An Unusual Animal Alphabet (2021) Rose Sanderson Casebound with illustrated paper over boards and patterned doublures, perfect bound. H155 x W215 mm 54pages. Edition of 100, of which this is #89. Acquired from the artist, 17 April 2023. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.
Written and illustrated by Rose Sanderson, this abecedary introduces children to the alphabet with humorous clashes of colors and animals (a pink bear or blue and white impala?) as well as odd combinations of concepts (topiaries and mammals, skyscapes and kangaroos). It all tips over into the surreal, which, with the vocabulary (spirograph, topiary, uakari), implies an audience of older children and adults.
Adding to the humor are other incongruities such as a paisley-patterned dingo and a camouflaged goat. The many half- or near-rhymes also enhance the humor: “Elephant Etta looks good in a sweater” and “Impala Ivar is as fragile as china”).
The production is of high quality. The text is printed on 170gsm silk paper and in full color. The cover comes from a scan of linen/canvas overlayed with a color layer with a balanced transparency that softly merges the two together. Whether or not inspired by the book’s half-rhymes, the designer (Emrys Plant) contributes an effective visual “half rhyme” of Arca Majora for the text type with Futura for the display type. Along with Sanderson’s conceptualization, imagination and craft, such touches nudge this work toward the category of artist’s book or, at least, sophisticated alphabet book.
Calligrafitti #3 (2011) Merrill Shatzman Leporello. Closed: 235 x235 mm. Open: W282 cm. 10 panels.Unique. Acquired from the artist, 6 October 2017. Photos: Courtesy of the artist.
An extraordinarily fragile and rich work of print and sculpture, Calligrafitti #3 displays the inspiration that alphabets can provide for artists’ books. There are, of course, more inspirations or influence at work here.
One artist mentioned by Merrill Shatzman as an influence on her art is Friedensreich Hundertwasser. The book’s three dimensionality, its colors throughout and the background striations echo the Hundertwasser House as well as the pattern of striations in several of the Hundertwasser paintings that can be found here. Certainly like Hundertwasser, Schatzman fuses the static and dynamic. In Calligrafitti #3, there’s something vegetative, almost animistic, and still architectural as carved letters can be.
Hundertwasser House, Greece
The fluidity and structure in Calligrafitti #3 recall another influence: Zaha Hadid.
Two other visual influences that shine through — although disparate in time and dimensionality — are Rachid Koraïchi and Stuart Davis. The influences are more visual and formal than substantive, and the works below are emblematic selections.
An Alphabet of Animals (1899) Carton Moore Park Casebound, illustrated paper over boards. H335 x W265 mm. 54 pages. Acquired from Books & Things, 23 March 2023. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Scots-Canadian illustrator and painter Carton Moore Park (1877-1956) would have been 22 when Blackie & Son published An Alphabet of Animals. Like William Nicholson with An Alphabet (1898), Moore Park was responding to a publisher’s commission (for Nicholson it was W.H. Heinemann); like Nicholson, he aimed for an audience of adults as well as children; like Nicholson, who followed up his alphabet with similarly successful and applauded works, Moore Park did the same with In Doors and Out (1899) and A Book of Birds (1899); and like Nicholson’s, his preferred career path was painting, particularly portraits. But unlike Nicholson, Moore Park did not find any prolonged acclaim for his work.
Recent efforts to revive interest in his work are an extended bio-bibliographical essay in Studies in Illustration, a thesis from the University of Delaware and a reissue of An Alphabet of Animals and A Book of Elfin Rhymes (see below). Marvelous as Moore Park’s grisaille technique is, it must have been a hard sell for children more used to colorful alphabet books. The grisaille and influence of Japanese wood engraving — especially with the unusual framing of the subjects — likely make this work appeal more to adults interested in artists’ books and the history of children’s books.
Anyone interested in whether there is a subgenre in the overlap of artists’ books and alphabet books might consider trim size as a telltale sign here. Moore Park’s and Nicholson’s books were oversized. By choosing a trim size far too large for small hands and short arms, Blackie and Son and W.H. Heinemann may have simply been hedging their bets on the two alphabet books by aiming to appeal to adults and children and as a way to test the art book market. By 1917 in France, Louis Dorbon must have seen the success of Ambroise Vollard in the art book market and felt no need to hedge with Edmond (“Miarko”) Bouchard. Even though Bouchard was primarily a caricaturist, Dorbon published ABC d’Art in portfolio format at 380 x 280 mm and with gold ink. If that is not a clear sign of aiming for adults and the art book market, the carnage in Miarko’s plates is sign enough that it was not catering to kiddies. Likewise Miarko abandons the traditional alphabet book’s usual purpose and method of fostering literacy by associating each letter with an object on the page. Instead, each letter is merely the initial letter of the plate’s caption.
From ABC d’Art (1917) Miarko (Edmond Bouchard), colored by J. Saudé. Portfolio, corner closures with ribbon, Portfolio: H385 x W285 mm. Prints: H380 x W280 mm. 27 plates. Acquired from ADER Nordmann & Dominique, 16 March 2023. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
The Japonisme in Moore Park’s pages and Miarko’s plates would also have been another feature appealing more to adults than children. Whether it is the mice scampering on to and off the page or the bulk of the porcupine’s quills bristling just off the upper left of the page, the influence of Japanese wood engraving leaps off Moore Park’s pages. So, too, does his humor with the near tailless armadillo pursuing another armadillo’s tail or, more likely, its own in the lower right corner of the page. In Miarko’s case, the images break the frame of the large gold letters rather than the frame of the images.
The Art Nouveau period (1880s to 1920s) can be thanked not only for the advent of the artist’s book but also for drawing the alphabet book into its palette of material with which to make art.
An Alphabet of Animals(1990) Christopher Wormell Casebound in cloth, sewn, title label on front cover. 272 x 272 mm. 64 pages. Acquired from MacKellar Art & Books, 14 March 2023. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
An Alphabet of Animals has several distinguishing features. Its art and lettering come from handcut lino block prints. Each picture would require multiple blocks. To produce the images and color, each block would be inked and printed separately by hand.
Another distinguishing feature is how Wormell’s art and lettering recall that of William Nicholson’s The Square Book of Animals (1899), Carton Moore Park’s Alphabet of Animals (1899) and C.B. Falls’ ABC Book (1923).
A century after the heyday of Nicholson, Park and Falls, Wormell found himself in an entirely different tradition of alphabet books and style of art: the world of The Sesame Street Storybook Alphabet (1980), the Little Golden Books (1970s/80s) and the Ladybird alphabet of the 1960s.
Alphabets from Sesame Street, Golden Books and Ladybird.
Wormell’s range of color across the animals is also a distinguishing feature as is the color gradient technique. The alligator’s colors are almost murky, the lobster’s electric, and the xenops’ soft in comparison.
Lino printing a color gradient is tricky. More than one color of ink has to be applied to the same block. The gradients achieved by Wormell are genius. In some of the images, the gradation benefits from the texture of the paper showing through, captured in the color separation by scanner and offset printing of the book and demonstrating Wormell’s touch.
Note how the grain of the paper on which the print was made peeks through.
Another distinction — unintentional and for this particular copy only — is the endpaper treatment. The front endpapers — a doublure, one leaf of the end paper pasted to the board and one leaf free — present vintage images of animals, and the back doublure presents the same of birds. The free leaf is not actually free though.
At the front and back, these wallpaper-like leaves are glued to an original separate plain flyleaf in each case, which is detectable at the edges where one slightly overlaps the other.
The style of the decorated endpapers harks back to works like The Child’s Picture Book of Alphabets, published by Thomas Nelson & Sons in 1880 (see below). While the previous owner may have had good reason for adding these endpapers (and did or received a pretty good job of it), the contrast with Wormell’s book block is jarring.
From A Child’s Picture Book of Alphabets (1880), in the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Toronto Public Library.
The upside is that this copy inadvertently provides the student of alphabet books and illustration with a handy juxtaposition of the style of illustration against which Nicholson, Moore Park and Falls were reacting with Wormell’s distinctive revival of their approach, which in turn set his book apart from the late 20th century’s crowd.
William Nicholson’s An Alphabet appeared in 1898. Eighty years later, with access to the original woodblocks (thanks to William Heinemann Ltd, which subsequently placed them with the Victoria & Albert Museum), Whittington Press and Edward Craig found themselves in a position to reproduce this famous alphabet. Craig, the son of Edward (Ted) Gordon Craig, who learned wood engraving from Nicholson, also had his father’s diaries as well as his own memories on which to draw for the booklet that accompanies the prints in this folio box. It provides a rich and diverse background that adds to their enjoyment. Craig brings to life the context and ties of friendship in which Nicholson’s art came on the scene. He even includes prints from three blocks cut by Joseph Crawhall (he of Old Aunt Elspa’s ABC fame) to show the affinities between Nicholson’s lettering and images and those of Crawhall.
The booklet’s inclusion of 28 thumbnails of the reproduced prints is a helpful quick guide to the portfolio, but this particular edition contains 38 prints. Among them are some unused prints — a Quakeress, an Usher replaced by the Urchin, and alternative versions of the Jockey, Lady, Sportsman and Zoologist. Also included is a photo of the woodblock for the Quaker. Alongside Craig’s description of Nicholson’s two preferred courses of design and drawing, the discards and the photo offer a very real sense of Nicholson at work when placed side by side with the final designs:
After some preliminary scribbling … he would convey what he wanted from that scribble to a piece of very thin paper, or tracing paper, by inserting a black transfer paper between the two layers, then, peering into the maze of lines, he would select just those that he fancied and trace them through. …. His other method … was to draw direct onto the block with a brush heavily loaded with India ink, then, when it was dry, to refine the design by drawing over it with great care, using a softish pencil. The lead pencil shone like silver on the Indian ink and added to the excitement when the next process, that of cutting, revealed the beautiful honey-coloured boxwood below.
Discarded vs final
Discarded vs final
Discarded vs final
Discarded vs final
Discarded vs final
Discarded vs final
Photo of discarded block, final design
Craig’s booklet draws on Marguerite Steen’s 1943 biography as well as his father’s diaries, both sources rich in anecdotes and observations about Nicholson, James Pryde (his colorful partner in their J&W Beggarstaff Brothers venture), moments of time and place and the social circles in which they moved. Steen must have had access to Ted’s diaries or heard the tales directly from him. Here are Steen and Craig on a scene at the Denham “Eight Bells”, a defunct pub where William Nicholson, his wife Mabel and her brother James lived (Jimmy came to visit for two days and stayed two years):
Steen: The floor was littered with scraps of brown paper, black paper, red paper, William and Jimmy argued for hours about spacing–for which Jimmy had a great eye. Oddly enough, he was impatient and clumsy-handed when it came to execution…. With the scissors he was completely outclassed by William–who used a knife on glass, and on whom fell most of the execution of the schemes they planned together. … From all accounts, William did the lion’s share of the Beggarstaff work, so it is amusing to find in a published interview of the period Jimmy taking the lead, “telling the tale,” with only an occasional, rather lordly, reference to his partner. (p. 56)
Craig from Ted’s diary: One visit to Denham found Nicholson on the floor pinning out rolls of brown paper. With a brief ‘Hello Ted’, he carried on working at great speed with a penknife, cutting up pieces of black paper on which were scribbled a few guide lines in chalk and arranging the shapes to resemble a huge figure in a cloak. A face and hands from some buff-coloured paper were being produced by Jimmy, who was draped over a chair in the corner; these were ‘floated’ into position, then pinned. They stood on chairs to look down on their work, then added a few extra shapes in coloured paper here and there. Suddenly a figure like one of the Three Musketeers materialised. They seemed pleased enough, and Jimmy remarked that ‘it would be good for something’. (p. 3)
Several sources identify “A was an Artist” as Nicholson’s self-portrait, but might that three-quarters portrait of the Xylographer also be a self-portrait? Or is it his partner James Pryde in a portrait additional to the one of him in “B for Beggar”? Such is the speculation to which the warm color of Craig’s text and the vibrant reproductions created with Whittington Press would lead anyone exploring this portfolio.
Scolar Press redesigned and re-originated the 1900 edition and brilliantly chose this leporello format, which makes one wish that Nicholson had added the book as artistic medium to his toolkit, which besides woodcuts and wood engraving included lithographs, oils, watercolors, tempera, frescos, painting on glass and photography. Given his poster work for the theater and exposure to the stage (the actor Henry Irving was a family friend and source of free tickets, and actress Ellen Terry was the mother of his friend Ted Craig) and given his facility with paper as a medium, Nicholson could have made pop-up and tunnel books of genius. But portraits, landscapes and still life beckoned as Colin Campbell tracks and explores so well in his two books (see below).
In the Books On Books collection, several works provide enjoyable comparison with Nicholson’s art: Carton Moore Park’s Alphabet of Animals (1899), C.B. Falls’ ABC Book (1923), Christopher Wormell’s An Alphabet of Animals (1990), Enid Marx’s Marco’s Animal Alphabet (2000) and Nick Wonham’s A Charm of Magpies (2018).
alpha seltzer (2023) Helen Hajnoczky Canada balsa wood, hinged and clasped box, double-sided accordion structure attached to multicolored ribbons for vertical display. Box: H240 x W155 x D80 mm. Leporello panel: H178 x W126 mm. Open: 1041 cm. 56 panels. Acquired from the artist, 10 April 2023. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Letters and punctuation marks fall and rise and tumble in alpha seltzer like so many tablets of Alka-Seltzer. With her use of color, technique and orientation of the images, Hajnoczky holds to and takes the concept far beyond a one-trick visual metaphor. Anyone who has observed those dissolving heart-burn relief tablets closely will recognize how the colorless effervescing bubbles spin off each tablet in upwards and downwards directions. So, on the box cover’s title plate and on the first panel, colored drips surrounded by spatters rise from the title and fall from the artist’s name.
But what is it that the characters are dissolving in, and what are they dissolving into? Of course it’s just paper, but the Kodak Moment matte photo paper has a glossy shine suggesting a solution of water. As the accordion emerges from the box, a spattered and dripping red column made of overlapping characters (brackets, question mark, exclamation mark and ampersand) appears on the first panel; then with a shift to the left, the red column widens into one made of all the lowercase letters of the alphabet; then shifting back to the center, the column widens and comes closer; and then shifting to the right, it becomes a column of all the uppercase vowels overlapping. What is going on?
Now, the originally vertical column of brackets, question mark, exclamation point and ampersand goes horizontal and black, dripping pink and gray into the next panel of horizontal uppercase vowels in black, dripping gray, pink and black into a horizontal jumble of lowercase letters.
Then the characters bend into a deep red curve spattered and dripping in gray, eventually morphing into a ball of red vowels. Beneath that, the palette goes entirely black and gray, and the characters begin to angle down the panel into a heap of letters sliding downwards from right to left across the panel and squeezed at the bottom …
… until they have to cascade down from left to right, which is when a riot of color breaks out. At the end of the accordion, you realize there’s another loop; which side is up, which is down?
On the other side of the accordion, the riot of colors continues, but each panel presents a single-color uppercase letter that seems to be dissolving like an Alka-Seltzer tablet into multicolor lowercase versions of itself.
With layout, color, technique and metaphor, Hajnockzky has coaxed an element of abstraction from the alphabet that differs from the semiotic abstraction by which letters have come to be what they are. But in the end, it’s not a confusion from which relief is wanted. Rather it’s one in which to fall, be immersed and enjoy. And to have a laugh at the expense of the Dr. Miles Medicine Company of Elkhart, Indiana and its subsequent owner Bayer AG for missing a marketing trick for Alka-Seltzer tablets.
Magyarázni (2016) Helen Hajnoczky Perfect bound paperback. H210 x W140 mm. 104 pages. Acquired from the author, 14 December 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
With all those diacritics and dipthongs, if there is an alphabet song in Hungarian, it must be operatic in length. It is fortunate, though, that it is as long as it is; otherwise we would have fewer poems in this volume by Helen Hajnoczky.
Hajnoczky is second-generation Hungarian-Canadian. These poems use the two languages to reflect on her dual roots of culture and the roots of memory. And for both, what better vehicle than an alphabet book. Even though there are 44 letters in Hungarian compared to 26 in English, Hajnoczky is a greedy poet, and taking her title literally — Magyarázni means “make it Hungarian” — she includes poems for the letters Q, W, X and Y even though Hungarian has no need of the phonemes behind them.
Hajnoczky does not shy away from growing up in the English-language poetic tradition. In the poem below, she appropriates Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”, turning and twisting its metaphor into one for her experience of growing up with two languages, making the letter Y and Robert Frost Hungarian.
Some of the poems might remind readers of Seamus Heaney. For the letter í (for Írástudatlanság/”ignorance, illiteracy”), Hajnoczky delves into the metaphor of the pen in a way that surely would have brought a smile to Heaney as a nod to his “Digging”; or he might have heard an echo of “Clearances” in Lyuk/”hole”) for the dipthong Ly when she hears a relative commenting on her needle-wielding: “you are/ Never going to sew anything/ as good as your grandmother”.
Hajnoczky calls the images facing the text “visual poems”. To create them, she has drawn from a difficult-to-find spiral bound book put together by Péter Czink and Lorraine Weideman. As with Alphaseltzer, the results are visually striking. Coach House Books has nicely complemented the images and type with vegetable-based ink and Zephyr Antique Laid paper.
Alphabet People (1989) Peter and Donna Thomas Miniature codex with illustrated paper over boards, endband, sewn. H60.5 x W47.5 mm. 64 pages. Edition of 200, of which this is an artist’s proof. Acquired from Bromer’s Books, 16 February 2023. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Peter and Donna Thomas have made several alphabet artists’ books. One made in the shape of an Apple MAC, one in the shape of mushrooms, one celebrating views of Yosemite, one for musical instruments (accordion to zither, of course), one for spring wildflowers and one, of course, just for the letters themselves.
This one may be their earliest. Handset in Greeting Monotone and letterpress printed by Peter Thomas on peach-colored handmade paper. The same paper is used for covering the boards. As with all the initials in the book, the alphabet on the cover and pastedown title card is inked in red. The illustrations are reproductions of twenty-seven line drawings by their daughter Tanya Thomas.
Seen end-on, the book shows some of its fine press features, especially the two-color sewn endbands and tight turn-ends of the cover paper. Handmade paper characterizes much of the Thomases’ output, and their interest in papermaking has extended as far as Africa, the Philippines and Totnes, Devon, England.
From the publisher’s description of the second edition:
A self-taught hand papermaker, Peter Thomas became interested in knowing how apprentice-trained hand papermakers working in production hand papermills made paper. He especially wanted to learn the “vatman’s shake,” the series of motions that papermakers used to form their sheets of paper. This desire circuitously led him and Donna to Tuckenhay, near Totnes, Devon, in England, where beginning in 1988, they recorded several hand papermakers, returning to make others in 1990 and 1994. The book begins with a short history of Tuckenhay Mill and the story about meeting the papermakers and recording their interviews. This is followed by eight interviews of men and women, some of whom worked in the Mill from between the World Wars until it closed in 1970. All of the papermakers are now deceased, but the stories – in their own words – remain an extraordinary, entertaining, and timeless record of their lives and work. In the 1830s, Richard Turner started manufacturing paper by hand in the Tuckenhay Mill, and paper was continuously made by hand there until 1962. From then until 1970, the Mill produced pulp (half-stuff) until the business went bankrupt….
The Thomases’ works are well represented at in University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Special Collections. Some of the several particularly related to papermaking — as well as other paper-related ones from the Books On Books Collection — are listed below. Any study of the intersection of book art and paper could not help but include Peter and Donna Thomas.
One and Everything(2022) Sam Winston Casebound with illustrated paper over boards. H265 x W255 mm. 48 unnumbered pages. Acquired 23 November 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.
Sometimes you just know that you have read a classic. This is one of those times. Winston and Candlewick Press (Walker Books in the UK) have worked a fresh tale, tone and meaning together with image, color, design and production values to an extraordinary level. Inspired by Tim Brookes’ “Endangered Alphabets Project“, Winston uses the striking shapes of letters and scripts from the Latin, Ogham, Cherokee, Armenian, Hebrew, Tibetan and dozens more alphabets and syllabaries to create the characters in his fable about the story that decides one day that it is the One and Only story.
Shapes like single-celled creatures (each filled with a different alphabet) represent the many stories existing before “The One” arrives.
“The One” is made of the English (i.e., Latin or Roman) alphabet. Will it listen to and make sense of all these other stories?
The fable of One and Everything does more than support the notion that alphabets and languages can be endangered. Implicit in the fate of the “One and Everything” story” is the message that Babel was more of a blessing than a curse.
Readers familiar with Winston’s A Dictionary Story and his collaboration with Oliver Jeffers in A Child of Books (both below) will recognize a growing refinement and, now, breadth and depth in Winston’s storytelling. The youngest audience and beginning readers will be held by the shapes, colors and simplicity of the story. Older readers will easily grasp its underlying meanings and be intrigued by the variety of letters and scripts and the idea that languages and alphabets can die. Still older readers and teachers will appreciate the helpful resources following the story’s ending invitation. At all levels, the audience will delight in Winston’s creation of his characterful abstractions with letters from the alphabets and scripts identified in those resources. Those with an eye for such artistry will appreciate Winston’s extension of a tradition embraced by Paul Cox, Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, Sharon Forss and Nicolas McDowall.
A forest made of fore-edges. A raft made of spines and its sail a book page. A wave and a path made of excerpts from books. In this fabulous world made from the features of books, the simpatico imaginations of Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston deliver a heroine and an invitation that are hard to resist.
Promotional poster. Displayed with permission of Sam Winston.
In addition to the poster above and the trade book it promotes, Winston created an artist’s book edition celebrated by this hallway gallery below mounted by the British Library shortly after its appearance.
A Child of Books prints displayed at the British Library, 9 August – 27 September 2019.
Winston’s abiding love of letters, words and stories shines through in A Child of Books. Arguably, it has its origins in an earlier work whose story is told by his invention of a very different “child of books”.
A Dictionary Story (2001 – 2020)
Since its origin as a student project in 2001, A Dictionary Story has appeared in an accordion book form as a fine press edition and two trade editions and as single-sheet prints. The Books On Books Collection holds the fine press edition and the second trade edition, both of which have in common a vertical flush-right single-word column that tells the story and the immediately adjacent vertical flush-left column of definitions of the words in the story. In the fine press edition, the two columns meet at each mountain peaks of the accordion fold.
A Dictionary Story (2006) Sam Winston Slipcased leporello between cloth-covered boards.H360 x W140 mm, 25 panels. Story text set in 9 point Times Roman by Sam Winston. Book designed by Richard Bonner-Morgan and Sam Winston. Printed by David Holyday at Trichrom Limited. Bound at Quality Art Reproductions, England. Published by Circle Press. Edition of 100, of which this is #68. Acquired from the artist, 30 May 2018. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.
“Once there was a time when all the books knew what they were about. But there was one book that was never sure of itself.”
Panels 2-5 from the fine press edition; detail of panels 2-3.
So begins Winston’s tale about this uncertain book. The book never sure of itself is the Dictionary, which of course it must be, otherwise the tale would not be called “A Dictionary Story”. The Dictionary is jealous of all the other books because they are “properly read”, whereas she is just flicked through from time to time. A bit like the “One” in One and Everything, the Dictionary seems to think she contains all the stories imaginable, because she contain all the words — just not in the right order. So she decides to bring her words to life as characters to see what will happen. Words and letters fly about, enacting the story as if in a concrete poem. A meaningful tussle between text and image is a frequent feature for artists’ books as well as visual poetry.
Another defining aspect of book art is its self-referential nature. In an interview with Typeroom, Winston captures this in his response to the question “What is Dictionary Story all about?”:
Dictionary Story is a playful way of exploring some of our presumptions around the printed word. Or you could say that it looks towards a tool we are given at a very young age – the Dictionary – and invites us to actually think about how that works. Here’s a device that is designed to explain a word’s meaning by offering further words in its place – to me that is remarkable. This is a type of knowledge that can only explain itself through referencing itself. As a visual person the image that comes to mind is a giant, never ending, Möbius strip of language twisting back on itself.
Of course for less visual persons, the Dictionary’s whim engenders chaos, which Winston, a dyslexic, can appreciate. So he brings onstage (or “onpage”) the Books, of whom the Dictionary was jealous, to remonstrate that if words become disconnected from their definitions, how will they the Books know what they are about? Insisting that she tame her words, they have the Dictionary’s Introduction introduce her bewildered words to the character “Alphabet”.
Making the journey over the hills and valleys of A Dictionary Story is satisfying, and re-making it is even more satisfying and delightful each time. The making and re-making of A Dictionary Story must also have been satisfying and delightful for Sam Winston; he has done it so many times.
A Dictionary Story (2013) Sam Winston Three five-panel accordion folded sections in a plastic sleeve cover. Second trade edition. Sleeve: H205 x W160 mm. Sections: H200 x W150 mm, 15 panels. Acquired from the artist, 13 December 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Watching the artist adjust the typography of A Dictionary Story to changing dimensions is like watching a star tennis player who is also a star basketball player and star soccer (football) player. There’s always a ball, there’s always a net, there’s always genius.
The trade edition splits the fine press edition into three less narrow leporellos and nudges some of the two columns (story/definition) into the valley fold. Below, in the trade edition across panels 3 and 4 is where the Dictionary decides to bring her words to life, and on the right side of the fourth panel, the words begin to slip away from the fold.
The same part of the story in the fine press edition occurs on the fourth panel below, and the words tilt against the fold.
These variations create subtly different narrative paces and visual impressions in the two editions. Not one better than the other, just different. The poster variations, however, subordinate narrative pace entirely to visual impression. At present, the posters are not in the collection, but the images below help to make the point. As with movie goers, some will like the prints more than the books, others the books more than the prints, and still others will marvel at the genius in all of them.
If all alphabets have a world view, can an alphabet be bent and arranged into a new world view? In 2018, the Nova Scotia Chapter of the Global Afrikan Congress facilitated a “book-in-a-day” event to help the children of Halifax create an alphabet book that answers that question. Bending and arranging the human body to make letters has a long tradition in book illustration. Drawing on that tradition, the participating children gave voice and body to create R is for Reparations, an alphabet book calling for a new world view on reparations for the damage and legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
The Reparations Movement has a long history, and Halifax, Nova Scotia has played a part. In 2010, the City of Halifax issued a formal apology and $5 million in general compensation for the razing of the Black community Africville in the 1960s (see Further Reading).
Anticipating it final report in July 2023 to the state legislature, the Californian Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans called for significant financial compensation. The governor issued a tepid if not cool response, which may be unsurprising even in the wake of his earlier signing and endorsing of legislation returning Bruce’s Beach to the Black family from whom the government appropriated it in 1924 (see Further Reading). It is an emotionally and politically complicated issue for some.
The foreword by Denise Gillard takes a less complicated view as might be expected in a children’s book, and as R is for Reparations addresses primarily Afrikans and Afrikan Descendants both on the Afrikan Continent and in the Diaspora, that view is strong and forceful. It is the sort of children’s book that would be banned in some US school libraries, but as the voices and bodies of its multi-racial cast of participants imply, it is the sort of book that those schools’ children could fearlessly manage.
Not every page is as strong as the next, but the influence of Amos Paul Kennedy Jr., Master Printer, who attended to support the children in making posters for the book launch, is evident in the colors, collage and overprinting. The book deserves comparison and contrast with the Books On Books Collection’s related holdings (see Further Reading).
American Alphabets(2005) Wendy Ewald Casebound with white headbands and colored doublures. H305 x W260 mm. 168 pages. Acquired from Judd Books, 17 September 2022. Photos of book: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.
As seen throughout the Books On Books Collection, book art is more often than not a collaborative effort — even if only in the final stages of printing and binding. Ewald’s works, however, depend from the start on collaboration with her subjects — the children. Another recurrent aspect — perhaps the core aspect — in book art is the interaction of the visual and verbal. So, too, in Ewald’s art. In American Alphabets, she brings the collaborative and visual/verbal aspects of book art together at the elemental level of the alphabet. It is the children who pick the letters, words and their illustrative objects to be photographed. In the book’s “Afterword”, Ewald writes:
Like most everyone I know, I first encountered written language in children’s alphabet primers. Looking back, I now see that the words and visual examples used to represent letters reinforced the world view of the middle-class white girl I happened to be. … Putting together these various alphabets — each of them at once American and foreign — taught me a lot about written language, especially about how we have come to take this sophisticated and fundamental medium for granted. … The shape of letters mimicked the objects for which they were named. The letter R, for example, came from the Egyptian hieroglyphic for head or chief: resh. … When Woroud, one of my students from Queens, chose the word raas, or “head,” to represent the letter R, it seemed natural enough. I was startled, though, when she insisted that her head be photographed in profile, just as in the drawing of the ancient letter.
An abiding aim of Ewald’s art is to elicit or allow her collaborators’ voices and world views to create communities that overcome differences by celebrating differences. The reduced, screen-bound images here do not do justice to her four alphabets in one volume or her portraiture and photographic artistry. They may, however, convey the breadth and racial inclusivity of her vision. Arab-American, Latinx-American, White American and Black American are the American alphabets that Ewald aims to capture in this volume.
Another of Ewald’s projects ripe for an artist’s book — or rather artists’ book — is Black Self/White Self (1994-1997). Imagine the book she might create from her young collaborators’ efforts if they were brought to Penland, Women’s Studio Workshop or Art Metropole. Here is the North Carolina-based project in her own words:
When I began working in Durham’s inner city, more and more of the white population had moved to the suburbs and the public schools became segregated along city-county lines. Proposals to merge the school systems were stymied by objections from both sides.
In 1994, after the Durham school systems were finally merged, I designed a collaborative project that looked directly at the issue of race. I asked children to write about themselves, then to write another version, this time imagining themselves as members of another race.
This was greeted first with silence, then laughter, and finally with an enthusiastic barrage of questions.
Once the children had completed their written portraits, I photographed them posing as their “black” and “white” selves, using props they had brought from home. I gave them the large-format negatives to alter or write on, in keeping with ideas from their written portraits, so they could further describe the characters they had imagined themselves to be.