From children’s picture book to artist’s book and back, certain techniques and tropes with the alphabet recur. Finding an image in a letter or making an image from a letter may be the oldest, not surprising given the pictorial origins of almost all writing systems. Lisa Campbell Ernst freshened this approach with a structural twist that does not rely on pop-ups, flaps, pull-tabs, a volvelle, accordion tunnel or any of the other moving part standbys of children’s books. Rather the whole book moves — as its title suggests.
Ernst’s inventiveness with foreground, background and negative space holds its own in the illustrious company of illustrators, designers and artists below under Further Reading.
A Bodoni Charade (1995) Nicolas McDowall Miniature accordion attached to paper over boards. H59 x W67 mm. 32 panels. Edition of 240, of which this is #1. Acquired from Bromers Bookseller, 16 August 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
A Bodoni Charade expresses a rare wit with 26 imaginative and original unions of letters, decorative type, text and images. The accordion joined to the front and back covers discourages stretching it out for reading and encourages turning the pages codex style. Just as well — the jokes should be savored no more than two at a time, and enjoying the execution of letterpress skill demands it. Notice how the letter g’s descenders kiss the bottom edge of the page as if they are about to fall into space. Glance — or look hard — at the icicle, and you will swear that the lowercase i’s dot is actually dripping. And enjoy how the lowercase j demotes the judgmental uppercase letter J by sharing its jester’s cap bobble.
The Hidden Alphabet (2003) Laura Vaccaro Seeger Die-cut dustjacket. Casebound, alphabet-decorated paper over boards, doublures attached as first and last pages. H225 x W210 mm. 54 unnumbered pages. Acquired from Plain Tales Books, 18 September 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
When removed, The Hidden Alphabet‘s die-cut dustjacket offers a clue to the magic about to happen.
Inside the book, white letters on a glossy black die-cut sheet name the object framed inside the cutout. But lift the black frame, and the object disappears into the uppercase letter appearing on the page underneath: the first letter of the object’s name that just disappeared.
The optical illusion created by the shifting foreground mesmerizes and will prompt a race through this abecedary to see the next bit of magic. But for the teacher or parent reading with the child, Laura Vaccaro Seeger has subtly planted another traditional feature of the alphabet book to be used in a second pass through the book. Learning the difference between lowercase and uppercase characters becomes part of the trick of lifting the flap to move from the small to the big. And for the more serious students of the alphabet and art, the magic calls attention to the metamorphic boundary between text and image