The Picture Book Buzz

An Inconvenient Alphabet - Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF

November 23, 2018

I enjoy learning about new or little known aspects of history. I've known about Ben Franklin, his inventions, and the role he played in the American revolution. But I had not previously known about his attempts to create a new alphabet. And like so many others, I can't count the number of times I've used a dictionary and never really wondered how or why it was created. Nor did I know anything about Noah Webster.

 

To examine these gentlemen and the morphing of the English language in America, Beth Anderson and Elizabeth Baddeley teamed up and created an entertaining, narrative nonfiction picture book. 

 

 

 

An Inconvenient Alphabet: Ben Franklin & Noah Webster's Spelling Revolution

 

Author: Beth Anderson

 

Illustrator: Elizabeth Baddelely

 

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (2018)

 

Ages: 4-8

 

Nonfiction

 

Themes:

Spelling, phonetics, history, dictionary, and persistence. 


Synopsis (from Barnes & Noble):

Do you ever wish English was eez-ee-yer to spell? Ben Franklin and Noah Webster did! Debut author Beth Anderson and the New York Times bestselling illustrator of I Dissent, Elizabeth Baddeley, tell the story of two patriots and their attempt to revolutionize the English alphabet.

Once upon a revolutionary time, two great American patriots tried to make life easier. They knew how hard it was to spell words in English. They knew that sounds didn’t match letters. They knew that the problem was an inconvenient English alphabet.

In 1786, Ben Franklin, at age eighty, and Noah Webster, twenty-eight, teamed up. Their goal? Make English easier to read and write. But even for great thinkers, what seems easy can turn out to be hard.

Children today will be delighted to learn that when they “sound out” words, they are doing eg-zakt-leewhat Ben and Noah wanted.

 

Opening Lines:

You've probably heard of the American Revolution, when the thirteen colonies rejected the rule of England.

But there was another, much quieter, revolution in the colonies . . .

Two men -

one old, one young, 

both with big ideas -

battled an inconvenient alphabet.

 

Why I Like the Book:

I admire Beth and Elizabeth's tackling of such a complex subject matter and making it relatable to children. Ben Franklin's frustration with the mismatch between the sounds and the spellings of words is palatable. Letters have too many sounds. It is interesting to see the way Ben's invented ("corrected") letters would have worked. 

Text © Beth Anderson, 2018. Image © Elizabeth Baddeley, 2018.

 

At the same time, Noah Webster's impatience with the inability to pronounce words as they're written spurred his efforts to create a uniform book of pronunciation. Sounds had too many letters. The varied pronunciations of words, as part of Noah's wallpaper is priceless and educational.

  Text © Beth Anderson, 2018. Image © Elizabeth Baddeley, 2018.

 

Although the two men formed a friendship and the perfect partnership - the energy of youth and society's respect and adoration - the public rejected the hassle and cost surrounding the idea of changing the alphabet. Persistent and determined, Noah decided to "correct" American spelling - turning "rong" spelling into "rite." Elizabeth humorously demonstrates this proposal through hanging scrolls and an instructor pup.

 

Noah continued trying to sell the public on alternative spellings. But even he had a hard time executing the changes. So he tried another route. He advocated for dropping the silent letters - like the "u" in "colour." Some changes were accepted, others (like dropping the "s" in "islands") were soundly rejected.

Text © Beth Anderson, 2018. Image © Elizabeth Baddeley, 2018.

 

Eventually, Noah gave up on the idea of making a radical change to the alphabet or altering how all words were spelled. Instead, he focused on the need for a dictionary, containing words new to America, some new meanings, and a few new spellings. Even though Noah and Ben couldn't change the language, Noah's persistence created a dictionary people still use today.

 

The amazing cover image of Ben and Noah navigating a sea of letters, with their pets helping to paddle, sets readers up for Elizabeth's extra fun addition of Webster's frisky dog and Ben's adorable cat, and their antics with the letters throughout the book. Be sure to examine the illustrations for additional little nuggets, like the changes in the portraits of Noah's house. This is a wonderful book for history buffs, anyone trying to master the English language, and as a reminder for everyone to stay persistent, yet flexible. The back matter contains wonderful historical, research, and process notes from both the author and the illustrator. 

 

Resources:

- watch a video about a printing press (here), then make your own printing blocks with potatoes (https://www.fun-stuff-to-do.com/easy-crafts-for-kids-8.html) and write a message;

- play Scrabble®, Bananagrams®, or other letter game using Benjamin or Noah Webster's ideas for spelling; or

- check out the activity sheets on Simon & Schuster's website (here).

 

This post is part of a series by authors and KidLit bloggers called Perfect Picture Book Fridays. For more picture book suggestions see Susanna Leonard Hill's Perfect Picture Books.

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