Submitted by Hunter McDaniel, Baldwin Library Assistant
The Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature is the home to a plethora of both antique and contemporary alphabet books. The letters in the alphabet are the building blocks to every word in our language. Knowing these letters, their sounds, and functions is the key to entering the world of reading, writing and spelling. ABC books are usually intended for very young children, who are just beginning their journey to literacy. These type of books typically show the letters of the alphabet with corresponding words and pictures of things that begin with the given letter.
The oldest known alphabet books, or hornbooks, in the Western World are from 15th century in Europe Hornbooks. However, they are not like the books of today. These “books” were printed on a wooden paddle with a handle. These paddles get the name “hornbook” because they were covered with a thin piece of cow’s horn to preserve them.
After the popularity of hornbooks had run its course, primers, early readers, and spellers began to make their way into early childhood education in the 19th century. These are more like the modern ABC books used by children today; featuring front and back covers with printed pages in between. They included pages with large letters and accompanying words and pictures-which remain the same. A key contemporary difference between these older books and newer ABC books is that now they generally only show 1-2 letters per page to be more digestible to young readers.
Today’s alphabet books are much more diverse than the books of the past. Because alphabet books are wildly popular and easily adaptable, many different writers and illustrators have added their own unique style to the genre. Alphabet books can be about anything from religion, to sports, to animals, to health, and more. Images in these books can feature colorful, bubbly cartoons or real life photos. ABC books can be created by little-known authors, or iconic household names like Disney and Dr. Seuss. The books can use rhyme, alliteration, poetry, humor, or basic facts to teach children how to associate letters with words and pictures.
The common theme among these books is that they help young children become more familiar with the letters that make up everyday words and phrases. Alphabet books present information in a way that captivates and entertains children as they’re learning early literacy skills. In total, the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature has over 1,500 strictly alphabet books. Many published before 1924 have been digitized and can be found in UFDC.