N is for Nylghau

1 N is for NylghauI’ve written a lot of alphabet books over the course of my career. (The book pictured above is one example of my alphabet oeuvre, which seemed timely.) Writing alphabet books is kind of an essential skill to acquire if you write for preschoolers, and especially so if you want to work, as I did, at Sesame Street. I was there for nine years.

One thing I learned from bitter experience: alphabet books are hard to write. Because you don’t want to get it wrong. You think, hah, I got this: D is for Dog. And the people down in Research shake their heads and tell you, no, the kid will say “Barkley.” How about D is for Daffodil, then? (Nope. The kid will say flower.) M is for Monster? (They massage their temples with barely-restrained patience and tell you no, the kid won’t say “M is for Monster.” The kid will say ”M is for Elmo.”) And you can’t say K is for knife for several obvious reasons, or C is for Chocolate for several other obvious reasons— or G is for Gnu or N is for Nylghau. (I’m becoming facetious, which also tends to happen when you’re writing an alphabet book and you arrive at the letter Q and realize you basically have queen or quilt as your pictureable objects. But you get my point I hope.)

And then there’s the Dreaded X. What do you picture on the X page? If you are writing a Sesame Street book, you put Cookie Monster on the page, standing behind an X-ray machine, showing his tummy with a lot of half-eaten cookies in it.

I turned to historical ABC books as a sort of snapshot of the kinds of pictureable objects that would have been familiar to kids in times past. You have to hope that the author/illustrators were trying their best to picture things familiar to kids of their era, but after you look at some of these, it does make you wonder. Have a look.

Here’s a picture alphabet from the UK national archives collection, 1885.Screen shot 2012 09 19 at 9.08.44 AM1 N is for Nylghau

G is for Geranium. Hear that, Sesame Street Research? O is for Opera Glasses. And for X? X is for X-mas, silly.

We turn now to Dame Wonder’s Picture Alphabet, of anonymous authorship and unknown year of publication, but it’s certainly nineteenth century. I won’t take the time to show every letter–you can click on the link to see the whole thing–but a few entries are worth noting, like I is for “an” Italian:Screen shot 2012 09 19 at 12.30.55 PM N is for NylghauJ for Jane? Do you see that, Research?

Here’s U for Uncle (puhleeze). And how do they handle X in this one?Screen shot 2012 09 19 at 12.31.26 PM N is for NylghauX is for the number ten, or “No X” as the artist renders that numeral.

Here’s an entry from an 1850 Alphabet book.Screen shot 2012 09 19 at 12.33.53 PM N is for Nylghau

 

Why, sure. M is for Monkey, drinking a glass of champagne, and N is for Nylghau.

How does this author handle the letter X? He totally wusses out.Screen shot 2012 09 19 at 1.12.39 PM N is for NylghauAnd finally, we have Little Pets Linen ABC, from the year 1886.

I’d love to show you the whole thing, but here’s G through L.Little Pets 3 N is for Nylghau

Note that G is for Gnu, Gun, and Groom. And please also note that the juggler is juggling KNIVES. My former colleagues down in Research have probably fainted dead away by this point, if they’re reading this.

And M through R.Little Pets 4 N is for Nylghau

Note that N is once again for Nylghau, and also (cringe) Negro.

And here is S through Z, which is a low quality scan but I had to show you how they dealt with X:Little Pets 5 N is for Nylghau

I know it’s hard for you to see it, but X is for Xerxes.

Here’s the cover of this book, by the way. From what I can tell, “Little Pets” was a series brand. And those kids on the cover, trying to tear apart the book? At least one is a boy. (For more about that, click here.)

Little Pets 1 N is for Nylghau
Halloween ABC by Sarah Albee, illustrated by Julia Woolf, Random House, 2009

2 Comments

  1. Janelle @ Brimful Curiosities

    Fascinating post. The word choices for letter representation really vary in older books. I have an book called The Bumper Book that contains marvelous illustrations of the alphabet. I considered photocopying the letters in my child’s name and framing them for the wall, but unfortunately M for Mule and I was for Indian.

    Reply
    • Sarah

      Thanks Janelle–yes it was hard to keep the post from getting too long. There are lots of fascinating (and shocking) examples!

      Reply

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