Books On Books Collection – Michele Durkson Clise

Animal Alphabet: Folding Screen (1992)

Animal Alphabet: Folding Screen (1992)
Michele Durkson Clise
Accordion book. H160 x W160 mm, 13 panels. Chronicle Books © 1992, Marquand Books, Inc. & Michele Durkson Clise. Acquired from Greensleeves Books, 7 September 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Perhaps better known for her earlier series of detective stories about a toy bear named Ophelia, Michele Durkson Clise’s accordion book stands out among alphabet books for its text, graphic art and twist on the genre’s usual categories.

Animals are the most frequent topic of alphabet books, and the most usual text structure is a single letter to a page, accompanied or followed by an animal (or animals) whose name begins with the letter. Another common text structure is the hidden letter, where the letter has to be guessed from the image or is hidden in the image.

In Clise’s Animal Alphabet, instead of the single letter, we have a single animal corresponding not to a letter but to the animal’s name at the end of a rhyming couplet. Where are the letters? There is no D for dog on the first page normally belonging to A, but the page normally belonging to B does show a bear. Was something missed on the first page; might the dog might be a Lhasa Apso? Not with those ears and that tail. And back to the bear; where is the letter B?

The disconnect between alphabetical order and the animals depicted is distracting and enjoyable. The pauses and stumbles it causes lead to looking closely at the images, perhaps postponing discovery of the letters. From where did these striking images come with their black and white engravings of the animals against varied backgrounds of light or dark green, light or dark brown and light gray on glossy card stock? The fine lines in the animal images suggest etching. Several of the backgrounds appear to be wood engravings. In a trade book, the printing is surely offset, from which the technique of drawing is hard to tell. Perhaps the answer resides in the artist archive at the Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library in the Seattle Art Museum. Or in someone’s encyclopedic eye for antique prints.

Despite the “distractions” of the accordion fold, the pull of the anapest (tum-ti-tum) rhythm and the animals aligned with rhyme not the letters, the somewhat hidden letters eventually emerge. For the reader not attuned to acrostics, there they are at the start of each couplet’s lines: Alligator, Bobolink, Crocodile, Dromedary … Yellowhammer, Zebra.

Which is it — “necessity, the mother of invention” or ”invention, the mother of necessity”? Whichever, with Clise’s Animal Alphabet, we have the necessary and right letters, words, lines, rhyme, rhythm, textual, graphic and material structure.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection. 31 March 2020.

Blamires, David. 1990. Adult alphabets: examples of English press alphabet books from the last hundred years with an alphabetical description, copious illustrations and a checklist of press alphabet books. Oxford: Hanborough Parrot.

Cooper, Cathie Hilterbran. 1996. ABC books and activities: from preschool to high school. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press.

Mackey, Bonnie, and Hedy Watson. 2016. Alphabet Books: The K-12 Educators’ Power Tool. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.