To Do: Gertrude Stein’s Posthumous Alphabet Book
By Maria Popova
In 1939, Gertrude Stein penned her first children’s book, The World Is Round, whose dramatic story was featured in this two–part omnibus of obscure children’s books by famous authors of “adult” literature. The following year, Stein wrote an intended follow-up, titled To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays (public library) — a fine addition to my well-documented obsession with unusual alphabet books.
But publisher after publisher rejected the manuscript as too complex for children. (One must wonder what Maurice Sendak might have said to that.) The book was never published in Stein’s lifetime. In 1957, more than a decade after Stein’s death, Yale University Press published a text-only version and in 2011, more than half a century later, the first illustrated version true to Stein’s original vision was released, with exquisite artwork by New Yorker illustrator Giselle Potter.
In the press release for The World Is Round, Stein offered the following characteristically philosophical statement regarding her children’s writing, exuding the same dedication to the intertwining of form and meaning we’ve come to expect from her adult writing:
Don’t bother about the commas which aren’t there, read the words. Don’t worry about the sense that is there, read the words faster. If you have any trouble, read faster and faster until you don’t.
Z is a nice letter, and I am glad it is not Y, I do not care for Y, why, well there is the reason why, I do not care for Y, but Z is a nice letter.
I like Z because it is not real it just is not real and so it is a nice letter to you and nice to me, you will see.
Zebra and Zed.
A Zebra is a nice animal, it thinks it is a wild animal but it is not it goes at a gentle trot. It has black and white stripes and it is always fat. There never was a thin Zebra never, and it is always well as sound as a bell and its name is Zebra.
It is not like a goat, when a goat is thin there is nothing to do for him, nothing nothing, but a Zebra is never thin it is always young and fat, just like that.
Images courtesy of Yale University Press
Published May 21, 2012