Alphabet stories with the letters themselves as characters date back at least to the books of the Hebrew Kabbalah. In the Books On Book Collection, Ben Shahn’s The Alphabet of Creation (1954) draws on that source to provide an example of an artist’s book for older children and adults. Three other works in the Collection that establish this “letters as characters” as a sort of genealogical narrative line linking artists’ books and children’s alphabet books together are Sonia Desnoyer & Marcelle Marquet’s Il était une fois un alphabet (1951/2009), Warja Lavater’s Spectacle (1990) and this one by Michael Chesworth.
Il était une fois un alphabet (“Once upon a time there was an alphabet“) presents the vowels’ voyage of discovery (and board game) to join the consonants to create the alphabet. Spectacle presents a complex abstract version of how vowels and consonants joined together to form the spectacle of the alphabet, words and writing. Chesworth enriches this genealogical line from Desnoyer and Shahn to Lavater with his own mastery of children’s book traditions. Among those traditions exemplified by Alphaboat are the rhyming narrative, wordplay with letter shapes and sounds as well as self-referential wordplay with genres and the material aspects of reading and writing.
One double-page spread nearly suffices to illustrate. After Alphaboat and its crew ride out a storm, we have a double-page spread of calm below. The uppercase officers, punningly named Admiral T and Captaincy, preside over the boat. The lowercase crew f and r admire the punctuation-shaped sunset. And the facing page zooms out with a map to illustrate the ship’s progress and play word games with the map genre (note the feature of “Tear Incognito”), writing implements (“Ball Point” and “Computer Keys”), real locations (“Pencilvania” and “Isle of Write”), typography (“Sands Serif” and “Pica Peak”) and other common geographical phrases (“Isthmus Beedaplace” and “Down Bydee Bay”).
One more double-page spread is needed to expand on the lowercase f’s comment “Dot’s beautiful”. Throughout the voyage, words and images combine with the crew’s expostulations to allude to grammar, punctuation, spelling, typography and alphabetical order. About the pages showing the crew’s arrival back home, any admirer of these traditions and puns would have to agree with f: “Dot’s beautiful”.
“Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.
“Jon Agee, Alethea Kontis & Bob Kolar, Sean Lamb & Mike Perry, Lou Kuenzler & Julia Woolf“. 16 October 2021. More letters in character in the children’s book tradition.
“Souza Desnoyer and Marcelle Marquet“. 22 December 2022. Books On Books Collection.
“Warja Lavater“. Books On Books Collection.
“Ben Shahn“. 20 July 2022. Books On Books Collection.
Nikolajeva, Maria, and Carole Scott. 2007. How picturebooks work. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
Scott, Carole. 2014. “Artists’ books, Altered books, and Picturebooks”. In: B. Kümmerling-Meibauer, ed., Picturebooks: Representation and Narration. London, New York: Routledge.
Fischer, Steven Roger. 2008. A history of writing. London: Reaktion Books.
Firmage, Richard A. 2001. The alphabet abecedarium: some notes on letters. London: Bloomsbury.
Flanders, Judith. 2020. A Place For Everything: the curious history of alphabetical order. New York: Basic Books.
Rosen, Michael. 2014. Alphabetical: how every letter tells a story. London: John Murray.
Webb, Poul. 2017-“Alphabet Books — Parts 1-8” on Art & Artists. Google has designated this site “A Blog of Note”, well deserved for its historical breadth in examples, clarity of images and insight.