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Le générique du Bulletin
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May/June 2003
Vol. 35, no. 3
ISSN 1492-4676

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Behind the Alphabet: Giving Shape to the Beyond the Letters Exhibition

Jeffrey Canton, Special Curator

Alphabet books are an integral part of the culture of children’s literature. On one level, they’re strictly pedagogical tools that help children take their first tentative steps into the world of words. But alphabet books have to be more than just teaching aids. After all, each alphabet book repeats the same pattern that every other alphabet book follows as it guides young readers through the 26 letters that make up our ABCs. An alphabet book that strayed from this strictly linear and logical linguistic pattern would be virtually meaningless. So on another level, alphabet books have to engage readers beyond the letters.

For more than 150 years, Canadian creators have grappled with ways to make the alphabet experience more than just a pedagogical one. There are plenty of examples of the strictly pedagogical alphabet in the collections of the Library and Archives of Canada (L&AC;), many of them published in the 100 years before Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon’s 1859 An Illustrated Comic Alphabet, the earliest alphabet book included in the exhibition. What makes this alphabet different from its predecessors is how it takes a traditional rhyme and gives it a fresh look using illustrations brimming with a lively sense of humour.

The standard pedagogical alphabets in the L&AC; collections were published in both English and in French but, in most cases, the alphabet is merely part of an array of "first facts" that the young mind needs to grow into the world. These alphabets also include guides to basic numerology and vowel pronunciation, but there’s no sense of imaginative interaction at play here. The approaches are exactly the same in both languages and, for the most part, there’s nothing that distinguishes one from another.

First Steps

I had expected to find hundreds of examples of creative Canadian alphabet books when I first began exploring the collections of the L&AC.; But that wasn’t the case. There were dozens of pedagogical alphabets dating back to the 1770s but, with the exception of Howard-Gibbon’s An Illustrated Comic Alphabet, the genre as we know it today, with its focus on imaginative play, of going beyond the letters, didn’t actually come into its own until 1931 when Ryerson Press published R.K. Gordon and Thoreau MacDonald’s A Canadian Child’s ABC.

In the collection of the L&AC;, there are also examples of other kinds of early alphabets. For example, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Canada Games Company mass-produced, most likely using American plates, a number of illustrated alphabet books that go through the motions of the standard ABC, but there’s nothing that marks them as being Canadian. Nor, for that matter, could these books be really classified as literature, as they appear to have neither authors nor illustrators. There are alphabet books produced by local businesses like the London, Ontario-based George Wood and Company, Dry Good Merchants who produced A Child’s Own ABC in 1894, as well as client giveaways from a number of insurance companies including The London Life Company’s 1932 ABC of Good Conduct. But there is no imaginative power to any of these ABCs.

The Start of Something New

That all changes with the publication of Gordon and MacDonald’s 1931 A Canadian Child’s ABC and Maxine’s 1933 ABC des petits Canadiens : Rimes historiques, which are distinct in their approaches as ABC books. In the development of English-language and French-language children’s literature in Canada, it’s interesting to note that there is at this time, in the wake perhaps of increased national pride stemming from the 60th anniversary of Confederation, a sense that it’s important to convey to children through the books that are being created for them both a sense of our national identity and a pride in being Canadian. Mounties, beavers, hockey and Parliament Hill are integral to Gordon and MacDonald’s vision of Canada for the young Canadian reader. Maxine offers his readers not only an entree into the francophone past, including major historical figures and well-known geographic points of interest, but also Niagara Falls, the Rockies and "Victoria on the edge of the Pacific." H neatly stands for the "hymne" "O Canada! Terre de nos aïeux!" There is also a nice sense of the glories of the Canadian wilderness, including our forests, the noble moose and, of course, the maple.

What’s Next

If Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon’s mid-19th century approach infuses into the alphabet book a robust good humour and a witty sense of play between text and illustrations, and Gordon and MacDonald and Maxine’s early 20th century alphabets offer a hearty helping of national pride, it’s not until 1969 that Canadian alphabet books as we know them today really begin to take off. From that point in time, the alphabet has made itself felt as a unique literary form; and the exhibition includes any number of examples of books that reflect our values, cultures and sense of ourselves as Canadians. Why 1969? At Christmas 1968, University of Toronto Press produced Alphabet Book, using illustrations created by children from the Kettle Point Indian Reservation. The following year, Ryerson published a trade edition. There is something very refreshing about an alphabet created by children; it gives us a sense of how they see alphabet books. There’s K, which stands for kettle, something that would be very much a part of daily life in these children’s homes  -  a wonderfully cozy and deeply comforting object. And M is for Sir John A!  -  complete with rumpled hair, a tiny moustache, and the little flipper-like arms the illustrator has provided him with. T for turtle combines a group of watchful kids who sport the the pigtails, bangs and hairdos of the late ’60s with a turtle who looks a little like he might just be holding up the world, as he does in Native mythology. The book’s original black-and-white illustrations can be found in the collections of the L&AC.;

Treasures

One of the most exciting things about putting together the Beyond the Letters exhibition was the opportunity to explore the L&AC;’s collections and, in particular, to have a chance to see original illustrations not only from Alphabet Book but also from Canadian classics such as Elizabeth Cleaver’s ABC, Ann Blades’ By the Sea and Roger Paré’s ABC…Play with Me. Being able to look through Cleaver’s and Blades’ papers was also a thrill. I was able to see the numerous lists of potential words that Cleaver compiled before settling into her alphabet book; letters from her editor at Oxford University Press, William Toye, responding to her project; as well as rough sketches of some of the illustrations that take us through the illustration process. The original collage illustrations shimmer with the vibrant colours that Cleaver made her own in book after book. There is a series of possible endpapers that show us the artist at work trying to find just the right colour wash to engage the imagination of even the youngest reader.

Ann Blades’ papers show us how her book came to be, including letters exchanged with her publisher, Kids Can Press, her own lists of words, and her research into the genre which includes lists of words from Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon’s Illustrated Comic Alphabet as well as a number of others.

Paré’s original illustrations are enormous full-scale paintings that brilliantly convey the complex stories that are at the heart of his imaginative ABC…Play with Me. For example, a pair of acrobatic youngsters juggle apricot on the wings of an airplane while the intrepid pilot tries to maintain balance of this tiny aircraft.

These unique collections of the L&AC;, which include rough pencil sketches, mock-ups and vivid water-colour originals, provide a sense of how an artist creates a vision for an alphabet book.

Taking the Exhibition Beyond the Letters

How to give shape to more than 150 years of Canadian-created alphabet books was certainly a challenge, but as I read through the books in English and French, a structure began to suggest itself. If Howard-Gibbon’s alphabet book struck a playful note and Gordon and MacDonald’s and Maxine’s hit more nationalistic tones, perhaps it was possible to see these two strands as shaping the alphabet books that appeared in their wake. Beyond the Letters tries to do just that, explore through the collections of the L&AC; the way that Canadian creators have given voice to our sense of identity, our imaginative sense of play and our ability to take this cornerstone of children’s literature to new and imaginative planes. The L&AC;’s collections provide Canadians with a chance to chart the developments in this creative genre, the starting place for the reading lives of so many of us.

"In the final analysis, of course, all these alphabet books are clearly Canadian. They encompass our sense of who we imagine we are as Canadians as well as how we’d like to be seen here at home and abroad. They happily exploit our gift for humour and our delight in wordplay. They give visual expression to the wonders of our landscape and the depths of our connection to our sense of home. Some of them are a little too earnest, too modest but that’s very Canadian, isn’t it? What they all share is a hunger to connect young lives to the power of books and reading. It’s a passion that has driven writers and artists since Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon began her illustrations for her comic alphabet in 1859. It drives us still." (Beyond the Letters exhibition catalogue)

The L&AC; and its collections certainly take us beyond the letters and into a most exciting and, too often overlooked, part of our children’s literature.

Beyond the Letters runs from May 26, 2003, to July 21, 2003, in Exhibition Room D. The exhibition is open from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., seven days a week, and admission is free. A Web site celebrating alphabet books is also available at www.collectionscanada.ca/abc/.