Book Review: The American Speller By Webster & Cooney

Today I give you a peek at this dear old book, The American Speller: An Adaptation of Noah Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller, illustrated by Barbara Cooney, 1960.

With the passing of July 4 and all the celebrations around the United States for Independence Day, I found myself thinking about this book that combines Noah Webster’s delightfully pithy sayings from the old Blue-Backed Speller with Barbara Cooney’s charming illustrations. In her introduction to the book, Ms. Cooney talks of her admiration for Mr. Webster’s lovely sentences which illustrate his spelling rules so uniquely as well as his excellent teaching, philosophizing and deep patriotism. As Ms. Cooney was such a marvelous writer, I struggle to summarize her reasons for creating this edition of the famous little speller and so I quote one of my favorite portions from her intro:

“Some children may learn something of phonics from this new edition. Others may simply look at the pictures. But many, I hope, will find the words of Noah Webster sticking to their ribs like good roast beef.”


The original Blue-Backed Speller was published in 1783 as the first in a three volume compendium called A Grammatical Institute of the English Language by Noah Webster. He was a teacher and greatly disliked American elementary schools. Believing strongly that American children should learn from American books, he created them.


Many, including Ms. Cooney in her intro, firmly believe that the Speller was instrumental in unifying the newly formed states as five generations of children were taught using a unified language written with random information, good sense, humor, and noticeable pride in America.


This edition, published in 1960, is purely delightful. It is broken into sections, just like the original, such as “Consonants,” “Vowel Sounds,” “Silent Letters,” and “Words Ending in le,” etc…. Each section has short sentences, unrelated to each other, that are random thoughts or observations.


Although the sentences are often humorous, and many are dated in context, Cooney’s illustrations really make this book. Reading a sentence like “The zebra is a handsome animal” is funny, but seeing a clever illustration of a zebra in costume with feathers and a bridle is excellent and really solidifies the imagery.

Another fine example is the sentence “If I meet him in the street, I will greet him with a kind look, and show him my new book.” It is an interesting rhyme and somewhat odd phrase; but a kind and immensely polite action and a charming illustration to admire.


Perhaps books like this are still used in classrooms today and I’m not aware of it, but I find myself in admiration of the culture and kindness represented in this “American” book and I wonder at the society we have become. But that is a pondering for a different sort of blog. Here we will simply admire this book of days gone by and treasure the beauty in the thoughtful illustrations as well as the polite attitudes they portray.


I’ve written of Barbara Cooney before, and I really do love her illustrations. She has such a sweet delicate style to the linework and the choice of two-colors here is just lovely. I marvel at the selection of which parts to color red and which to shade with black ink. Her characters also have darling faces and their clothes are perfect. I most likely fall into her category of someone who longs to just look at the pictures, but I also find myself drawn to read Webster’s words and see why she chose to illustrate what she did and what story goes with which picture.


I would be remiss as always to not mention one of the things I do dislike about this book and that would be its portrayal of Native culture. A sign of the times for sure, but I question the multiple appearances of “Indians” in feathers, face paint, and other stereotypical garb and actions. I’m still unsure how best to deal with these types of illustrations so I will simply alert other readers of their presence for the time being.


I would have to agree that Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller is indeed a part of the American heritage and I love that Ms. Cooney has added another element to it and filled these pages with illustrations that mark another period in history with clothes, conduct and lifestyle. However you recognized, or didn’t recognize, the Fourth I hope you find this little book as delightful as I do and are reminded of the “humor, good sense, information, and vignettes of country life” that fill its pages and American history.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The American Speller By Webster & Cooney

  1. I absolutely love the illustrations in this book! For me, I’m not sure the random sentences would do much for me without the amazing illustrations, but this seems like it works really well. Thanks so much for bringing it to my attention! And thanks for linking up to Booknificent Thursday! Hope to see you again this week!
    Tina from


  2. Apparently, Ms Cooney lived for awhile in Pepperell, Massachusetts a small town next to where I grew up in Townsend, MA. I just learned that a high school classmate of mine, Peggy J, was the inspiration for the letter “S” and the word “S”mile in this book! Quite appropriate, as Peggy is a lovely person and has brought smiles to many over the years!


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