Our Illustrated Alphabet

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In my first year of college, I spent three days a week assisting in a laboratory Kindergarten classroom on campus. My duties weren't difficult. I was there to make sure the playground shenanigans were kept to a minimum and that snack time conversation was enlightening and informative.

Though my students spoke surprisingly well, at 5-years old, they were still too young to read. I remember sitting with one young boy, dinosaur book on the table, and reading aloud. To me, the letters and the sounds they made went together—the nasal "ahhhh" of A and the buzz of Z. To him, they were just pictures.

How do our minds bridge that gap from pictures to words? It's an old discussion among educators, but I finally came to my own conclusions when visiting a Smithsonian Institution Libraries exhibit at the National Museum of American History "Picturing Words: The Power of Book Illustration," on view through Jan. 4, 2010.

It was one particular display case in the dimly lit exhibition room that aroused these thoughts. I watched the letter O morph into an octopus and the letter F into a flamingo, images from "The Alphabeast Book: An Abecedarium" by Dorothy Schmiderer (1971). Next to it, Os hung like ornaments and elbow noodles flooded into a pool of letter Ns from "The Graphic Alphabet" by David Pelletier (1966).

These are great mnemonic devices for children. A few years of A is for alligator, A is for apple, A is for airplane, and after a while, with positive reinforcement, the child catches on. He or she will realize there's something to each of these sounds that's special, and it has to do with that triangle with legs. I think as adults, we forget that when we're reading our favorite blogs or newspapers online, we're actually reading pictures.

"Illustration is another aspect of literacy," says Smithsonian's Helena Wright, who co-curated the exhibit along with Joan Boudreau. "It helps people who are learning to read as well as gives them another dimension at what they're looking at."

This interaction between letters and words isn't only true in English. Sharing the case with the alphabet books was "Tu l'as vu l'oiseau? (Have You Seen this Bird)," by Armand Monjo (1993), in which Arabic calligraphy is shaped into illustrations of birds. According to Wright, this is a form of concrete poetry, when arrangements of words are used to convey the intended effect of a poem.

I wish I had these thoughts when I was back in the classroom, maybe I wouldn't have emphasized letters so much. I didn't realize how much learning to write is like learning to paint. Instead of primary colors, my students' palettes were 26 letters, and as they scribbled their first sentences, it was like watching them fingerpaint.

Check out the Libraries other exhibition, "The Art of African Exploration," at the National Museum of National History.

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