Jorge Diaz's The Rebellious Alphabet
illustrated by Oivind S. Jorfald
Book review by Monica Friedman
Literacy and Liberty Overthrow Tyranny and Censorship in a Political Fable
Children and adults alike should be able to take away a powerful message about the dangers of censorship and dictatorship and the importance of learning how to read and write, and of cherishing liberty and freedom, in this unusual picture book. Originally performed as a play, The Rebellious Alphabet was conceived by a Chilean dissident who became an exile from his motherland.
Book review - The Rebellious Alphabet
The action takes place in a village where a Little General “ruled the land by throwing temper tantrums and stomping his heels.” By all accounts, this leader is “very ignorant. He didn’t even know how to read and write.” In his efforts to control “the minds and thoughts” of his subject, he bans reading, writing, and printing. All information in this village is controlled by the government, and the spoken propaganda, disseminated by the Village Crier, says only that “The world outside our village is a mess,” while, “in our village there is peace, much peace, gallons of peace, pounds of peace, tons of peace. And now that you know that you are all happy, go and pay your taxes.”
Of course, there is on one citizen in the village, named, “Plácido, which means peaceful,” who retains his literacy. He likes reading and writing and “wanted to be the master of his own thoughts,” and to this end, he invents “a very ingenious system to print his poems, his letters, his leaflets.” Using seven canaries with letters and punctuation marks attached to the bottom of their feet, plus an ink-soaked sponge, he creates a living printing press. Just as nature helps him print his “hymn to liberty” (because, of course, “people who are free love nature”), nature also helps him distribute his samizdat: the wind simply carries his writing throughout the village, where people read the word “liberty” for the first time, and rejoice in their newfound understanding of the world.
There is a crackdown in which Plácido is imprisoned and all writing—including “the letters on the signs in the village”—is swept up and burned by the Little General himself, and “More than one villager shed a silent tear while watching the bonfire, but the tears did not put out the fire of ignorance.”
While books and papers can be burned or destroyed, ideas cannot. The burned letters allegorically, “rose to the sky and formed a cloud that hovered precisely over the castle,” and then rain down upon the village, robbing the Little General of his power and providing the people with a new name for their community: Liberty Village.
The Rebellious Alphabet is, in many ways, a very grow-up story, but one that is both accessible to and important for young children, whose sense of fairness is acute. While the realities of an oppressive regime may require that important truths such as those expressed in this book be reduced to childish fables before they can be safely spoken aloud, the knowledge shared in such a book is equally important to young people as it is to their parents. Literacy is the cure for ignorance; thought is the remedy for oppression. Where there is tyranny, there will be rebellion, and liberty will prevail, for freedom is the natural desire of all thinking people.
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