Books On Books Collection – Don Robb and Anne Smith

Ox, House, Stick (2007)

Ox, House, Stick: The History of Our Alphabet (2007)
Don Robb (text) and Anne Smith (ills)
Casebound, illustrated paper over boards. H280 x W217 mm. 48 pages.Acquired from The Saint Bookstore, 14 August 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Text copyright © 2007 by Donald Robb. Illustrations copyright © 2007 by Anne Smith/Lilla Rogers Studio.
Used with permission by Charlesbridge Publishing, Inc. 9 Galen Street, Suite 220, Watertown, MA 02472. (617)-926 0329  

A fair number of fiction and non-fiction children’s books on the history of the alphabet have made their way into the Books On Books Collection.

Of the fiction variety, there is Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Story” of the alphabet’s invention: How the Alphabet Was Made (1983), illustrated by Chloe Cheese. Another fiction entry is James Rumford’s retelling of Cadmus’ visit to Crete in There’s a Monster in the Alphabet (2002) and William Joyce’s inventive The Numberlys (2014).

In the non-fiction category are William Dugan’s How Our Alphabet Grew (1972), Tiphaine Samoyault’s Alphabetical Order (1998), Renzo Rossi’s The Revolution of the Alphabet (2009) and the entry here: Don Robb’s and Anne Smith’s Ox, House, Stick.

Ox, House, Stick is scheduled to appear as part of an exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford (opening 15 July 2023). “A is for Ox” designates the display case devoted to the question: Where did the alphabet come from? It’s not just a question for archaeologists, historians, linguists and paleographers — or children’s book authors and illustrators. It’s one generating repeated inspiration for book artists as shown by Abe Kuipers’ Letters (1971), Lanore Cady’s Houses & Letters (1977), another rendition of the Kipling tale by Gerald Lange in The Neolithic Adventures of Taffi-Mai Metallu-Mai (1997), designed by Gerald Lange and produced with Robin Price, Dave Wood’s Alphabetica (2002), Cari Ferraro’s The First Writing (2004), and Helen Malone’s Alphabetic Codes (2005).

Artists’ books share much with children’s books in general. They both play with form and structure. They play with words and images, sometimes images without words and sometimes just shapes. Almost always an attention to all the senses. Children’s alphabet books in particular display features that appeal to book artists: play with animals, the Babel of languages, bodies, calligraphy, colors, design (of letters, page and book) and, as above, alphabet origin stories. Viewing and exploring alphabet books and artist’s books side by side heightens the enjoyment and appreciation of both.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Lanore Cady“. 16 December 2022. Books On Books Collection. Artist’s book.

William Dugan“. Books On Books Collection. [In progress]

Cari Ferraro“. 1 February 2023. Books On Books Collection. Artist’s book.

William Joyce“. 18 June 2021. Books On Books Collection.Illustrated children’s book.

Rudyard Kipling and Chloë Cheese“. 15 February 2023. Books On Books Collection. Illustrated children’s book.

Rudyard Kipling and Gerald Lange“. Artist’s book. [In progress]

Abe Kuipers“. 15 February 2023. Books On Books Collection. Artist’s book.

Helen Malone“. 23 July 2020. Books On Books Collection. Artist’s book.

Renzo Rossi“. Books On Books Collection. Illustrated children’s book. [In progress]

James Rumford. 21 November 2022. Books On Books Collection. Illustrated children’s book.

Tiphaine Samoyault“. Books On Books Collection. Illustrated children’s book. [In progress]

Animal alphabets & artists’ books

Marie Angel, An Animated Alphabet (1996)

Leonard Baskin, Hosie’s Alphabet (1972)

Paul Cox, Abstract Alphabet: A Book of Animals (2001)

E.N. Ellis, An Alphabet (1985)

C.B. Falls, ABC Book (1957)

David L. Kulhavy & Charles D. Jones, A Forest Insect Alphabet (2013)

Enid Marx, Marco’s Animal Alphabet (2000)

Carol Schwartzott, ABC of Birds (2020)

Borje Svensson & James Diaz, Animals (1982)

John Norris Wood, An Alphabet in Praise of Toads & Frogs (2002)

Babel, alphabets & artists’ books

Golnar Adili, Father Gave Water/Baabaa Aab Daad (2022)

Islam Aly, 28 Letters (2013)

Brynja Baldursdottír, Fuþark (1992)

Ellen Heck, A is for Bee (2022)

Tatyana Mavrina, Сказочная Азбука / Skazochnaia Azbuka / A Fairy Tale Alphabet (1969)

Claire Jeanine Satin, Alphabook (1998/99)

Ben Shahn, The Alphabet of Creation (1954)

Jana Sim, Both but between (2021)

Sam Winston, One and Everything (2022)

Bodies & artists’ books

Anthon Beeke, Alphabet (1970)

Anthon Beeke & René Knip, Body Type (2011)

Edward Gorey, Figbash Acrobate (1994) In progress

Toshifumi Kawahara, Dancing Alphabet (1991)

Françoise and Douglas Kirkland, Physical Poetry Alphabet (2018)

Marie Lancelin, Gestes Alphabétiques (2014)

Lisa Merkin, Bodies of Language (2021)

Annette Messager, Mes Enluminaires (1988) [In progress]

Vítězslav Nezval, Abeceda/Alphabet (1926/2001)

Rowland Scherman, Love Letters (1975) [In progress]

Calligraphy, alphabets and artists’ books

Mari Angel, Marie Angel’s Exotic Alphabet (1992)

Tauba Auerbach, How to Spell the Alphabet (2007)

Rebecca Bingham, Lady Letters (1986)

Rebecca Bingham, Alphabet Salmagundi (1988)

Carol DuBosch, Alphabet of Calligraphic Tricks (2014)

Carol DuBosch, Embossed Alphabet Gallery (2019)

Francesca Lohmann, An Alphabetical Accumulation (2017)

Suzanne Moore, A Blind Alphabet (1986)

Edward Andrew Zega & Bernd H. Dams, An Architectural Alphabet : ABC (2008)

Colors, alphabets and artists’ books

Rebecca Bingham, Golden Alphabet (1986)

Rebecca Bingham, Defining the Rainbow (2018)

Sonia Delaunay, Alphabet (1972)

Carol DuBosch, Rainbow Alphabet Snowflake (2013)

Ursula Hochuli-Gamma, 26 farbige Buchstaben (1986)

Karen Hanmer, The Spectrum (2003)

Amy Lapidow, Spiralbet (1998)

Lisa McGarry, Be Amazed (and other words to live by) (2013)

Kveta Pacovská, A l’infini (2007) [In progress]

Design (of letters), alphabets & artists’ books

Anne Bertier, Anne Dessine-moi une lettre(2004)

Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, Bembo’s Zoo: An Animal ABC Book (2000)

Felice Feliciano & Jason Dewinetz, Alphabetum Romanum: The Letterforms of Felice Feliciano (c. 1460, 2010)

Jeff Morin and Steven Ferlauto, The Sacred Abecedarium (1999)

Andrew Morrison, Two Wood Press A-Z (2020

David Pelletier, The Graphic Alphabet (1996)

Bruce Rogers, Champ rosé (1933)

Kevin Steele, The Movable Book of Letterforms(2009) [In progress]

Sharon Werner & Sharon Forss, Alphabeasties (2009)

Structures, alphabets & artist’s books

Kathleen Amt, Kaleidoscopic ABC’s (1991)

Matsumasa Anno, Anno’s Magical Alphabet (1981)

Marion Bataille, ABC3D (2008)

John Crombie, ABC in a maze (1987) In progress

Carol DuBosch, Rainbow Alphabet Snowflake (2013)

Carol DuBosch, Embossed Alphabet Gallery (2019)

Helen Hajnoczky, alpha seltzer (2023)

Karen Hanmer, A2Z (2013) In progress

Karen Hanmer, The Spectrum (2003)

Helen Hiebert, Alpha Beta (2010)

Ron King, Alphabeta Concertina majuscule (2007)

Ron King, alphabeta concertina miniscule (2007)

Ron King, The White Alphabet (1984) In progress

Ron King, ABC Paperweights () In progress

Amy Lapidow, Spiralbet (1998)

Scott McCarney, Alphabook 3 (1986)

Scott McCarney, Alphabook 10 (2015)

Scott McCarney, Alphabook 13 (1991)

Lisa McGarry, Twenty-six/Fragments (2012)

Patrice Miller (Edward Gorey), The Eclectic Abecedarium (2022)

Patrice Miller (Edward Gorey), Figbash Acrobate (2023) In progress

Jeff Morin and Steven Ferlauto, The Sacred Abecedarium (1999)

Jeff Morin and Steven Ferlauto, Sacred Space (2003)

Moveable Book Society, A to Z Marvels in Paper Engineering (2018)

Bruno Munari, ABC con fantasia (2008)

Bruno Riboulot, ABCD’Air (2005)

Merrill Shatzman, Calligrafitti #3 (2011)

Borje Svensson & James Diaz, Letters (1982)

Emmett Williams, abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz (1963) In progress

Books On Books Collection – Tommy Thompson

The ABC of Our Alphabet (1952)

The ABC of Our Alphabet: A primer of the lineal history of our present-day letters (1952)
Tommy Thompson
Casebound with doublures showing map of locations of alphabet development.
Acquired from St Luke’s Hospice, Sheffield, 6 August 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

First appearing in 1942, Samuel Winfield (Tommy) Thompson’s somewhat forgotten children’s introduction to the history of the alphabet occupies an interesting position in that line of work that includes Oscar Ogg’s The 26 Letters (1964), Tiphaine Samoyault’s Alphabetical Order (1998), Renzo Rossi’s The Revolution of the Alphabet (2009) and Don Robb’s Ox, House, Stick (2010). For a collector of children’s alphabet books and alphabet-related artists’ books, the decision whether to acquire it balances on its interior design and content.

With its overlay of second-color illustrations on the text, Thompson’s book makes for an interesting forerunner to Lyn Davies’ fine press A is for Ox. Thompson falls prey to instances of illegibility from the technique, but both enjoy instances of brilliant juxtaposition of word and redrawn images.

Two-color illustration overlaying text. Right: Davies. Left: Thompson.

Among the primers of alphabet history, Thompson’s also stands out for the attention it gives to North American Indian pictorial writing. Rather than the usual Eurocentric sources, the Leni-Lenape, Dakota and Sioux Nations provide the bulk of examples of the method. The enlightened perspective, however, is undercut by a strain of cultural and historical supremacy apparent in several passages and, in particular, the perpetuation of the Walum Olum hoax and inclusion of a chapter from Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha to stand in for the absence of any similar memorialization of painted grave posts. Although Thompson is point blank on how “the invasion of the white man” prevented the growth and development of this method of writing, consider this passage describing the Leni-Lenape Penn Treaty of 1682 that was woven with perforated shell beads (wampum):

The figures of a white man and an Indian are woven in the belt, clasping hands in a true gesture of friendship. The white man is portrayed wearing a hat, as the Indian always drew the symbol of the white man. This treaty of peace was never broken or forgotten.

Except that, in the 1860s, most of the Leni-Lenape Nation was forcibly displaced to Oklahoma.

It was not until the 1990s that the so-called Leni-Lenape cosmographical poems of Walum Olum were proven to be fake, but suspicions were strong in the 1930s. All this is compounded as the book laments the ephemerality of the “Walum Olum poems” and the custom of pictorial grave posts:

Pictorial epitaphs on Indian grave posts were quite common in the early days of the new world. But knowledge of this romantic custom as well as the knowledge of the Red Man’s art of picture writing will live forever, had there been no other record of him but the beautiful “Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Thompson’s design skills and his side note of claim to fame as reportedly the first recipient of royalties for typeface design (Thompson Quill Script) nudged the balance toward acquisition. Maybe perversely the annoying cultural dissonance also nudged the balance in that direction. The book’s presence provides the opportunity to compare it line for line with the other primers and look harder for the signs of the cultural blinkers we are wearing now. Also, with authentic pictorial cosmography available from the Navajo (Diné) Nation and with new archaeological finds from the Middle East (see below for both), perhaps it is time for a new primer against which to compare Thompson and the rest.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Lyn Davies“. 7 August 2022. Books On Books Collection.

Grant, Richard. September 2021. “In the Land of the Ancient Ones“. Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed 20 August 2022.

A review of the film Canyon del Muerto about one of the first female archaeologists, Ann Axtell Morris. What has this to do with Thompson’s book? An ironic coincidence. Morris worked for the archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley on his Yucatán expedition. Thompson cites Morley in his bibliography. With her husband, fellow archaeologist Earl Morris, and their Navajo team, Ann Morris went on to open the Canyon del Muerto to the discoveries that led to insights into the Ancestral Puebloans, the source of Navajo cosmography. Other than papers coauthored with Earl, Ann’s accounts could only find outlet as juvenile publications. While Sylvanus and Earl may have been the combined inspiration for Indiana Jones, Ann offers the status of artist, first female archaeologist and subject of a current movie as a role model to celebrate with a sidebar in a new history of writing.

Morris, Ann Axtell. 1931. Digging in Yucatan: Archaeological Explorations in 1924. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co.

_______________. 1934. Digging in the Southwest. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co.

Naveh, Joseph. 1975. Origins of the alphabet. London: Cassell.

Oestreicher, David M. 1994. Unmasking the Walum Olum: A 19th-century Hoax. South Orange, N.J.: Archaeological Society of New Jersey.

Ogg, Oscar. 1964. The 26 Letters. New York: T.Y. Crowell.

Robb, Don, and Anne Smith. 2010. Ox, House, Stick: The History of our Alphabet. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Rossi, Renzo. 2009. The revolution of the alphabet. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark.

Sacks, David. 2003. Language visible unraveling the mystery of the alphabet from A to Z. New York: Broadway Books.

Samoyault, Tiphaine. 1998. Alphabetical Order: How the Alphabet Began. New York: Viking.

Shaw, Gary. 15 April 2021. “Ancient ABCs: The alphabet’s ‘missing link’ discovered in Israel“. The Art Newspaper.