New work traces development of Estonian children's 'alphabet books'

Krista Kumberg's book
Krista Kumberg's book "A Nagu Aabits." Source: Juhan Hepner/ERR

Krista Kumberg, a bibliographer at the Haapsalu Children's Library, has completed work on a new book called "A is for Alphabet," ("A Nagu Aabits"). The book details the development of the alphabet books, which have helped Estonian children to learn how to read and write for over five centuries.

Unfortunately, the earliest Estonian-language alphabet books produced have not survived. But, according Kumberg, there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that the alphabet may have existed in Estonia as early as the 16th century. We do know for certain that an alphabet book was published in 1641, though that too is no longer in existence.

According to Kumberg however, there are rumors that a 1694 reprint of the work by Bengt Gottfried Forselius was later discovered.

"Forselius published a completely new kind of alphabet. No one has seen (the original), but reprints of Forselius' book were allegedly found at Lund University (in Sweden – ed.)," Kumberg said.

Nowadays, illustrations are often an integral part of alphabet books, however according to Kumberg, however, pictures started only became a common feature from the 19th century onward.

"The choice of pictures and the design of the alphabet books was rather eclectic and haphazard during the tsarist era," Kumberg explained.

"The alphabet books became very beautiful during (Estonia's) independence, so my favorites are actually the books from the 1920s-1930s. And we can't ignore Richard Kivit's illustrations. They convey the idyllic, peaceful and beautiful nature of rural life," Kumberg said.

Kumberg also explained, that all the alphabet books were influenced by the ideologies of their time. While the propaganda of the Soviet period is all too familiar, alphabet books produced during earlier historical periods also attempted to influence the way children thought about things.

However, Krumberg says, they should not all be seen as simply one-sided propaganda tools.

"Initially, after all, these books aimed at teaching children to take care of their own souls and to be competent in matters of religion. The Tsarist-era books were supposed to contain pictures of the Tsar and stories about how paternal he was. But on the page next to that, or sometimes even on the same page, you might have Johann Voldemar Jannsen's song "Isamaa," which was later used as the lyrics of the Estonian national anthem," Kumberg explained.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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