Naming the Names in an Alphabet Book
By Chris Raschka
The power we wield when we name a child is terrible. And unavoidable. Oh, the sleepless nights! What will this name confer on our beloved baby? Only good things, we fervently hope. This name is exciting, but is it too exciting? This one is solid, but is it boring? “How about, Joseph?” you say. “No,” says your wife, “I knew a terrible Joseph!”
Happily, I suffered none of this angst when I named the children in the book my friend Vladimir Radunsky and I have put together called Alphabetabum. It was this way. I was in Rome visiting Vladimir there and just about to walk out for a happy afternoon of sight-seeing when Vladimir began to lay out on his work table one marvelous, small, antique photographic child’s portrait after another. He grabbed my arm, and said, “Look at these masterpieces! Every one holds the story of a precious forgotten soul inside of it! We must do something with them.”
So, instead of the Trevi Fountain, I stared at the faces of children now a hundred years gone—serious, charming, funny, stern, beautiful. And I let their faces play upon my imagination. We chose our favorite twenty-six (difficult!). I gave each child two alliterative names and an adjective. I began with Awkward Agnes Alexandra.
I always liked the name Agnes, especially as it is pronounced in the Caribbean, with the accent on the second syllable. Alexandra seemed to flow directly from Agnes. And when the very loud-sounding ‘Awkward’ was added, my portrait came to life, becoming the start of a three-lined poem, a triplet. Where one name might say one thing abut a person, two names could change it completely around. Agnes. Agnes Alexandra. Awkward Agnes Alexandra. I really began to love this girl.
And so I proceeded through the photographs. As the pictures were antiques, I tended to choose older names—names no longer in fashion, but very beautiful to me. Beulah, Edwin, Grace, Henrietta, Jewel, Quentin, Shelby. Vladimir designed the book from cover to cover.
Our precious creation was duly scrutinized by many editors. It was evaluated for artistic merit and profitability potential. And it was subsequently rejected by editors with names like Tom, Ann, Mike, Sue, Barb, and Bev. Our book might never have been born, and these beautiful children never come back to life, had it not finally fallen into the hands of a wise editor named Edwin.
So now the book is made, published by Edwin’s company, The New York Review of Books, and all of the names within it can enter the mix again. And might we dare to hope that one parent or two might grab that terrible, awesome, wonderful power to name, and give the world a new, a precious new Henrietta, or Leroy, or Penelope Pearl?
Chris Raschka has, in addition to Alphabetabum, written and/or illustrated more than sixty books for children and has received numerous awards, including two Caldecotts and five New York Times Best Illustrated Book Awards. Alphabetabum was published by New York Review Books. (PS. It would make a great Christmas gift.)