ABC Books

ABC (or abécédaire) books also have been known as abceebooks, absey-books, abeces, and other, similar, variations. In 1596 Shakespeare wrote in King John "that is question now, And then comes answer like an Absey booke." In 1751, when Denis Diderot mentioned the word abécédaire in his Encyclopédie, he defined it as an adjective that applied not only to books but also to people in the process of learning.

From the fifteenth century through the eighteenth century, the teaching of the Roman alphabet was associated with religious instruction. The primer, or book of prayer and religious instruction for students of all ages, often opened with a page of the letters of the alphabet, as well as a short catechism. Although not intended solely for children, these books became associated with simple teachings and those who were just learning. One of the earliest existing primers, published by Thomas Petyt in London around 1538, includes the alphabet, a table of vowels and syllables, prayers, and graces for meals. Petyt was under license to provide "The BAC [sic] bothe in latyn and in Englysshe." During this period in England, there was a distinction between the ABC, the first text, and the primer, the second text. The ABC withthe catechisme (1549), the standard ABC book of its time, sold hundreds of thousands of copies during the next century.

Students also learned their alphabet from hornbooks, or letter boards, which were pieces of wood shaped like a paddle and hung by ribbon or twine threaded through a hole in the handle. To the paddle was affixed a letterpress sheet on which was printed the alphabet in both uppercase and lower-case. Eventually the alphabet was joined by the Lord's Prayer, an invocation to the Trinity, and often, the vowels, a table of syllables, and nine digits. The alphabet was generally preceded by a cross and therefore was called "Criss-Cross Rows." In England and America thin pieces of horn were used to protect the paper, leading to the name hornbook. The paddles were used by active school children as rackets and they became known as battledores, after the game of battledores and shuttlecocks. In 1746 Benjamin Collins invented a format for a folding cardboard booklet and called it a battledore; these small printed texts quickly replaced horn-books.

Other forms of teaching the alphabet included needlework samplers and even gingerbread. As early as the fourteenth century, gingerbread, printed with designs like letters, was sold in stalls in open markets. There are many references to book gingerbread, and by the eighteenth century

A page from Noah's Ark ABC (c. 1872), by , an important and innovative illustrator of the late nineteenth century. In the nineteenth century, ABC books became a way to teach children the alphabet and introduce them to new subjects, such as types of animals or the names of common household items.

gingerbread was shaped like hornbooks and printed with letters.

Initially the alphabet appeared in table form. Eventually, however, illustrations were added to the letters, as a mnemonic aid. The earliest known printed English pictorial alphabet is John Hart's A methode, or comfortable beginning forall unlearned (1570). This text paired each letter with a woodcut illustration of an object that began with that letter. From this point on, illustrations became a standard part of ABC books.

In 1658, in Nuremberg, the educational theorist JOHANN AMOS COMENIUS printed in Latin and German the Orbis sensualium pictus. In 1659 Charles Hoole printed an English version. This text is thought to be the first picture book designed specifically for children. The text, in both Latin and the vernacular, includes an alphabet in which each letter is illustrated by an animal that makes a sound beginning with that letter (e.g., the letter B is illustrated by a lamb "baaing").

Juvenile literature was given fuel by JOHN LOCKE's Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) in which he recommended that children learn by enticement instead of fear of punishment. "There may be Dice and Playthings, with the Letters on them, to teach Children the Alphabet by playing; and twenty other ways may be found, suitable to their particular Tempers, to make this kind of Learning a Sport to them."

Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Publications

Eighteenth-century England was a time of immense growth in the publication of children's books, addressing both secular and religious subjects. One London bookshop was even called the "GREAT A, little a AND BIG BOUNCING B." T. W.'s A Little Book for Little Children (c. 1702), very different from Thomas White's earlier book by the same name, was an eight-page reading and spelling book that depicts a tiny picture and verse for each letter. It starts with a verse that underwent many variations in later years: "A was an Archer and shot at a Frog, B was a blind Man and led by a Dog." Publisher John Newbery was a key figure in the growth of juvenile literature. He opened a children's book-shop in St. Paul's Churchyard in 1745 and ran it for twenty-two years, during which time he published, sold, and perhaps wrote at least fifty original books for children. One of his first books was A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744), which included the alphabet (in both uppercase and lowercase) linked with woodcuts and verses about types of children's games. Interestingly, the letters and images have no direct relation; instead, the letters function almost as page numbers. Isaiah Thomas in Worcester, Massachusetts, was responsible for copying many of Newbery's books and introducing them to an American audience.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, literature for children also flourished in the form of chapbooks. These cheaply produced, small format booklets (about 2 1/2 × 4 inches), with crudely illustrated images, were carried by chapmen or peddlers, in their packs, and sold for a penny or less. Traditionally for adults, by the end of the eighteenth century there were many written for children that included the alphabet.

In America the New England Primer (c. 1690) was the most widely used schoolbook during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Compiled by the English bookseller and writer Benjamin Harris during a brief stay in Boston, the exact publication date is uncertain but the earliest known existing copy is dated 1727. It contains an illustrated alphabet with rhymes, an "Alphabet of Lessons for Youth" (which uses sentences from the Bible for each letter), other prayers and religious lessons, and the catechism. Published until at least 1886, it was altered slightly by each publisher.

By the nineteenth century, printing technology made possible complex pictures and color printing in text for children. The purpose of alphabet books changed from using familiar images and verses as mnemonic aids to using the alphabet as a framework to introduce new subjects, including farm animals, exotic animals, birds, children's names, the BIBLE and virtues, vocations, common objects, railways, the seaside, patriotic symbols, and the world's nations. Patriotism was a popular subject in America at the end of the Civil War (Union ABC, 1864) and in England at the end of the Crimean War (Alphabet of Peace, 1856). Edmund Evans, a London publisher, was especially concerned with improving the quality of children's picture books, and published the works of such authors as Walter Crane, KATE GREENAWAY, and Ralph Caldecott. Nineteenth-century children's magazines serialized alphabets, publishing a few images each month. Although the subjects were extremely varied in the nineteenth century, the formats chosen were relatively simple–generally a single word or rhyming verse accompanying an image for each letter.

Modern Publications

In the twentieth century authors continued to expand the variety of subjects addressed by ABC books and explored the style as much as the subject. Some authors used extended narratives of one sentence per letter, or even one story or book per letter, such as Wanda Gág's ABC Bunny (1933) and Angela Banner's Ant and Bee (1950) Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks from A to Z (1990) is a whole story that is just one long sentence. Scarry's book is shaped like a car, which demonstrates growing interest in the physical format of books. Popup books from this period include Robert Crowther's The Most Amazing Hide-And-Seek Alphabet Book (1978) and Robert Sabuda's A Christmas Alphabet (1994). Alliterative verses, as seen quite early in "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" from Peter Pipers Principles of Practical Pronunciation (1813), have found modern versions in Graeme Base's Animalia (1986) and MAURICE SENDAK's Alligators All Around (1962).

Art was a growing theme toward the end of the twentieth century; it was featured in Lucy Micklethwait's I Spy: An Alphabet in Art (1992), museum alphabets by Florence Cassen Mayers, George Mendoza's Norman Rockwell's AmericanaABC (1975), and in Caroline Desnoëttes's Le musée des Animaux (1997). Some other noteworthy twentieth-century alphabets include C. B. Falls's ABC Book (1923), Margaret Tempest's An ABC for You and Me (1948), Tasha Tudor's Ais for Annabelle (1954), Garth Williams's Big Golden AnimalABC (1957), Brian Wildsmith's ABC (1962), Dr. Seuss' ABC (1963), and William Steig's Alpha Beta Chowder (1992).

The ABC book genre now includes texts that do not instruct but instead provide amusement for an audience already familiar with the alphabet. Some examples are nonsense alphabet books, such as DR. SEUSS's On Beyond Zebra (1955) and Aldiborontiphosskyphorniostikos (1820), printed by Dean and Munday of London. Books intended for an adult audience include David Hockney's Hockney's Alphabet (1991), George Cruikshank's A Comic Alphabet (1836), and Man Ray's Alphabet pour adultes (1970).

From Hart's 1570 text to recent versions, some common themes emerge. Authors have explored the relation of letter and image and have made decisions about the style and the case of letters. One continual challenge has been some of the difficult letters, especially X. Xerxes is a frequent stand-in, and authors have found ways to evade using it, even omitting the entire letter upon occasion. Hilaire Belloc's explanation for the letter in A Moral Alphabet (1899) was: "No reasonable little Child expects /A Grown-up Man to make a rhyme on X."

See also: Children's Literature.


Baldwin, Ruth M. 1972. 100 Rhyming Alphabets in English. Carbon-dale: Southern Illinois University.

Carpenter, Charles. 1963. History of American Schoolbooks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Findlay, James, and Jean Trebbi. 1997. ZYX: An Exhibition of Selected ABC Books from the Jean Trebbi Collection. Fort Lauderdale, FL: Bienes Center for the Literary Arts. Also available from

Findlay, James, and Nyr Indicator. 2000. ABC and Related Materials: Selections from the Nyr Indicator Collection of the Alphabet. Fort Lauderdale, FL: Bienes Center for the Literary Arts. Also available from

Green, Ian. 1996. The Christian's ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England, c.1530–1740. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Klinefelter, Walter. 1973. "The ABC Books of the Pennsylvania Germans." Publications of the Pennsylvania German Society 7: 1–104.

McLean, Ruari. 1969. Pictorial Alphabets. New York: Dover Publications.

McLean, Ruari. 1976. Noah's Ark ABC and Eight Other Victorian Alphabet Books in Colour. New York: Dover Publications.

Ory, Norma. 1978. Art and the Alphabet: An Exhibition for Children. Houston, TX: The Museum of Fine Arts.

Roberts, Patricia. 1987. Alphabet Books as a Key to Language Patterns: An Annotated Action Bibliography. Hamden, CT: Library Professional Publications.

Roberts, Patricia. 1994. Alphabet: A Handbook of ABC Books and Book Extensions for the Elementary Classroom. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

St. John, Judith. 1958. The Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books, 1566–1910: A Catalogue. Toronto: Toronto Public Library.

Steinfirst, Susan. 1976. "The Origins and Development of the ABC Book in English from the Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century." Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh.

Thwaite, Mary F. 1963. From Primer to Pleasure in Reading. Boston: The Horn Book.

Tuer, Andrew W. 1896. History of the Horn Book, 2 vols. London: LeadenHall Press.