Cotsen Research Report: Feodor Rojankovsky’s Alphabet Books Part II

This winter Research Grant winner JoAnn Conrad spent a month in Rare Books and Special Collections reading room poring over dozens and dozens of early twentieth-century books in Cotsen and in Graphic Arts.  Her project, “Women’s Work: Magazines, Advertising and Children’s Books in the ‘Golden Age’ of Illustration in the United States,” is one piece of a more ambitious one about the role of early twentieth-century artists who worked across media in graphic design, advertising, and children’s book illustration played in disseminating the visual language of modernism.  Joann’s survey of Feodor Rojankovsky’s  ABCs will be in two parts: today’s second post discusses work he created in the United States.

The A Б Cs of Feodor Rojankovsky

By JoAnn Conrad

In 1925, Vassar graduate Esther Averill moved to Paris, where many young, college-educated American women were seeking to understand their place as writers, artists and as women in a more socially liberating scene. In 1930 Averill and business partner Lila Stanley had a new venture with an American client looking to modernize his line of stationary. Averill turned to Rojan whose drawings enchanted them: “They had color, gaiety and humor, and revealed how thoroughly he understood the graphic possibility of the medium.”[1] The stationary endeavor fell through, but Rojankovksy, eager to enter into the new market in children’s picturebooks proposed they collaborate. The result was the 1931 Daniel Boone,[2] a fauvist-inspired series of brightly colored lithographs celebrating the American hero as he fought Indians and settled the wilderness — a fantasy of the American West shaped, in part, on Rojankovksy’s own childhood fascination with the works of Fenimore Cooper. But Rojankovsky’s experience in modern advertising layout and illustration was also major influence on the book, especially his use of brightly colored graphics to create a feeling of a fantastic West above and beyond the text. The plates were visually stunning but prohibitive to print, and Averill could find no American publisher willing to take it on. She and Stanley therefore established their own Domino Press, which would specialize in children’s picture books illustrated by gifted young artists and reproduced by means of the excellent color processes that were available in Paris,”[3] and published Daniel Boone themselves. Rojankovsky would go on to illustrate four more Domino books, published in French and English versions and distributed in France and the U.S.,  preceding Rojankovsky’s own immigration by almost a decade.

Illustration from Daniel Boone. (Paris: Domino Press, 1931) Cotsen 16819,

In 1933, on the basis of this impressive start in children’s book illustration and advertising work, Rojan was hired by visionary French children’s book innovator Paul Faucher, creator of Les Albums du Père Castor. Faucher’s radical pedagogy was based on the concept of “hands on,” participatory learning that sought to elicit children’s creative responses to the real world. Faucher’s first team of illustrators consisted primarily of Russian expatriate artists — Nathalie Parain, Alexandra Exter, Hélène Guertik, and Rojankovsky, all of whom had adopted the forms and techniques of the avant-garde, constructivism, and Cubo-Futurism which had been their common experience in the Russian art milieu in the early 1900s. Using elemental shapes, and primary colors to evoke a synesthetic, multi-sensory experience, and deploying non-representational and minimalist images, they sought to establish an unmediated, visceral, and emotional engagement with the viewer. In Paris in the 1930s, they redirected this towards Faucher’s new vision for a modern, interactive picturebook. Decoupled from any Socialist message, these artists, in various ways, extended the modernist experiment into his new pedagogical and commercial enterprise; their attempts at viewer engagement aligned with Faucher’s participatory pedagogy.

Rojankovsky often illustrated for Faucher’s wife, the author Lida who shared her husband’s philosophy, and with her he produced a series of books with naturalistic images of animals in their habitats. But in 1936 Rojankovsky collaborated with Faucher himself on an ABC book/game,[4] the cover of which harkens back to the frontispiece of Zhivaia Azbuka, with animals spilling out from their containment. But whereas in the 1936 book the animals featured inside are consistent with those on the cover, in Zhivaia Azbuka the cover and frontispiece feature wild, exotic animals in contrast to the more ordinary and familiar animals accompanying Chernyi’s verse. Faucher’s ABC is also a game, in this case several bingo-type games of increasing difficulty. Thus, while the ideological thrust of Zhivaia Azbuka had been conservative and preservationist, Faucher’s is clearly pedagogical. Zhivaia Azbuka’s intended audience was Russian émigré children, who most likely spoke Russian at home and in the community, but whose language of instruction in their new home was French. That is, the goal of the book was to expose children who likely knew how to read in French, but who also spoke Russian, to the Cyrillic alphabet and thereby to written Russian; a context which better explains Chernyi’s complex couplets. This is not a beginning reader, or a “Baby’s first ABCs.” In contrast, Faucher’s ABC specifically links letters to sounds, and illustrates these sounds through the initial phonemes of individual illustrations of animals. There are no vignettes, either visual or verbal. Faucher’s is a classic ABC book, with one large, capital letter, its corresponding lower-case cursive letter, and a representative animal on a blank background. The presumptive learning process necessitates a prior knowledge of the represented animal from which the relationship between the initial sound and the letter can be suggested. This process breaks down when the animals are exotic and perhaps unknown to the child.

Front cover of Paul Faucher’s ABC / jeux du Père Castor. ([Paris]: Flammarion, 1936). Cotsen 21253

Frontispiece to Zhivai︠a︡  Azbuka. (Paris: N. P. Karbasnikov, 1926) Cotsen 9209.

Tearable cards from ABC / jeux du Père Castor.  Cotsen 21253

back free endpaper game board from ABC / jeux du Père Castor.  Cotsen 21253

Word-Letter associations that work in Faucher’s ABC. Cotsen 21253

Word-Letter associations that don’t work in Faucher’s ABC. Cotsen 21253

ABC books such as Faucher’s, with their one-to-one correspondence of letters and sounds illustrated by images of single words were extremely popular in the late 1800s and early 1920s,[5] and reflect an early pedagogical approach to reading, one which would be displaced by phonics by mid-century. In 1936, the popularity of this type of ABC book was on the wane, but Rojankovsky, long after settling in the U.S. would return to this format one last time with his Animals in the Zoo, in 1962.[6] The page layout is reminiscent of Faucher’s book from over 25 years earlier, but what is even more notable is the cover, which features a giraffe in an old-fashioned zoo enclosure, whose ‘spots’ are made out of letters. Rojankovsky would again use this technique in his final ABC book in 1970.[7] Interestingly, this technique of constructing an animal’s body out of letters in an ABC book was used in a 1917 ABC book by Sybil Rebman, published by the Chicago-based P.F. Volland Company. But rather than just filling the animal’s outline with random letters, in Rebman’s book each animal associated with a letter in the alphabet is constructed out of letters which also spell out the word for that animal. Although neither Rebman nor Volland have the name recognition of Rojankovsky, in 1917 her illustrations and concept are artistically innovative (albeit pedagogically dubious), whereas in 1962 Rojankovksy’s repetitive wild-life images and simplistic format look dated. Nonetheless, Rebman’s use of letters is conventional in that they spell out a word, while Rojankovsky’s use of letters decouples them from any corresponding sound or meaning.

Animals in the Zoo (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1962).

Inside pages of Animals in the Zoo. 

ABC: An Alphabet of Many Things. (New York: Golden Press, 1970). Cotsen 152493

Sybil Rebman’s Animal Alphabet. (Chicago.: P.F. Volland Company, 1917). Cotsen 21871

In addition to the English editions of his books for Domino Press, by 1936 many of Rojankovsky’s books in Les Albums du Père Castor were translated into English and distributed in the U.S., brokered by the director of the Artists and Writers Guild, Georges Duplaix. Thus well in advance of his arrival in 1941, his work was well received. Duplaix would be a critical player in Rojankovsky’s life and work, facilitating safe passage out of southern France ahead of Hitler’s army in exchange for a long-term exclusive contract. When Duplaix launched his new commercial venture The Little Golden Books series in 1942, Rojankovsky joined a stable of other émigré artists, including Gustaf Tenggren and Tibor Gergely, to produce some of the most widely published children’s books of the 20th century. Of the over 35 books Rojanksovsky illustrated for the Golden Books from 1943 to 1970, there are none that fit the classic ABC book format. Instead, Rojankovsky’s work focuses mostly on animal stories. His second Golden Book – Animal Stories, written by Duplaix,[8] links animal stories to the alphabet in what seems to have been Rojankovsky’s main interest in ABCs all along– experiments in typography.  In the heart of the book, in between fanciful tales of animals and a display of Rojankovsky’s illustration styles, there are 6 pages of illustrated block letters, each accompanied by a small verse  (21-26). These were later issued as a set of nesting blocks.[9] Even more interestingly, these letters were used in a series of magazine advertisements for Puss n’ Boots cat food during the 1940s.[10]

Georges Duplaix and Feodor Rojankovsky. Animal Stories. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944). Cotsen 7370

Playschool Golden Book Nested Blocks. Golden Press, Inc. Licensed by Playschool, 1958.

Rojankovsky illustrated “Puss n’ Boots” cat food advertisement, Saturday Evening Post, [1949]

Golden Books had not abandoned the ABC-book concept or format, but in the late 1940s and early 1950s, this task had already been taken over by a new group of illustrators – Richard Scarry, Garth Williams, and Cornelius DeWitt. The format also changed: No longer single letters with a single representative figure on a white background, the emphasis had switched to filling the pages with as many representative images as possible. Rojankovsky replicated this in his final book, which fittingly was an ABC book — Alphabet of Many Things (1970), but the end papers again reveal his fascination with typography.

Page spread from ABC: An Alphabet of Many Things. Cotsen 152493

Endpapers from ABC: An Alphabet of Many Things. Cotsen 152493

Rojankovsky’s use of foliage to construct letters of the alphabet appears in many titles to many of his books, which are otherwise unrelated to Alphabet books: Animals on the Farm (Knopf, 1967), and Frog Went A-Courtin (1955), to cite two, and the 1950s-style ABC book format is replicated in the 1960 Animal Dictionary for the Little Golden Books,[11] but, with the exception of Frog Went A-Courtin these are rather joyless, perfunctory endeavors, displaying none of the wit and innovation of Rojankovsky’s other work. Rojankovsky was working under exploitative terms both for Paul Faucher and for Duplaix and the Golden Books. His compensation was low, and the demands of such large-scale publishing operations limited his artistic freedom. Much of his later work seems to be re-assemblages of previous pieces, and one might wonder whether his “recognizable style” is more a function of images he repurposed for his own self-preservation, particularly when his entire oeuvre is examined. A revisitation of his work through the lens of ABC-books reveals its range and variety even when working with the constraints of publishing houses, during political turmoil, and across continents.

Watson, Jane W, and Feodor Rojankovsky. Animal Dictionary. New York: Golden Press, 1960.

[1] Allen, Irving, Polly Allen, and Koly T. Rojankovsky. Feodor Rojankovsky: The Children’s Books and Other Illustration Art, 2014. Kindle edition, location 893.

[2] Averill, Esther Holden, Lila Stanley, and Feodor Rojankovsky. Daniel Boone: Historic Adventures of an American Hunter Among the Indians. Paris: Domino Press, 1931.

[3] Esther Averill Biography from the “Jenny Linsky and the Cat Club” page: http://www.93950.com/cat_club/bio.htm

[4] Faucher, Paul, and Feodor Rojankovsky. ABC / jeux du Père Castor ; dessins de F. Rojan.

[5] The Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton has a digital archive of historical ABC books with many examples https://etc.princeton.edu/abcbooks/. Two of the most prolific publishers during the turn of the century period were Raphael Tuck (London), and the McLoughlin Brothers (New York).

[6] Rojankovsky, Feodor. Animals in the Zoo. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1962.

[7] Rojankovsky, Feodor. ABC: An Alphabet of Many Things. Golden Press, 1970.

[8] Duplaix, Georges, and Feodor Rojankovsky. Animal Stories. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944.

[9] Playschool Golden Book Nested Blocks. Golden Press, Inc. Licensed by Playschool, 1958.

[10] Coast Fishing Company, Wilmington, Ca. The one-page ads with a featured animal, accompanied by a letter of the alphabet inscribed by Rojankovsky, ran in the Saturday Evening Post from 1947 to 1948. These were compiled into a promotional book in 1949.

[11] Watson, Jane W, and Feodor Rojankovsky. Animal Dictionary. Racine, Wis: Golden Press, 1960.

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