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Banner: Beyond the Letters: A Retrospective of Canadian Alphabet Books
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Early ABCs

This section takes a look at a sampling of Canadian children's books from the past, from A Canadian Child's ABC (1931) to A Growing ABC Book (1984). Also included is An Illustrated Comic Alphabet. Though created in 1859, this early alphabet book was not published until 1966. As a result, no claim can be made that the charming drawings, by English drawing teacher Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon, had any direct influence on the course of Canadian children's publishing. However, the book does provide an example of an early children's picture book that demonstrates the English tradition.

The tiny ABC des petits Canadiens : rimes historiques, published in 1933, furnishes its readers with a patriotic look at Canada. With its serious tone and religious references, it is a good example of literature that was meant to instruct rather than entertain. But this strict focus would change, as Canadian alphabet books evolved to provide entertainment as well as instruction. This can be seen in the English and French books included here, from the 1970s and 1980s. These books afford a brief glimpse at an evolution that has led to Canada's worldwide reputation for superb children's books; a reputation that has resulted in rights to Canadian books being sold worldwide.

Featured Books

Cover of book, ALPHABET BOOK
Alphabet Book

Alphabet book. -- Designed by Allan Fleming. -- Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1968. -- [60] p.

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This book is a collection of drawings by students aged five to eight years of age, from the Kettle Point Indian Reserve on Lake Huron, Ontario. Each drawing is accompanied by a hand-drawn letter of the alphabet created using a linocut technique. Originally a school project, the children were led by teacher Anne Wyse and her husband, artist Alexander Wyse. The book is cleverly designed so that the pages' background colour alternates between black and white, with the drawings in reverse. Anne Wyse described the process of creating the book as follows: "The children… talked (talk was important), compared, wrote and made images (each with its own innate design)…. It all had to do with making sense of their world."1

The Alphavegetabet

Ellis, Louise. -- The alphavegetabet. -- Don Mills, Ont. : Collier Macmillan Canada, ©1976. -- [36] p. -- ISBN 002976730X

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This lighthearted look at vegetables takes the reader on an entertaining gastronomic tour. The rhyming text is full of humour that will amuse its readers while providing interesting facts. The pen-and-ink drawings have been printed in brown, with green used to highlight the letter of the alphabet and vegetable. Whether you like your vegetables sliced and diced or fried up on rice, this alphabet book is a veggie delight.

A Canadian Child's ABC

Gordon, R.K. -- A Canadian child's ABC. -- Illustrated by Thoreau MacDonald. -- Toronto : Dent, 1931. -- [60] p.

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This ABC book on Canada features some terms, such as Daulac, Father Point and tump, which may be unfamiliar to young readers. The rhyming verses contain some information on Canadian geography and history. The simple, yet striking, pen-and-ink illustrations are small in size and typify Canadian illustration of the 1920s and 1930s. Illustrator Thoreau MacDonald was the son of Group of Seven artist J.E.H. MacDonald. It is interesting to note that Thoreau was colour blind and therefore worked mostly in black and white, as he does here.

Hands-on Alphabet Book

Tactile Section, CNIB National Library Division. -- Hands-on alphabet book [braille]. -- Toronto : Canadian National Institute for the Blind, ©1987. -- [28] leaves of print and braille (thermoform) : tactile ill. ; 22 x 30cm. -- ISBN 0921122004

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This alphabet book was produced by a method of moulding plastic called thermoform. Published by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the book includes raised print letters, tactile illustrations and grade 1 and 2 Braille. The illustrations are simple and clear. One word was chosen for each letter of the alphabet and a list of these words is included for the sighted at the end of the book.

Cover of book, ABÉCÉDAIRE

Hébert, Marie-Francine. -- Abécédaire. -- Dans les mots de Marie-France Hébert et les images de Gilles Tibo. -- Montréal : Éditions la courte échelle, [1979?]. -- [32] p. -- ISBN 289021009X

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Playful words and images combine to create a fun-filled alphabet book. The characters, a boy and girl, lead the readers on a romp through an alphabet playground. Each alphabet letter is part of the children's environment. They climb on letters, slide down them and even get stuck in them. The text includes many words that repeat the sound of the featured letter. To add extra fun, there are also jokes and riddles, along with alliterative text and lots of questions. The illustrations are filled with bright, happy colours, softened by airbrushed backgrounds.

An Illustrated Comic Alphabet

Howard-Gibbon, Amelia Frances. -- An illustrated comic alphabet. -- New York : Henry L. Walk, 1967, ©1966. -- [32] p.

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The text in this alphabet book comes from a version of an old rhyme published by Mary Cooper in 1743. In 1859, while living in Sarnia, Ontario, Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon chose to illustrate this version of the rhyme and gave it as a gift to a friend. The manuscript was first published in 1966, by the Toronto Public Library. The charming black and white drawings that illustrate the book are set in the Sussex countryside around Arundel Castle, where Howard-Gibbon spent her childhood. The alphabet letter for each illustration provides the only colour on the page. The hand-lettered text introduces a character for each letter of the alphabet, each with his or her own occupation, some of which may be unfamiliar to today's readers, such as a joiner (a craftsperson who constructs things by joining pieces of wood) and a tinker (a craftsperson who mends pots, kettles and other metal household utensils).

ABC des petits Canadiens : rimes historiques

Maxine. -- ABC des petits Canadiens : rimes historiques. -- Illustrations de J.-Arthur Lemay. -- Montréal : Éditions A. Lévesque, 1933. -- 31 p.

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This tiny ABC book was written in the 1930s by Maxine, a pseudonym for Marie-Caroline-Alexandra Bouchette, to provide its young readers with a patriotic look at Canada. Each letter of the alphabet contains a quatrain that features such historical figures as Champlain, Dollard and Laval, and places including the Plains of Abraham, the Saguenay and Niagara Falls. Serious in tone, with religious references, the book's intent was to instruct rather than entertain.

Cover of book, A GROWING ABC
A Growing ABC Book

Naish, Vicki Kimberley. -- A growing ABC book. -- [Ottawa?] : V.K. Naish, ©1984. -- [30] p.

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This simple alphabet book is designed around a unique concept. Each alphabet letter transforms itself, in a series of stages, into an object that begins with the same letter. Some of the resulting objects retain characteristics of the original letter, while others don't resemble them at all. There is no story; the only text is the name of the object. Each page is printed in two colours and these change from page to page.

L'Abécédaire de Pitatou

Pomminville, Louise. -- L'abécédaire de Pitatou. -- [Montréal] : Leméac, ©1979. -- [60] p. -- ISBN 2760998312

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This book features the popular bird characters called Pitatou, from Pomminville's successful picture book series from the 1970s. A very simple ABC book, each letter of the alphabet lists four words that begin with that letter. Each illustration contains a stylized letter of the alphabet, mostly in cursive script, though sometimes with a letter from the printed alphabet. The letters seem to be made up mostly of capitals letters, but in a few cases, lower-case letters have been used. Such stylistic choices limit the book's value for children who are learning to write the alphabet. All the illustrations contain various brightly coloured Pitatou, which though sweet, may or may not illustrate the provided text words.

ABC 123 : The Canadian Alphabet and Counting Book

Van Kampen, Vlasta. -- ABC, 123 : the Canadian alphabet and counting book. -- Edmonton : Hurtig Pub., ©1982. -- [44] p. -- ISBN 0888302231

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The animals are having a party and you're invited! The alliterative text, jam-packed with references to animals, Canadian and otherwise, provides a patriotic framework for the elegant black-and-white illustrations at the top of each page. The party, to celebrate Canada, is a wild one. "Nine nimble narwhals … want to dance in the National Ballet", the "owls and the orioles" sing O Canada "with the otter in the overalls" while the "polar bears in their polka dot parkas" parachute "in from the North Pole." The second portion of the book contains counting pages in which a beaver baker orchestrates the baking of a cake in 10 easy steps

1 Anne Wyse in "Statement re the Books", Literary Manuscript Collection, Library and Archives Canada. For more information see the section on Anne Wyse and Alex Wyse in The Art of Illustration: A Celebration of Contemporary Canadian Children's Book Illustrators