A Fairy Tale Alphabet (1969)
Сказочная Азбука / Skazochnaia Azbuka / A Fairy Tale Alphabet (1969)
Soft cover with dust jacket. H235 x W300 mm. 40 pages. Acquired from Design Archives, 4 February 2023.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Tatyana Mavrina’s A Fairy Tale Alphabet (1969) is both an artist’s book and, for the non-Russian reader, a puzzle. Its landscape format and rhythmic page layout offer an easily accessible playground of color, historiated letters, architectural fantasia and folk artistry mixed with the kind of flattened layers of time and space usually associated with ikons. As a puzzle, too, it presents layers. Making out the Cyrillic letters, transliterating them into Roman letters, then translating the text into English — those mark only the first stages of the puzzle. The next stage is to recognize the fairy or folk tale embedded in and around each letter of the Russian alphabet. Links to a few are provided below.
The book feels more like a handmade work than the trade book it is (3,000 copies were printed). The boldly illustrated endpapers and their wavily truncated fly leafs are one feature of the book’s integrated artistry that lies at the root of this effect.
Another feature of design artistry is the mirroring of verso and recto pages. On the left, the key character appears as an historiated letter followed by an image. On the right, an image comes first, then the letter. In the captions to the illustrations and images, the key character appears almost always as the initial letter of at least one of the words and in lowercase within a word.
Below, the historiated letter А refers to the story character Aлёнчшка (Alyonushka), a little orphan girl with similarities to Gretel. Next comes an illustration of Алмазный дворец (the Diamond Palace), probably from the story “Whirlwind the Whistler, or the Kingdoms of Copper, Silver, and Gold”. Then comes the image of the Бочка (barrel) in which a queen and her son are cast into the sea in “The Tale of Tsar Saltan”. And finally the historiated letter Б appears, containing images from three stories. The bowl of the letter refers to the story Барин и Mужик (The Master and the Man) in which the peasant catches a coin-producing fish. The sleigh above the peasant refers to another landlord-peasant encounter in which the peasant cons the landlord out of a fur coat. For the moment, the wolves pursuing the lamb are an unsolved part of the puzzle.
Below is another example of the pattern established from the start: first the letter Й historiated with characters from Эимовье Эверей (Zimove Zeverey “The Winter Hut of Animals” by Alexei Tolstoy); then a frequent character in Russian fairy tales and poems Эайка Kосой (the Cockeyed bunny); Kот Kотофей (Kotofey the Kat has several tales of adventures, a mixed associate of Puss-in-Boots and Felix the Cat); and finally the letter К historiated with images from Колобок (Kolobok “The little round bun”, a variant of the “The Gingerbread Man“). But this is a pattern only to be broken with another in which Mavrina uses the double-page spread for just one letter.
Three quarters of the verso below displays the historiated letter against a full-bleed background, and the rest of the verso combines with the recto to display an illustrative image that bleeds off the three edges. The curving line that separates the letter from the image recalls the truncated fly leafs. So below, for the letter И we have Ивашко и Ведьма (Ivashko and the Witch) and Иван- Царевич и СерЫй Волк (Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf, a variant on the Grimm’s “The Golden Bird“).
For the Russian characters Ъ ъ, Ы ы and Ь ь that are used to affect the pronunciations of other letters, the key character naturally appears only within the words but does receive treatment as an historiated letter. Below, the letter б follows the first letter in the Russian ВбЕЗД (for “entrance by vehicle”), and in a clever variation on her pattern for historiated letters, Mavrina has the procession entering behind the letter that is filled with the flowers thrown before the carriage. Similarly in the other two-thirds of the double-page spread, the digraph Ы is filled with leaves and flowers, which appropriately is printed over the ship-swallowing monster from the tale “The fish-whale [РыБа-Кит] on which the city stands”. Of course, displaying one letter per page introduces another recurring variant on double-page spread’s pattern.
For the genius of color, design and content of her other children’s books as well as in Skazochnaia Azbuka (considered the pinnacle of her work), Mavrina received the Hans Christian Andersen Award and, until 2018, was the only Russian to do so.
“Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.
“Lisa Merkin“. 24 February. 2023. Books On Books Collection.
Bragaru, Natalia. n.d. “Fairytale ABC: a beautiful Russian folk alphabet by Tatyana Mavrina“. Kids’ Book Explorer. Accessed 1 February 2023.
Leites, Irina. 2021. “A Journey to the Land of Colour“. Tretyakova Gallery Magazine, #2 (71). Accessed 1 February 2023.
Lemmens, Albert, and Serge-Aljosja Stommels. 2009. Russian Artists and the Children’s Book 1890-1992. Nijmegen: L.S.
Ottina, Laura. 15 May 2013. “Tatiana Mavrina“. Animalarium. Accessed 1 February 2023.
RGDB. n.d. “Fairy Alphabet”. The Russian State Children’s Library Catalog. Accessed 1 February.