in Tom Thumb's Playbook: To Teach Children Their Letters as Soon as They Can Speak (1764). Many variants of “A was an Archer” can be found in other books, using both professions and names of animals: in The Galloping Guide to the ABC (no date), A is an Ass, B a Bear, and C a Cow; in J. Evans’s The Pretty ABC (no date), A is an Admiral, B a Beggar, and C a Cobbler. Since there are not that many animals or professions starting with X and Z, authors and publishers had to be creative: X can refer to a Xerxes, Xenophon, or Xurry; to a Xativa-gull; or to Socrates’ bossy wife, Xantippe. In The Little Book for Little Children, “Z was one Zeno the Great, but he's dead.” The word “one” indicates that Zeno was not well known in the 18th century, and other authors tried to find a better solution, with little success. Z is used for Zimon, Zue, or Zenobia, or is often omitted.

The Alphabet of Goody Two Shoes (1808) is another ABC classic. It was published by John Newbery’s successor, John Harris, and contained beautifully detailed illustrations. The first rhyme, “A was an apple and put in a pie” refers to the famous Tragical Death of A, Apple Pie. In an edition from 1822, with different illustrations, Goody Two Shoes goes to an “ABC college.” The alphabet was given great value in this book, since the complete title reads: The Alphabet of Goody Two Shoes, by Learning Which She Soon Got Rich.

During the 19th century, alphabet books became highly popular. Many were distributed in cheap chapbooks; others were published in more expensive editions with colored illustrations. Several comic alphabets appeared. Edward Lear included a few nonsense alphabets in his Book of Nonsense (1846), and Walter Crane illustrated an Absurd ABC (1874). Often the ABCs organized vocabulary around a certain theme. Animals have been an all-time favorite, but other topics have included names, biblical figures, birds, nations, and historical facts. Walter Crane published several thematic alphabet books, such as The Railroad Alphabet (1865) and The Farmyard Alphabet (1865). Some authors added a longer explanation to teach children new vocabulary. In The Child's Instructor or Picture Alphabet (1825?), for instance, children learn that “a Haymaker is a person who gathers dry cut grass into heaps.” Other ABC books addressed topical themes of the time, such as the Peace Alphabet (1856), which dealt with the end of the Crimean War.

Modern-Day ABC Books

Teachers and educationalists have criticized ABC tracts and traditional alphabet books as a method unfit for learning to read, especially for children with reading difficulties. Indeed the names of the letters sound very different from the way they are pronounced in words. For young readers, it is hard to link, for instance, “cee—oh—em—ee” to the verb “come.” Moreover, ABC books isolate words from meaningful context. Other pedagogical methods and reading schemes have been developed to teach children to read more efficiently, so that the alphabet book has lost most of its function as a teaching device. This does not mean, however, that alphabet books have disappeared from the nursery and the classroom. Rather, most children already know the alphabet when they read an ABC book, which today is mainly meant for pleasure and rarely occurs without pictures.

Many 20th-century authors and illustrators, including Shirley Hughes (1984, 1998), Helen Oxenbury (1971), Dick Bruna (1967, 2001), and Arnold Lobel (1981), have published an ABC book. Quentin Blake's ABC (1989) goes together with twenty-six oddball rhymes: “M is for Mud that we got on our knees—N is for Nose and he's going to sneeze!” One of the most famous ABC books of the 20th century is Brian Wildsmith’s wordless ABC (1963), which won a Kate Greenaway Medal. The link between alphabet books and toys can still be found in many pop-up ABCs or alphabet games, such as Robert Crowther’s The Most Amazing Hide and Seek Alphabet Book (1977).

The alphabet is the ordering device for many informative works for children (such as encyclopedias), and the ABC book is still a popular genre to teach names, terms, and facts. Making use of intervisual reference to introduce children to art history, Lucy Micklethwait’s I Spy: An Alphabet in Art (1992) asks children to find objects (beginning with A, B, C, and so on) in works by Juan Miró, René Magritte, and others. History in general can be a topic of ABCs, too, for instance in Ann Whitford Paul’s Eight Hands Round: A Patchwork Alphabet (1991), which represents American history in a patchwork consisting of twenty-six quilt parts. Multicultural alphabets include Mary Beth Owens’s A Caribou Alphabet (1988) and Margaret W. Musgrove’s Ashanti to Zulu: African Tradition (1976).

Animals are probably still the most popular topic for any ABC book. Many of the animal ABCs remain quite traditional, but sometimes more modern techniques are used. In Analphabêtes (Analphabeasts/Analphabetics, 2002), the French artist Jean-Marc Fiess uses black-and-white photographs taken from an unusual angle, so that it is often hard to see which animal is represented. Many illustrators of animal alphabets, such as Roger Duvoisin (1957), Kathy Jones (1988), and Shoo Rayner (1994), make use of Noah's Ark and the long list of animals that enter or leave.

In some experimental ABC books, illustrators use optical illusion to create a surreal reading experience. Mitsumasa Anno has written two such alphabet books. In Anno's Alphabet (1974), the wooden letters form small pieces of art themselves, and thus their materiality is stressed. At the same time, Anno plays visual tricks on the reader: some of the letters are twisted in a surreal way and could not be constructed as such in reality. Anno's Magical ABC: An Anamorphic Alphabet (1981) comes together with a foldable mirror. The letters and illustrations are drawn misshapen, but in the distorted mirror they look normal again. Twisted letters also occur in Suse MacDonald’s Alphabetics (1986), where every letter visually represents the key word.

Most criticism on the ABC book has either focused on its sociohistorical development or has dealt with the alphabet books from a pedagogical point of view. Language philosophers have discussed the alphabet book as a proof for the constructedness of language and the contingency of letters and words. Even though some artists have tried to establish a link between the word and the reality it represents (for example, the letter A in the form of an apple or S drawn as a snake), the relationship between the concrete object and the abstract word is arbitrary. Karen Coats analyzed ABC books from a psychoanalytic and philosophical angle. On the basis of Jacques Lacan’s distinction between the semiotic and the symbolic, Coats argues that many traditional alphabet books represent a patriarchal view of language and reality, because they reinforce the notion of language as a perfect epistemological tool that is set in advance for the child to study. This problem is addressed by, among others, Dr. Seuss, who stresses the limitedness of the alphabet in On Beyond Zebra (1955): “In the places I go there are things that I see / That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z.” As a result, he starts inventing new letters so that Z is no longer the end of the alphabet.

See also Battledore; Chapbooks; Counting Books; Primers; and biographies of figures mentioned in this article.

Vanessa Joosen


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    Coats, Karen. “P Is for Patriarchy: Re-Imaging the Alphabet.” Children's Literature Association Quarterly 25, no. 2 (Summer 2000): 88–97.Find this resource:

      Garrett, Pat. After Henry. London: Children's Books History Society, 1994.Find this resource:

        Hunt, Peter, ed. Children's Literature: An Illustrated History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

          Rowe, Anne. “Learning the Letters.” In Where Texts and Children Meet, edited by Eve Bearne and Victor Watson, 146–158. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.Find this resource: