Teaching Difference in a 19th-Century German Alphabet Book

This week I examined two copies of a Fibelbuch, or primer, published by Freidrich Geissler in Leipzig to make sure that they were correctly described.   The texts were identical, consisting of an alphabet, list of vowels, a syllabary, the Ten Commandments, Pater Noster, Creed, proverbs, and multiplication table all in a Gothic type.

They had different sets of illustrations, however. One has depictions of  skilled tradesmen and shopkeepers, with humorous details like a baby trying out its new wicker walker, a boy blowing up a bladder in the butcher’s shop, or  a boy trying pots on his head while his mother negotiated the price for a new piece of crockery.

The other copy features pictures of men and women in different national costumes–Tyrolers, Turks, Finns, Spaniards, and Cossacks.  For some reason, farmers are featured prominently, with couples from Saxony, Altenberger, Tartary, Russia, and Poland.  The pictures of Russian and Poland farmers are paired with pictures of a Russian merchant and his wife and a Polish Jew and his wife.

The one of the Polish Jews caught my eye.  The buildings in the background suggest that they are city dwellers like the Russian merchant and his wife.  The bearded Polish man wears a tall hat, boots, and ankle-length dark robe belted with a wide yellow sash.  His wife wears drop earrings, an orange dress with a form-fitting bodice and lace yoke, a tall yellow headdress, and dainty slippers.

A a b c d e f ff g (Leipzig: Greidrich Geissler, ca. 1830). Cotsen 46436.

I had no idea of the significance of the yellow headdress and sash until I showed the illustration to Ian, who explained that those garments must have been a sartorial marker similar to the yellow badge or patch Jews in Nazi Germany were required to sew to their clothing to distinguish them from Aryans.

Given the long history of laws in Europe and the Near East that required Jews to wear on their clothes markers that unequivocably announced their Jewishness to everyone else, it seems unlikely that it was coincidence or the whim of the colorist.   But there’s no text that explains the significance of the yellow garments to the child reader.

Is this something a child in Leipzig who was just learning to read would already know?  This is a troubling question that cannot be answered here, but it is a powerful reminder that the pleasing pictures in alphabets can communicate silently ideas of sameness and difference.  The illustration of the Polish Jew and his wife is an excellent example of a descriptive and value-free picture that looks innocent until we learn how to read it.


The King of Hide-and-Seek

The King of Hide-and-Seek [躲猫猫大王] / written by Zhang Xiaoling 张晓玲; illustrated by Pan Jian 潘坚. Jinan, China: Ming tian chu ban she, 2008. (Cotsen N-000732)

When I first came to the United States and lived in a campus town, I was struck by how often I encountered people in wheelchairs—maneuvering coolly on the street, wheeling onto buses that knelt gracefully before letting down a ramp, shopping in the store, and studying in classrooms and libraries. “Why is there a higher rate of disability in the US than in China?” I wondered for a moment before realizing my mistake. The accessibility-compliant public facilities and educational services in the university allowed more people with disabilities to carry on active, and visible, social and academic lives.

When I think back to the rural town in China where I grew up, I can recall hearing bits and pieces about children who were physically or mentally “different”—family members of a distant relative or of an acquaintance whom my parents knew. I hardly ever met those children, who might or might not have been hidden in the same manner as Ariana Dumbledore has been by her family in Godrics Hollow. When children with disabilities appear in Chinese literature and media, they fall into tropes. As Melissa A. Brzycki observed about Chinese children’s stories from the early 1970s, first, there is a scarcity of mental disabilities represented in them. Second, books that are primarily concerned with physical handicaps model how disabled children should be strong and how “normal kids” should extend kindness and support to them. Thirdly, people with disabilities who have made extraordinary achievements are portrayed as role models for the rest of the population to look up to and emulate. In stories published during the Cultural Revolution, Maoism is the spiritual source of strength for children, who overcome danger, fear, and disabilities to contribute to the revolution. Yet those empowering messages can be just as endangering for children with hero dreams. In several nonfiction accounts of real-life heroines, heathy young girls were maimed as a result of following the Communist slogan “Fear Neither Hardship nor Death,” thrusting themselves into perilous circumstances in order to protect communal property or save lives (Brzycki, “Fear”). These resolute girls came from a long line of self-sacrificial female figures, who, in feudal China, practiced the Confucian virtue of placing the interests of their fathers, husbands, and sons above their own; and, in Communist China, submitted themselves to Chairman Mao Zedong, to the Party, and to communes.

The King of Hide-and-Seek, unpaged.

Given the sobering history of representing disabilities in Chinese children’s materials, The King of Hide-and-Seek, a picture book published in 2008, is a refreshing take on the topic. Written by Zhang Xiaoling and illustrated by Pan Jian, the warm yet poignant story tells about a rural Chinese boy named Xiaoyong and his playmates. An unnamed girl, his neighbor and best friend, is the first-person narrator of the story. Xiaoyong lives with his grandfather, a fish seller who is out in the market all day, and the boy is often at home by himself. He and a bunch of preschoolers love to play hide-and-seek around the house, but he is terrible at the game and always the first one to be found.

One day, the girl comes up with a clever plan to help Xiaoyong, making sure that neither of them will become “it” and giving her just enough time to conceal the boy in ingenious spots. Xiaoyong’s happiness from winning the game for once is palpable. His playmates make a crown out of grass and twigs and call him “the King of Hide-and-Seek.” Left to his own devices, however, Xiaoyong is as easy to be found as ever.

One by one his playmates start school. For reasons unknown to the girl narrator, Xiaoyong doesn’t. He can’t help his grandfather in the market either, because he cannot tell one-yuan bank notes from ten-yuan ones. It is at the funeral of Xiaoyong’s grandfather that the girl overhears a comment on the boy, “This is a dim-witted child. Grandpa is dead and he doesn’t even know to cry.”

A few days later, a man who introduces himself as Xiaoyong’s father comes looking for the boy. Xiaoyong is supposed to leave the village with him, but is nowhere to be seen. The boy’s old playmates form a search party. They look around the house; they try the clever spots which have helped Xiaoyong win the game; they search all over the village, but can’t find him this time. Finally, someone suggests calling out the phrase that ends a hide-and-seek game, “Xiaoyong, come out, come out. I guess you win!” Slowly the boy emerges from the vegetable field where he has been hiding, “his eyes so puffed up that he could only squint through slits in the sunlight.” He leaves with his father, but not before casting a last look at his friends. Their parting chorus “Xiaoyong, you rock! You are the King of Hide-and-Seek!” brings a smile to his face once more.

Through the girl narrator’s innocent eye and nonjudgmental voice, it gradually dawns on an adult reader that her best friend likely has mental disabilities. Young readers, however, will first recognize Xiaoyong as a good-humored playmate and relate to his emotions—great joy at being crowned the king of hide-and-seek, quiet content at accompanying a good friend, loneliness and sorrow that he is unable to express with words. This is not a book about disabled angels or saintly helpers, but about irrevocable losses we all experience as we grow up—loss of friends, of family, of blissful unawareness of a challenging life, and of pure joy from the simplest offering. Zhang’s language is subtle, poetic, and rhythmic. Pan’s earthy yellow palette immerses us in a poverty-stricken Chinese village, the drabness of which is broken only by the bright faces of the laughing children.


Brzycki, Melissa A. “Fear Neither Hardship nor Death: Stories of Disabled Chinese Children in the Early 1970s.” Cotsen Children’s Library Blog. November 6, 2015.


Thanks go to Helen Wang, children’s literature translator, for her generous editing work of this post!