An Inconvenient Alphabet – Perfect Picture Book Friday

My question is this: Is there anything related to words that Ben Franklin didn’t have a hand in? I think the answer is “no.”

In Beth Anderson’s new book:

we are handed yet another example. The jacket flap reads:

It may be hard for kids to believe, but once upon a time there was no “right” way to spell or pronounce words, making it difficult for English-speaking people in America to understand one another. So Ben Franklin created a new alphabet—one that didn’t stick. But he didn’t pursue the change since he had bigger fish to fry.

Along came Noah Webster, a well-educated and much younger man, who picked up the torch for standardization. Noah traveled extensively, trying to get people to buy into his grammar, pronunciation and spelling rules. But no one wanted to listen to a young “nobody.” Finally, he approached a much older and revered man, Ben Franklin, who saw another opportunity to market his new alphabet. Noah took Franklin’s alphabet, thought through a few changes, and then presented it to “merchants and war heroes, farmers and booksellers.”

No luck this second time around, either. People were exhausted by the years of war with the British. They “just wanted life to return to normal.” No one wanted any more change. Franklin went back to working on the Constitution and Noah forged ahead with a new plan, one that kept the same 26 letters of the alphabet while giving only ONE sound to each letter. Once again, Noah appealed to writer and printers, schoolmasters and penny-pinchers.” No new letters meant everything would be easier.

People barraged Noah with questions:

“What about sound-alike words?”

“What about words that look alike but are pronounced differently?”

Franklin approved of yet another version of Noah’s plan, but the going was still rocky. Franklin died, and Noah kept trying out new approaches with Americans.

More questions and more changes. Why was this so hard? Well, it’s a fact of life:

“As you know, sometimes what appears to be easy can turn out to be hard.” Kids and adults will surely identify with that!

But Noah kept trying. It didn’t matter that newspapermen started using new spellings because authors refused to use them. Other Americans were unwilling to change old habits, too. (Does this remind you of the grand metric system failure in the U.S.?)

But Noah kept trying. He finally came up with the idea of a dictionary with standardized spellings and meanings. His reference book turned the tide, which is why you and I can now read and understand each other’s words.

Success! Thank you, Noah Webster!

The closing page will leave kids with a smile:

Anderson’s author’s note adds more information about her research and how language tends to evolve over time. Elizabeth Baddeley’s illustrations, some with helter-skelter letters floating around the page and vignettes of people posing questions during every step of the process, keep the forward momentum of the story moving at a lively pace.

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

Author: Beth Anderson

Illustrator: Elizabeth Baddeley

Publisher: Simon & Schuster For Young Readers, 2018

Ages: Kindergarten-4th grade

For more perfect picture book suggestions, please head to.Susanna Hill’s blog.

11 thoughts on “An Inconvenient Alphabet – Perfect Picture Book Friday

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I’m a word nerd, so this one really spoke to me. But I think that kids will really feel heartened to know that others really tried many different ways to make up rules for how letters should be combined to make words. And it sparks a discussion about how language rules are truly arbitrary, and changeable, but they depend on having the majority follow them so that we can all understand each other.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      True, true, LOL. Have you ever read The Professor and the Madman? It’s a fabulous book about the making of the OED. Who knew that an American prisoner would prove to be so useful in the development of that grand tome?

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Quick question: I’m trying to find someone who lives in Stoke-On-Trent. If I just know her name and approximate age, do you know how I can find her contact info? Either phone number or mailing address? Would a library in Stoke-On-Trent have that kind of information? my email is jilannehoffmann @ gmail (dot) com with all of the spaces removed. I will owe you a pile of the best chocolate from San Francisco if you can give me any leads! thanks!

      • FictionFan says:

        Gosh, Jilanne, that might be hard unless you hit lucky on a google search. If she’s registered to vote, she’ll be on the electoral roll, but they’re not officially digitised. They can be viewed in the local library, but you’d have to buy a copy to see them elsewhere and if you don’t know the specific district that could run to a lot of money – and a lot of pages! Here’s a website that claims to have the complete electoral rolls, but it costs and I’ve never tried it so don’t know whether it’s reliable or not –
        Do you know what she does? I’m wondering if she might be listed on some professional association’s membership list. Or Linked-In? It’s going to depend on whether she has an uncommon name, I feel. Sorry not to be more help!

        • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

          I did take a look at LinkedIn, but I don’t have a premium account that would allow me to reach out to her directly through them. I think she may work at a school in Stoke-On-Trent, and I’ve sent them an email. I may call them next. It’s just that I don’t know if she’s the right person. We’ll see. I’ve sent the central library in Stoke-on-Trent an email, asking for help in finding her. Fingers crossed. If that doesn’t work, I may go the electoral rolls route. Thanks!

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