An unusual alphabet book – Gertrude Stein’s To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays

Gertrude Stein, To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays. Illustrations by Giselle Potter

Published 2011 by Yale University Press, 128p


Reading Gertrude Stein is a linguistic challenge. She follows the stream of consciousness and reveals her thoughts as in a conversation. She stops, she repeats and uses an impressive collection of monosyllabic words. But her universe is playful, humorous and original.

To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays was first rejected by several publishers as they considered the book inappropriate for children. It was published only in 1957, posthumously and with no visual representations so this edition is the first publication of Stein’s text with illustrations; Giselle Potter’s artwork is elegant and enriches Stein’s writing.

Children might not be the main audience of this book but they will surely enjoy a few passages and the whimsical illustrations. There are four names for each letter and a story.


P is really funny.

Peter Paul Pearl and Pancake.

Peter’s birthday was the first of January.

Paul’s birthday was the second of February.

Pearl’s birthday was the third of Marc and Pancake’s birthday was the fourth of July.

Peter was an old man, he had a daughter and she had five children. Peter lived far away and so on the first of January all five children had to write him on his birthday. They did not say but they felt that way why did he have to have a birthday and they did not say but they felt that way and they did say why did he have to have a birthday the first of January. It was not very convenient naturally, in the first place there was Christmas and he was far away and it was almost Christmas Day and they all five had to write to him on his birthday. They had not yet their Christmas gifts so what could they say, what could anybody say to a grandfather far away on his birthday the first of January when they had not yet Christmas candy. Oh dear.

N is an awful letter and it stands for Nero, Netty, Nellie and Ned who are all somber being at the middle of the alphabet and representing the 13th letter. So they decide not to ever go to sleep and smash all the clocks to mix the days and the birthdays.


Z is a very nice letter, Stein says, and it tells the story of a French girl named Zed who wanted a zebra for her birthday. Her father, a thin explorer, would paint the world in stripes to make it comfortable for a zebra to follow him home.

The removal of the punctuation and the repetitions are a reading test but we should not forget that Stein was a Picasso collector and a cubist art lover. She played with words and beyond the peculiarity of her style we can sense a thinking mechanism that breaks the normality, dividing and rearranging the words.



Illustrations courtesy of Giselle Potter

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