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.
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.
The title of Tupoka Ogette’s book translates literally as “A Racism-critical Alphabet”, but “An Anti-Racist Alphabet” seems more idiomatic. More than an alphabet book, it is a workbook arising from her consultancy for companies, organizations and associations wanting to understand how racism manifests itself and how to address it. Given the consultancy’s focus on German-speaking countries, the book relates tightly to the firm’s workshops, podcasts, etc., so it is not too surprising that it hasn’t been translated into English yet.
The depth of the problem in English-speaking countries, however, results in most of the terms’ being in the English language: terms like “Ally”, “Blackfacing”, “Colorism”, “Derailing”, “Emotional Tax”, “Gaslighting”, “Happyland”, “Jim Crow”, “Liberation”, “Othering”, “Queer”, “Race-based Traumatic Stress”, “Tokenism”, “White Gaze” and “Yellowfacing”. Add to those terms such cognates as Kolonialismus, N-wort and Xenophobie and it is almost a shock that the text is not in English.
Zurück zum Anfang (“Back to the Beginning”). “The anti-racist alphabet ends here, but the anti-racist journey, and especially your conscious decision to be an Ally, begins anew every day. Every morning you face the choice: Am I looking? Do I stand up as an ally against a racist system? Do I continue to learn? Or do I stay in good old Happyland today? If you are White, you have that choice, but you also have a responsibility. Reminder: A person who actively and continuously stands up against a discriminatory system of which he himself is privileged and therefore not negatively affected.” P. 115.
The book’s interior display pages are striking and reminiscent of Ursula Hochuli-Gamma’s 26 farbige Buchstaben (1986) / “26 Colored Letters“, but the cover and text design are very much in the vein of professional trade books for the German market. Adapting the design for the English-language market might present more of a challenge than adapting the text.
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).
While working on the “Alphabets Alive!” exhibition with the Bodleian to open in July 2023, I came across this project site page by Yevhen Berdnikov, a calligrapher based in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Since “Alphabets Alive!” would primarily concern the creative relationship of artists’ books with alphabets and other writing systems, an AI-generated rendition of the alphabet (humankind’s second-greatest invention, language being the first) was a natural for inclusion. Given the short notice, the artist’s lack of bookmaking experience and — oh yes — the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and attacks on Kyiv, a book was out of the question. Still, with one of the exhibition’s display cases being devoted to artists’ books driven by calligraphy and another to ones driven by color, some way of including these letter images prompted by Yevhen Berdnikov and generated by the text-to-image AI Midjourney from the company of the same name begged to be found.
Paper Cut Alphabet (2023)
Paper Cut Alphabet (2023) Yevhen Berdnikov Poster. H x W. Acquired from Yevhen Berdnikov, 8 March 2023. Images courtesy of Yevhen Berdnikov and reproduced with permission.
When the digital file for the poster first arrived, the treatment of letter Z was a surprise. Even without its current caption, the implication of the treatment was obvious to anyone who knew Berdnikov’s nationality and had seen news images of Russian tanks and military vehicles with Z painted on them. An AI-generated letter Z exists in the Paper Cut Alphabet Project’s files, but, in preparing the poster for a public exhibition, Berdnikov could not bring himself to prompt the AI to generate a symbol that had become intolerable and particularly loathsome on the anniversary of the invasion.
Chance is a well-known muse to many artists. Midjourney, the application, requires an extensive amount of “prompting” — detailed text describing the image it will create. As Berdnikov notes above, the same text can generate different results, which implies an element of randomization at work in the application. But how could a randomizing function yield a meaningful absence of image in response to prompting text? How could machine learning enable Midjourney on its own to compile this version of the alphabet without that particular and human creative intervention?
Even while acknowledging his intervention in Paper Cut Alphabet, Berdnikov insists that he is not the artist, but isn’t his use of Midjourney analogous to Vermeer’s presumed use of a camera obscura to achieve the detail and perspective we see in his paintings? If he did use that technology, does it warrant calling his paintings “device-generated”? Even so, this viewer “feels” the human artists behind View of Houses in Delft (c. 1658) and Paper Cut Alphabet (2023).
Berdnikov’s comments above and his demurrer at being named the “artist” of Paper Cut Alphabet reflect an inquisitive, open and thoughtful mind. Whatever its undetermined implications, the result of his wielding this new artist’s tool is decidedly art.
Gone Wild: An Endangered Animal Alphabet(2016) David McLimans Casebound, illustrated paper over boards, illustrated doublures, sewn book block. Illustrated, debossed glossy paper dustjacket. H255 x W285 mm. 36 unnumbered pages. Acquired from Gargoyle Books, 25 August 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
In the history of children’s books, the alphabet looms large, and among alphabet books, animal alphabets make up the largest category. But why animals?
For learning and teaching letters, they are easily recognized and mnemonically effective. Illustrators can wrap them around letters, make them twist themselves into letters or hide them behind letters. Designers can hide them on tabs behind letters, make them pop out, parade them across leporellos (accordion books), let them lurk in tunnel books or put them on a paper disk to appear and disappear in a volvelle’s window. Writers can weave stories with animals and letters, put animals and letters together in puns and surprising scenarios or use alliteration and rhyme with them to reinforce letter recognition and reading. For authors more paleographically and philosophically inclined, the answer to “Why animals?” might be sought in the origins of the alphabet’s first letter as James Rumford does in There’s a Monster in the Alphabet (2002) and Don Robb and Anne Smith do in Ox, House, Stick (2007).
Whatever the cause, ever since John Hart’s A Methode, or Comfortable Beginning for All Unlearned (1570), which appears to be the first example of teaching the English alphabet with illustrations, we have had an explosion of imagination and wit choosing, finding or making up animals, birds, fish, insects and reptiles with which to decorate the letters, to make from letters (or make letters with), to be disguised with abstractions or to be hidden, revealed or popped out from behind letters. Now, in reverse over four centuries later, the alphabet has been mustered for teaching the endangered state of those creatures.
While E.N. Ellis, Bert Kitchen, the team of Alan Robinson and Suzanne Moore all allot only one letter and the dodo to make the point, Dick King-Smith and Quentin Blake together devote almost all of their Alphabeasts (1990) to examples of extinction, as do Jerry Pallotta and Ralph Masiello in The Extinction Alphabet Book (1993).
Left to right: from E.N. Ellis’s An Alphabet; Bert Kitchen’s Animal Alphabet; Alan Robinson and Suzanne Moore’s A Fowl Alphabet.
Quentin Blake’s page-by-page visual narrative married to Dick King-Smith’s opening verses in Alphabeasts.
With Gone Wild, David McLimans adds a complex and subtle device to the explosion. The book is not so much about learning the alphabet with animals as learning about animals with the alphabet — or rather with “alphabetic art”. Wielding computer, pencil, pen, brush and India ink on bristol board, David McLimans redraws the alphabet’s capital letters to look like animals not yet extinct but on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Even traditional alphabet book design subtly serves as a teaching tool about these animals. Notice how McLimans and John Candell, the book’s designer, turn the traditional presentation of uppercase and lowercase letters into a kind of running head that underscores the common and scientific names of each animal. Even the list of facts on each species — their habitats, geographic ranges, threats to survival and statuses — receives meaningful thematic design touches from the use of two-color printing — blood red and extinction black.
After the brief red-on-black thumbnails and descriptions following Grevy’s Zebra, McLimans provides further reading (online and in print). You have to go beyond a quick dive into the address he provides for the IUCN to find the Red List (see address above). There you will learn how up to the minute this book was in 2016 — and, unfortunately, still is.
Gerald Lange’s choice of “How the First Letter Was Written” and “How the Alphabet Was Made” from Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories (1902) for this elaborate, delicate but robust edition was fitting. By 1997, he had founded the Bieler Press (1975), co-founded the Alliance for Contemporary Book Arts (1987) and edited its journal AbraCadaBrA for seven years, had been the Master Printer at USC Fine Arts Press and selected as the first recipient of the prestigious Carl Hertzog Award for Excellence in Book Design (1991) and was about to publish the first edition of his Printing Digital Type on the Hand-Operated Flatbed Cylinder Press (now in its fifth edition, 2018). In keeping with his interests leading up to this work, Lange letterpress-printed it from handset Monotype Pastonchi and a digitally altered version of Berthold Post Antiqua. More to the point, as he noted on the Bieler Press site, he chose the stories for “their affinity with subjects related to the lettering arts”. If that affinity is not clear enough from the text, Lange’s treatment underscores it in subtly ingenious ways.
Kipling attributes the drawings throughout to his heroine, Taffi and her father. Where others like Macmillan Children’s Books have rendered them boldly, Lange prints the primitive petroglyph-like images on separate Gampi sheets inserted between the folded Kitakata text leaves of the tortoise shell edge-sewn binding. Those text leaves are individually water colored on their reverse sides (urazaiki manner based on nihonga painting) so that the pictographs beneath reveal themselves through a striated layer. The color and striations are reminiscent of cave paintings. Additional Asian papers (Kasuiri and Chirizome for end sheets, Cogan Grass for covers) increase the work’s tactility — simultaneously soft and rough, flimsy and tough — and contribute a grassy smell redolent of the stories’ physical setting.
The quality and rightness of choices in structure, material and process have placed several of Lange’s works in The British Library, University of California (various), Columbia University, Harvard University, University of Minnesota, New York Public Library, Princeton University, Stanford University, Victoria and Albert Museum, Yale University and others. The initial reason bringing this particular work into the Books On Books collection was its representation of book art inspired by the alphabet. That Robin Price, several of whose works are also in the Books On Books collection, assisted with the design came as a bonus. That this is one of the last bound copies of The Neolithic Adventures of Taffi-Mai Metallu-Mai makes it a treasure.
Along the Victor Hugo-esque theme of “alphabets all around”, here is a beachcomber’s eye for rock shapes with which to construct not only a complete alphabet but also the images necessary for an abecedary.
Not only a b-shaped stone, but also one shaped like a bird. Likewise a c-shaped stone, but this time a miniature sofa to accommodate the resident stone with a shape to complete the phrase.
McGuirk has spotted stones for verbs as well as adjectives and nouns — all equally astonishing in their serendipity, humor and insight. Perhaps the last is best: the match of the z-shaped stone with a word beginning with z that matches a numeral-shaped stone that, arguably, reproduces the concept at its eroded center.
On their website, the studio posted an automated gif of this typographic experiment involving software-generated compositions (archived here).
Beautiful typography meets beautiful calligraphy at the other end of the spectrum of technique in the Books On Books Collection with Francesca Lohmann’s later calligraphic work An Accumulated Alphabet (2017).
Experimental Jetset (a phrase excerpted from the title of a 1994 Sonic Youth album) is an Amsterdam-based design collective founded by Danny van den Dungen, Marieke Stolk and Erwin Brinker in 1997. New York’s MoMA, clearly a fan of the studio’s work, holds a significant collection of their work. From the studio’s description of it here, their participation in MoMA’s 2012 exhibition Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language clearly influenced Automatically Arranged Alphabets, whose series of automated sketches were made in 2014-15.