Saturday, May 28, 2011


AFTER THE SUCCESS OF THE WORLD IS ROUND, Gertrude Stein immediately wrote a second children's book, To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays. Far more difficult than The World Is Round, her publisher William R. Scott rejected the manuscript when he received it in 1940. Stein then shopped the book around to many publishers, and through the support of her good friend Carl Van Vechten and the literary agent Margot Johnson of Ann Watkins, Inc., Stein eventually placed the book in 1942 with Harrison Smith, the English-language publisher of Babar. Problems with the illustrations, and the general difficulty of publishing during World War II, caused the book to never be released. The text without illustrations was eventually published by Yale University Press in 1957 as part of the Yale Edition of the Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein.

TO DO is a rambling set of anecdotes and stories and poetry structured around the alphabet. Each letter brings with it a set of children's names, "Francis, Fatty, Fred and Fanny." "M was Marcel, Marcelle, Minnie and Martin and N was Nero, Netty, Nellie and Ned." "Q is for Quiet, Queenie, Quintet and Question." The children are then either born on their birthday or not born on their birthday or any day could be their birthday or today is their birthday. Some of them die horrifically, drowned after only being introduced at the top of the page, and sometimes the story is about a horse. There is more rhyming and wordplay and nonsense than in The World Is Round with no overarching narrative, so the book can be opened at random and read without problem. Such as the end:
     "It would be sad to be all alone every birthday so that is what they all say the ten and the hundred and the thousand and the ten thousand and the hundred thousand and the million and the billion they say oh Zero dear Zero how hear oh we say that thanks to the Zero the hero Zero we all have a birthday.
     And so that is all there is to say these days about Alphabets and Birthdays and their ways."
IT IS HARD TO IMAGINE what a child would make of To Do, which is perhaps why it never appeared in a children's format. Yale University Press has just released a beautiful illustrated edition with illustrations by the excellent Giselle Potter, illustrator of Toni Morrison's The Big Box. The book sports an introduction by Timothy Young, which is the source of most of this post.

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