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!

Made by A Child: “Un Crime Effroyable”: A Murderer Brought to Justice in Six Frames

This wall hanging (or poster, if you prefer) was purchased back in 2016, a little ahead of the rise in scholarly interest in children’s creations as outsider art, whether found in illustrated magazines, homemade booklets, or copybooks. Like most pieces of this sort, it presents a mystery about its creator and when and why it was made without offering up enough clues to solve it.  It caught the eye of Ian Dooley, then Cotsen’s curatorial assistant and he wrote a post about his investigation.

The boy who made it probably liked the French equivalent of blood-and-thunders–nineteenth-century popular fiction full of adventure, crime, overheated dialogue, stereotypes and lurid illustrations.  It reminds me of Booth Tarkington’s Penrod, hiding in the carriage house, filling a notebook full of a serial narrative that could have included a story like this one.  Give Ian’s post a pass if you’d rather not look at illustrations of a drunk being stabbed, his body lying in its own blood in the road, a man brandishing a gun, and a public execution.

One of our newest acquisitions here at Cotsen is an example of juvenilia,or a work created by a child writer/artist (we apply it to works made by children who did not grow up to be famous).  This particular piece is a cleverly illustrated French-language poster presumably created and inscribed by J. M. Legeay (Jean-Marc?) September 1896 (see final panel). The poster tells a story in pictures about a murder and what ensues after the despicable act, complete with a sobering moral.

Although this murder is resolved and justice is meted out, many mysteries surrounding the piece itself.  Where was it made?  Who made it? Why was it made?  Without further ado: Un Crime Effroyable [A terrible crime].

Un Crime Effroyable

This handmade poster in ten panels of paper with a folding cardboard border is illustrated in crayon, ink, watercolor, and pencil.   All the panels are backed on black linen cloth and is carefully designed so that it can be hung on the wall or neatly folded up.

The top two panels bear a decorative title:

(Notice the string for hanging and the torn hanging hole on the left.)

(Notice the string for hanging and the torn hanging hole on the left.)

From these physical facts we might infer that this item was diligently worked on by a young (and presumably amateur artist) with a good degree of skill.  It would have taken several hours at least to illustrate, cut, lay out, and paste down on the backing.  But we don’t get a clear indication of why he spent so much time creating it.  Legeay probably didn’t create a this story of crime and punishment just for his own amusement. Rather, it seems possible that it might have been  a school assignment, an exercise in moral education.  Let’s see what the young man learned…

Un Crime Effroyable, first panelIn this first scene there are two characters: a middle-class fop in bright yellow pants, who has just left the wine and liquor store in the background, and a small green blob in the middle distance, whom we soon learn is the malefactor.

Un Crime Effroyable, second panelHere, with no explanation, our friend with the cherubic face who is feeling no pain is stabbed by a mustachioed assailant.  But notice  how the clothes of the victim and the murderer identify their respective classes.  The bourgeois with his top hat and parasol  is cut down by a working class man in his plain green coat and matching kepi. At this point we might ask if this is an illustration of class conflict; an instance of a working-class man preying on a defenseless middle class-man by a middle-class child evincing a common bourgeois fear of  the supposedly brutal and violent lower class. Of course, the artist Legeay is just a child and foisting a propagandist motivation upon him may not be warranted.  I believe he is just reflecting the world views around him in a school assignment.

In this next scene two officers happen upon the hapless body of our victim. Notice their spurs . . . but lack of horses to use them on.

In this next scene two officers happen upon the hapless body of our victim. Notice their spurs . . . but lack of horses to use them on.

The killer smokes his victim's pipe, the scoundrel!

The killer smokes his victim’s pipe, the scoundrel!

Our murderer contently relaxes in a local café after his grisly deed, as the be-spurred officer enters. In this panel are the first clues as to the place of origin for this poster. On the door is written “Café” and “Cidre.”  “Cidre” is French for cider, specifically the kind produced in Normandy and Brittany. This familiarity with cidre might be an indication that Legeay is from one of these regions (or just a budding drunk).  But as we will see, there is other evidence that points in a very different direction.

The murderer, sandwiched between spurs, is apprehended and clearly startled.

The murderer, sandwiched between spurs, is apprehended and clearly startled.

Here our guilty man seems repentant and regretful at the Assize Court. Notice the second sign in the background: Etres Sans Frapper (enter without knocking).

Here our guilty man seems repentant and regretful at the Assize Court. Notice the second sign in the background: Etres Sans Frapper (enter without knocking).

Un Crime Effroyable, guillotine sceneIn this scene the action of the story comes to a close.  Our killer is  escorted to a smiling executioner manning the infamous guillotine.The perpetrator’s escorts are none other than our officers-in-spurs and a crucifix bearing priest. This panel, however, shows us more than just the moments leading up to our murderer’s death. Look closely at the left side of the illustration and you might just be able to make out the most puzzling feature of this item, what appears to be debossed text reading: Hollonge.

Provided here are two closer images of the text (one vertical, one horizontal):

closer image of the text, vertical

closer image of the text, horizontalThis text could be a hand-written inscription or  a trade mark on the paper itself. It seems unlikely that it is the debossed trade mark of a paper manufacturer named Hollonge, because the mark does not appear on any other panel of the poster and no such company was turned up in my research. So it might be an inscription. But who wrote it and why? What does it mean?

“Hollonge” might be a corruption of  “Hollogne,”  or short hand for the town of Grâce-Hollogne in the Ardennes.   But Grâce-Hollogne, it turns out, is located not in France, but in Belgium. Bu tif the poster is from Belgium, why the text is written in French?  The Ardennes is located in the province of Liège in the region known as Wallonia and Walloons are French speakers.  So perhaps Legeay was a Walloon.

The word “Hollonge”  seems to have been etched by a tool. It is composed of recessed markings and some of the strokes appear too thick to have been written by pencil or pen. However it was made, it appears to have been a mistake:if the word is supposed to be “Hollogne,” it is spelled wrong. Furthermore the final character “e” also resembles an “l”. Maybe Legeay wrote “Hollonge”  by mistake, which is  possible because he made spelling errors elsewhere.  But why would Legeay write the place of origin on his own work? Surely he knew (and doesn’t need to share) where he lived and where he made the poster. Though the erroneous word is an inscription, it probably isn’t Legeay’s.

It’s more reasonable to assume that the inscription was written by a later owner of the work, perhaps a collector of juvenilia or an antiquarian bookseller. This owner was probably French, considering that “Hollogne” is written with two l’s  rather than with one, which is the Wallonian spelling. The word might have been erased because of the spelling error or because the attempt to place the origin of the work in Hollogne was unfounded.

With the limited evidence we have, all I can do is offer a few guesses about this work’s place of origin. Does the mention of “cidré” point towards Normandy or Brittany or does “Hollonge” point to Belgium?   We would need more information to make this call.

But what we can be more certain of is that Legeay is probably a middle-class boy, that he was a better illustrator than he was a speller. This brings us to the final panel:

The tricolour banner, using the three colors of the French flag, directs the possible origin of the work back towards France; or at least informs us that Legeay is a Francophile.

The tricolour banner, using the three colors of the French flag, directs the possible origin of the work back towards France; or at least informs us that Legeay is a Francophile.

In the bottom right hand corner of the work we get our autograph: J M Legeay. Considering that the "m" is so diminutive, it might denote the second half of a hyphened name. A common name of this form, was (and still is) Jean-Marc. "Sep R/96" I take, for obvious reasons, to represent the month of Septembre (September) and the year 1896.

In the bottom right hand corner of the work we get our autograph: J M Legeay. Considering that the “m” is so diminutive, it might denote the second half of a hyphened name. A common name of this form, was (and still is) Jean-Marc. “Sep R/96” I take, for obvious reasons, to represent the month of Septembre (September) and the year 1896.

This final panel delivers the coup de grâce of the piece, a moral from our insightful creator that caps off the story: “N’assasinez point et vous n’serez point gigotiné” [Don’t murder and you won’t get the guillotine]. Pointedly, young Legeay has spelled two words wrong: “assasinez” is missing a the second double ess (“assassinez”) and the spelling of that last word, “gigotiné,”  instead of the Francophone “guillotine.” Legeay was much more careless with the text than with his illustrations. I don’t think the boy was as motivated to draw out the moral lesson as in illustrating violence (probably to the chagrin of his teacher).

But let’s return to that very odd word “gigotiné.” It might be indicative of more  a child’s bad spelling. Using “gigotiné” might prove that Legeay was cleverer than he appears. “Gigotiné,” if spelled this way on purpose, has a double meaning. Not only does it denote the guillotine, it also associates another word with that infernal machine: “gigotin,” a prepared leg of lamb. Coupled with this association, “gigotiné” reminds us of the outcome of the guillotine.. It’s tongue and cheek, of course, and  probably not meant to be taken too seriously. It was probably a common euphemism; not something Legeay came up with himself.

I can't help but wonder if this piece was ever hung, and where it might have been displayed. Would Legeay's parents have let that proud child hang this in their living room?

I can’t help but wonder if this piece was ever hung, and where it might have been displayed. Would Legeay’s parents have let that proud child hang this in their living room?

This gory but humorous poster is still shrouded in mystery.  I’ve tried my best to explain who might have made this work and why they might have made it, but my interpretation of this child’s work should be taken with a grain of salt.  Though this poster begs more questions than it provides answers, it is nevertheless a bracing look into how a child represented with gusto gory murders and swift guillotines.