Introduction to Alphabet Books

Today, we often take the existence of alphabet books for granted. As one of the first books children are ever exposed to, with full-color illustrations and simple, uncluttered pages, we see alphabet books as the perfect way to help preschool children learn the alphabet in a way that is both entertaining and mentally stimulating. However, as Steinfirst (1976) notes, the alphabet book as we know it is a 19th century invention, one which owes its existence to the emergence of non-didactic children’s literature, which was written “specifically to amuse children and provide entertainment rather than teach and/or preach,” as it had been since the emergence of children’s literature.

As long as there has been an alphabet, and reading and writing have been valued as the bases of “long-lasting communication, record keeping, and the proliferation of religious beliefs,” there have been alphabet books, though early ones did not take the form of the codex (Steinfirst, 1976). Alphabet books simply took a vastly different form and were used for vastly different, religiously-motivated purposes prior to the mid-19th century. The emergence of more secular, entertaining alphabet books can be attributed to various changes in cultural and religious attitudes toward children that occurred during the course of the century (Hunt & Butts, 1995). The digitized alphabet books on this site are ultimately reflective of these cultural and religious changes, as well as provide a window onto history for historians and scholars, as children’s literature ultimately reflects the “historical, educational, cultural, social, and literary trends” in society.

In order to better understand the emergence of alphabet books as we recognize them in the present, it is necessary to examine and define early children’s literature, which was primarily characterized by its explicit religious and moral overtones.

The alphabet books published in the 19th century reflect the various changes in cultural, educational, and religious attitudes toward children that occurred. Whereas in the preceding centuries, children’s literature served the purpose of teaching children their religious, moral, and societal obligations, in the mid-19th century, children’s literature became much more secular and was intended to amuse children. The alphabet books that have been digitized on this site are prime examples of this crucial period in the development of children’s literature, providing a window onto history for scholars and historians.



Avery, G. (1995). The Beginnings of Children’s Reading.In P. Hunt (Ed.), Children’s literature: An illustrated history (pp.1-25). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Hunt, P., & Butts, D. (Eds.). (1995). Children's literature: An illustrated history. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Kinnell, M. (1995). Publishing for Children. In P. Hunt (Ed.), Children’s Literature: An Illustrated History (pp. 26-45). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Steinfirst, S. (1976). The origins and development of the ABC book in English from the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century (Doctoral dissertation). University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA.