PRIMERS, BATTLEDORES, and hornbooks (small wooden paddles with pasted-on alphabets) were among the fist forms for spreading the alphabet and thus literacy in the 17th and 18th centuries. Famous old alphabets from this period, like "A Apple Pie" and "A Is for Archer" had publication lives of centuries. But, for the most part, early alphabets were cheap, functional, crudely illustrated, uninspired.

All that changed with the rise of public education and the widespread concern about literacy in the 19th century. Cheaper means of production and the commercial viability of the children's book market served the cause, and the result was the publication of hundreds of alphabet books. In fact, by the late 19th century, alphabet books had become an established genre of children's books. Publishers, writers and artists vied to outdo one another in bringing out attractive, elaborately produced ABC's.

There were hundreds of rhymed alphabets, for instance; most were didactic or preachy; others were, by today's standards, condescendingly racist or classist ("U is for Urchin, so simple and small, who cannot make out how the train goes at all"). Nearly all of these have been lost in obscurity, but some others (like Edward Lear's "Nonsense Alphabets") have lasted in the nursery, because of their timeless humor.

With the powerful presence of media versions of the ABC's (like Sesame Street's), one would not think that there would be any point in taking up such an old-fashioned form as a printed alphabet book. Yet, in the electronic Global Village, the alphabet has fared quite well. Modern alphabets by Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry sell millions of copies annually. And some of the most unique and gorgeously illustrated books in recent years have been alphabets--Leo and Diane Dillon's award-winning Ashanti to Zulu ; Leonard Baskin's controversial Hosie's Alphabet ; that joy of a pop-up book, Robert Crowther's The Most Amazing Hide-and-Seek Alphabet Book ; and Maurice Sendak's witty Alligators All Around .

Indeed, over the years, the alphabet has continued to hold a fascination for illustrators. Rather than stifling them, its fixed form seems to stimulate the imagination. Instead of dying out, the alphabet has become one of the tests of the illustrator's or writer's art. To borrow from Shakespeare, it's a matter of "dressing old words [in this case, letters] new." That's the challenge.

Mary Azarian's A Farmer's Alphabet takes up this challenge in a strong, dignified way. Her bold woodcuts of farm life have the grainy, "primitive" texture of old barn board. Her visual style--so direct and yet so subtle--matches her subject perfectly. Her farm is full of haylofts and horses, woodpiles and winter sledding that etches the hills, high-top work boots and itchy wool underwear, put on early in the morning before a potbellied stove. While her vision of farm life is nostalgic, it is also honest--rough and graceful at the same time. Hers is a landscape before high-tension lines, tractors, and TV antennas. It is a world of hard work and delicious, well-earned yawns (her "Y" picture). There are no preservatives here, yet she preserves, in the making of her book, something deep and, one hopes, lasting: a love of land and growth, of animals and, most importantly, of people.

Anno's Magical Abc , by Mitsumasa Anno (with lettering by his son, Masaichiro) preserves Anno's reputation as one of the most visually inventive makers of picture books today. Here he revives an unusual optical technique found in both Western art and 17th-century Japanese art--anamorphosis --in which images are distorted, requiring the viewer to see them from a different perspective. In this "Anamorphic Alphabet," Anno's letters and their accompanying pictures do not become clear until one rolls the shiny, reflecting paper in the book's back pocket into a tube and places it in the center of the page.

Presto! The abstract pictures and letters take their proper shape--a zipper, a yacht, an elf, or a tricycle. There are, in fact, two alphabets in the book (one of objects and people, the other of animals), and the book can be read backwards or forwards. Anno's instructions for creating an anamorphic alphabet are tucked in the middle between the two ABC's.

Anno is clever, and his significance as a children's book maker is that he encourages children to perceive the world more imaginatively. However, his Magical ABC strikes me as being just too gimmicky, sacrificing the thoroughly refreshing character of his earlier books (Anno's Alphabet or Anno's Journey ) for an optical illusion which, once it's learned, is somewhat repetitive. Still, it is an eye-opening book (once one gets beyond the equally eye-opening price tag), and should intrigue a visually sophisticated youngster, one who has seen everything.

Anita and Arnold Lobel's latest collaboration On Market Street , does not rely on tricks to hold its audience. Instead, its clear text and visually arresting pictures are based on one of the fundamental principles of any well-made picture book.

Essentially a fantasy about a 19th-century boy's (but, relly, any child's) excursion to Market Street for a shopping spree, the book immediately surprises and thus engages the reader once he recognizes the world of possibilities that Market Street offers. No longer bound to the Dickens-like street of shops, the reader, through Anita Lobel's stunning illustrations, joins the boy's fantasy, becoming a person made of apple boughs and fruits, or dressed in hundreds of different kinds of noodles, or decked out in brilliant quilts or kites or ribbons. The style is reminiscent of the fantasy art of Guiseppe Arcimboldo, the 16th-century Milanese painter, who transformed vegetables into human beings -- but without Arcimboldo's grotesque darkness. Anita Lobel's paintings are bright, inventive and inexhaustible visions that hold the reader's attention as he pours over the exquisite detail of each picture, wondering what will be next.

But the element of surprise in On Market Street would quickly run out if the Lobels were not so convincing in their fantasy, and so able to sustain it. The Lobels never condescend to stereotyped notions of a child's attention span or his power to analyze the detail that must be there for him to create a "real" fantasy in his own imagination. This quality of an imaginative reality is present in the book in abundance. No matter how many times one looks at the pictures, their energy doesn't fade: the egg-boy continues to crow; the vegetable-man bursts with earthy richness; the yarn-woman weaves her spell. Whether the readers (or pre-readers) are willing, bored, or demanding, On Market Street will saturate their senses with wonders, until they sink, like the exhausted boy at the end of the book, into their oh-so-soft bed.

Just when we might suppose that the fertile soil of the alphabet book has been played out, up comes a new crop. In the hands of skilled artists like these, the old seeds still yield a hearty fruit. Crisp, like an apple, to sink our teeth into. Miraculous, like a new flower, or a dream.