“Fairytale ABC”: a beautiful Russian folk alphabet by Tatyana Mavrina

“Fairytale ABC” (in Russian “Skazochnaia Azbuka”/ “Сказочная азбука”) is a fine example of how celebrated Russian artist and illustrator Tatyana Mavrina masterfully integrated graphically rendered text, illustrations, headings and separate pictorial elements (in this case the letters of the alphabet) into an ornamental folk extravaganza of shapes, colors and meanings. This book is a visual feast and a publishing masterpiece with sumptuous gilt and silver elements, large format and (hard-to-photograph) highest quality of production and printing (published by “Rech” of St. Petersburg).

The Russian fairy tales characters are drawn within the shapes of the letters of the Russian alphabet. Each page is designed and laid out with a brilliant rhythm and visual coherence and shows not only a sumptuous illustration of each letter but relevant characters and whole scenes from many beloved Russian folk fairy tales. There is a complete unity between the textual and pictorial elements on each page.

"Fairytale ABC": a beautiful Russian folk alphabet by Tatyana Mavrina Alphabet, Hans Christian Andersen Award Kids Book Reviews 20210301 133139
Tatyana Mavrina “Fairytale Abc” (Russian for “Skazochnaia azbuka” / “Сказочная азбука”), published by Речь (Rech), St. Patersburg: 2016
"Fairytale ABC": a beautiful Russian folk alphabet by Tatyana Mavrina Alphabet, Hans Christian Andersen Award Kids Book Reviews 20210301 132911
"Fairytale ABC": a beautiful Russian folk alphabet by Tatyana Mavrina Alphabet, Hans Christian Andersen Award Kids Book Reviews 20210301 132821

Tatyana Mavrina (1900-1996) was a Russian award-winning artist and children’s book illustrator. In 1976 she won the Hans Christian Andersen Award presented biannually by International Board on Books for Young People for a lasting contribution to children’s literature. This award is sometimes referred to as ‘Nobel Prize in children’s literature’ and the only other Russian recipient of it was Igor Oleynikov in 2018 (click here for the review of an alphabet book illustrated by Igor).

Tatyana was born to an ancient and wealthy Russian family. She was well educated and later in life well connected to the Russian artistic community, including its progressive avant-garde protagonists. Her illustration style has developed over time eventually becoming an instantly recognisable one. She was inspired by Russian icons, folk art and the architectural monuments of ancient Russia. During the WWII she travelled through regional Russia along the mighty river Volga feeling enraptured by the beauty of its old cities and their traditional architecture. Saddened by the the loss of many important monuments and artifacts during the WWII Nazi invasion of Russia, she wrote:

“The senseless destruction of our ancient architectural monuments had directed my attention especially to this side of our heritage. And so, I began to fill my sketchbooks with drawings and watercolors of our ancient cities; I became enthusiastic about their remarkable buildings from bygone years, and also about the people whom I met during my journey. These drawings became preparatory studies for my fairy tale illustrations.[1]

Tatyana’s work was commissioned by some of the most prestigious Soviet publishers (eg. Detgiz, Molodaya Gvardia). She has won many awards, including several silver medals at Leipzig International Book Fairs. In 1975 she became Artist of the USSR and later also Merited Artist of the Russian Republic, much loved and appreciated by her diverse audience.

Find other alphabet picture book reviews under this tag.

[1] Biographical data and the extract from Tatyana Mavrina’s record about sketching the old buildings is from Albert Lemmens & Serge Stommels, “Russian Artists and The Children’s Book 1890-1993”, Nijmegen LS: 2009.

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