Kid Lit Review of “An Inconvenient Alphabet” by Beth Anderson

This book for ages 5 and over begins provocatively:

“You’ve probably heard of the American Revolution, when 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.”

We first meet Ben Franklin – the older man – who was then a writer and printer in Philadelphia, and who felt frustrated over disparate spellings of the same words, such as “Letters” and “leters” and “ship” versus “shippe.” Always the inventor, Franklin came up with a new alphabet, throwing out some letters and adding others. No one seemed interested though.

Then, the author reports, the American Revolution took place, and the colonies came together to form a nation:

“But Americans from north to south and east to west couldn’t understand one another. Some spoke like the king of England, others like backwoodsmen, and many barely spoke English at all.”

(In a humorous scene, illustrator Elizabeth Baddeley depicts a peddler saying to a woman and her baby, “Vat parfect Vedder!” She responds, “I understand not ye English, kind sir,” and the baby responds – as unintelligible as the others but also with its own meaning – “Baa gaa goo gah.”)

Next we switch to a young Noah Webster, writer and educator, who “had no patience for people pronouncing words every which way.” He created a book to teach “American” English, which included grammar lessons and speaking instruction. But, Anderson observed, “Noah was a nobody.” He needed somebody famous and respected to help transmit his message.

In 1786, Webster came to see Franklin, and they found they had a meeting of the minds on the subject of language and the need for uniformity. Franklin dug out his old alphabet and shared it with Webster, and they came up with a new plan – “a new alphabet for a new nation!”

Webster went around the new country speaking to writers, printers, schoolmasters, and citizens. He continued his campaign after Franklin’s death in 1790. In 1806, Webster published a dictionary; it had 37,000 words, and helped spread the language revolution. Twenty-two years later, it had 70,000 words. The author concludes:

“Next time you sound out a word, think of Ben and Noah. Thay wud bee pleez’d beecuz that iz egzaktlee wut thay wonted!”

A note from the author provides more background on the development of Webster’s dictionary, and observes that “Each year the Merriam-Webster dictionary adds more than one thousand new words.”

Back matter also includes a note from the illustrator and quotation sources.

Baddeley highlights the letters and words discussed in large block letters arranged around and through her colorful depictions of colonial life.

Evaluation: What children don’t feel frustration over the quirks that still bedevil American language? This book offers a humorous look at how early Americans tried to eliminate those issues, and will impart a sense of how important language can be for identity.

Informative and educational.

Rating: 4/5

A Paula Wiseman Book published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2018


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3 Responses to Kid Lit Review of “An Inconvenient Alphabet” by Beth Anderson

  1. harvee says:

    I know learners of English as a second language are often frustrated by English and its refusal to have exceptions to all its own grammar rules.

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