Writing an Alphabet for Ages 9 to 90 is Heavy Lifting

Alliterative illustrated alphabets in a novel format have become a mainstay of children’s literature and as tempting as it would be to offer a history of the genre from the 1740s on, instead I’ll show some common pitfalls of creating them.

Last week I discovered Billy Blew-away’s Alphabetical Orthographical & Philological Picture Book. For Learners (Boston: James R. Osgood, c.1882), which seemed to have had two important things going for it—a clever concept backed by a reputable publisher.  James R. Osgood was not the best businessman in the industry, but in the early 1880s he had Mark Twain and Walt Whitman in his stable.   This picture book was printed entirely in vivid Prussian blue on white paper in a style associated with architectural blueprints.  I wonder if this was supposed to “blow you away….”  The unusual format and the mock-serious alliterative title seems designed to catch the eye of an adult book browser.    It was also the first (and only) volume in The Lazy Hours Series, which held out the promise of more entertainment than instruction.

The pre-publication notices did nothing to discourage the assumption that Billy Blew-away would please readers from nine to ninety who were not really in the market for instruction in orthography or philology.  Useful moral ideas were presented in an amusing and memorable way instead.  The letter D “Depravity” is typical of the author’s somewhat scattershot approach.    The concept to be defined and associated with the letter misfires by offering a circular definition using polysyllabic words and the illustration does n’t help clarify it.  Is the figure on the left thumbing his nose at the industrious trademan and the dignified gentleman an unmistakable illustration  “depravity” or is he simply disrespectful?

The letter E has the same faults, but at least it shows the unhappy effects the couple’s behavior may have on a third party on the right, caught in the act of staring at their extravagant display of affection.  Overall the tone is unapologetically unserious, rather like the long-winded title.

Ethnic stereotypes of indigenous and Black people are inserted in the illustrations as instantly recognizable personifications of vices like drunkenness and pride in clothes. The caption to the letter I reads “Inebriates imagine impossible “Injuns.”  Whatever it means, it goes without saying that this kind of cringeworthy humor dates the book. It is indicative, however, of how difficult it can be to avoid stereotypes in any alphabet picture book which features human types.  The problem crops up all the time in alphabets of cultural geography in which the author is tasked with hitting on a series of twenty-six reasonably true and recognizable concepts of foreign lands symbolized by a characteristic inhabitant explained in strictly limited number of words.  Stereotypes are perpetuated because they offer an out to the creator.

Writers of alphabets often resort to another trick, which at least is not especially ignoble.  When inspiration flags, the  author lumped  X, Y, Z  with W the into one picture to dodge the embarrassing want of words in the English language starting with those letters.  At least W waves goodbye to the reader, as he leads the other figures running across top of the letters. 

Who wrote Billy Blew-away?  Omitted from the publicity materials, it appears in the copyright statement at the lower edge of the title page.  G. F. Godfrey was George Frederick Godfrey, born 23 October 1840 in Bangor, Maine to Judge John Edwards Godrey and  his wife Elizabeth.  The 1897 obituary in the Boston Globe reveals that George died comparatively young.  He spent the early part of his career raising sheep in South America before coming home to run a lumber business until an early retirement, which freed him to pursue literary and scholarly pursuits.  None of his published works, including the history of Bangor, Maine for which he is remembered, are listed in the obituary.

The birth of his son George Henry in 1876 may have inspired Billy Blew-away: the copy at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University is inscribed to the six-year-old.  The verdict?  That is not especially easy to answer because it means considering the tricky issue of whether the content is age-appropriate, along with its presentation.  There are not many adorable pictures of nursery naughtiness for an alphabet designed for readers from nine to ninety.  More illustrations show topics of interest to readers tilting to the high end of the age range like  courtship, drinking, and wild dancing, which raises the question if it is really a children’s book for adults.

Standards of age-appropriateness change over time and Billy Blew-away is over 150 years old.   Godfrey might have tested the book on his own boys and felt satisfied that the heavily ironic captions helped
distinguish the acceptable behavior from the unacceptable in the illustrations.   Still there are enough jokes about heavy drinking to raise eyebrows in   families who approved of temperance.  Establishing the range of contemporary attitudes on exposing children to the subject would require looking at a lot of other alphabets…

The second question about presentation is problematic because we don’t know whose idea the blue print illustrations were.  They are striking because at first glance they look like cyanotypes, an expensive photographic process frequently used in architecture books.  James Osgood would have had access to professionals with the technical knowledge as the publisher of American Architect magazine, but that doesn’t really explain if silhouettes in Prussian blue instead of black were integral to Godfrey’s concept, except as a point of departure for the goofy title.  The illustrations must be imitation blue prints for several reasons: an entire book of cyanotype illustrations would cost more than 75 cents; cyanotypes are usually not printed on thick white paper; there are a few faint blue smudges made by finger prints on the blank backs of the leaves.

Billy Blew-away reads like a book by someone who hadn’t given much thought to the challenges of writing an illustrated text for children.  Maybe he went into the project assuming that some imagination and a sense of fun would be enough carry through to the end, a misapprehension that might have been deflated by the process of putting the book through the press.   I strongly suspect he was writing more for himself than for small people and was never inspired to try a second time.

Thanks to Julie Mellby and Molly Dotson, my colleagues in graphic arts, plus Susan Liberator at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum for help with this post!

What do you think about this post?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.