Children's culture

Halfdan's ABC

Halfdan Rasmussen (1915-2002) & Ib Spang Olsen (1921-2012)

By Marianne Eskebæk Larsen, teacher in childrens literature, 2006

From ane to aage 

Fortunately it is the very fewest of Danish children today who get through childhood without coming across Ane, Benny and Charlotte (ABC) or Frivolous Freddy from Fakse (Freddy Fraek fra Fakse), Yuleman Jules (Julemand Julle) and mad Canon King Clod (Kanonkonge Knold). Halfdan’s ABC (1967) is namely both a part of the children’s literary canon as well as a part of the national heritage. 
The picture book is a survey of the alphabet from A(ne) to Aa(ge) - Aa being the last word of the Danish alphabet. It is one of the books that Danish schoolchildren use when they are learning to read. The words create pictures and the pictures words in a strange, dramatic, odd, poetic, funny and frightening universe. 

“Halfdanish” word play 

Halfdan Rasmussen’s nonsense verses are one big play on words, but he makes quite sure that the verses always rhyme. Here you find a welter of alliterations and end rhymes woven together in rhythmic sentences, making the verses easy to remember and fun to sing.

The reader encounters puns and alliterations about pigs and pimples, and other fun plays on words such as “Ane’s anemones”. To read the book out aloud is a bit like tasting the words, try it for yourself! You’ll notice that different words lie differently in the mouth and that language is really sound and not just visual symbols on a piece of paper.
Artist Ib Spang Olsen is brilliant at translating the quintessence of Halfdan’s texts into pictures. He manages to maintain a realistic yet at the same time highly imaginative tone in his illustrations, which capture the wit and weirdness of the verse. Ib Spang Olsen’s heavily shaded and highly atmospheric brush creates figures which are lively and at the same time never unambiguous. Else-pelse-poelsesnak (poelse = sausage) simply has to be illustrated showing a monstrous lady looking like an overswollen sausage, whose hands and feet resemble little apertures which can barely hold in all the meat! 

Picture book history 

The book demonstrates the close link between music, pictorial art and language, creating at eye height with the child a humorous contrast to the systematic writing of the time. Halfdan’s ABC has become a classic, which every subsequent ABC has been compared with. But the book itself can in fact be seen historically within its genre as a continuation of Claus Eskildsen’s Ole Bole ABC (1927) with illustrations by Storm P. Halfdan’s ABC came out at the same time as Flemming Quist Moeller’s Bicycle Gnat Egon (Cykelmyggen Egon), and 1967 is thus considered an important year in the history of Danish picture books. 

Ib Spang Olsen's illustration for Halfdan Rasmussen's rhyme about Ane's anemones. Publisher Carlsen, 1967.
Ib Spang Olsen's illustration for Halfdan Rasmussen's rhyme about Benny's pants. Publisher Carlsen, 1967.
Children's Culture

Did you know?

"I write funny poems, I write too sad poems / the first reads other people / I read the last ones myself," wrote Halfdan Rasmussen. Most of us know the poet from his nursery rhymes and nonsense, but Halfdan Rasmussen also had a more serious side. Throughout his life he was politically and socially engaged and debuted during the Second World War with the poem collection 'Soldat or Human', which is based on the unemployment of the 1930s and the dramatic experiences during the occupation.

The Committee's justification

By the Committee for Literature, 2006

Text and illustrations play a congenial part in Halfdans ABC, which was written by Halfdan Rasmussen and illustrated by Ib Spang Olsen. The book was published in 1967 and has since been printed in countless versions for the enjoyment of thousands of Danish children.
The book is, as the title says, built around the alphabet, and each letter in the alphabet has its own verse and an accompanying, but also autonomous, illustration. Children’s attention is first captured by the illustration, which comes to life and stimulates fantasy when the verse is heard, as the book is intended to be read to small children.
The alphabet begins, as we know, with A, and it is Ane who fires a cannon, but not with powder and bullets (kugler) – that comes under the letter K – but with anemones, spring flowers. The flowers arch in Ib Spang Olsen’s lines, down the sides and over the water. And the child hears:

“Ane put anemones/in the cannon on Trekroner./The very first shot/shot Ane’s anemones out!”

And once you’ve heard/read/said the verse about Ane, the cannon and the anemones, no child or adult ever forgets it. If the reader/child reads on, they experience an authentic confusing drama: “Benny’s pants burned./Børge shouted, oh!  Børge was wearing/Benny’s pants.”
The verse is really horrible, but cheerful, a horror which children, who mostly have a robust taste, have loved from the beginning. Many of Halfdan Rasmussen’s verses are full of cheerful madness and whimsical word combinations, while simultaneously containing a nice poetic tone that is given further depth by Ib Spang Olsen’s illustrations.

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