Sarah Albee: N is for Nylghau

From: Sarah Albee
October 19, 2012 at 04:23AM

I’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.”) You think, hmmm. Here’s a foolproof one: C is for Coat. And Research says “Uh-uh. Jacket.” 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.

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 Italian:J for Jane? Do you see that, Research?

Here’s U for Uncle (puhleeze). And how do they handle X in this one?X is for the number ten, or “No X” as the artist renders that numeral.

Here’s an entry from an 1850 Alphabet book.


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.And 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.

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.

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:

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.)

Halloween ABC by Sarah Albee, illustrated by Julia Woolf, Random House, 2009

Posted on October 19, 2012, in Sarah Albee and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Sarah Albee: N is for Nylghau.

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