Conference on Soviet Illustrated Books for Young Readers Friday-Saturday May 1-2 at Princeton

Cotsen is delighted to help spread the word about an international conference about Soviet illustrated children’s books!

“The Pedagogy of Images: Depicting Communism for Children”

A Symposium at Princeton University, May 2015.

Friday May 1st, Bobst Hall Room 105,  9:00am – 6:00pm.

Saturday May 2nd, Chancellor Green Room 103, 10:00am – 7:00pm.

Keynote: Dmitry Bykov, “The Golden Key to Blind Beauty: Reading the Russian Revolution Through Soviet Children’s Literature”. Friday May 1st, Aaron Burr Hall 219, 6:30pm.

The symposium will convene an international and interdisciplinary group of 16 scholars who work on Soviet-era Russian illustrated books for young readers.

Socialism always had major pedagogical ambitions: building a new society was also about promoting new forms of social imaginary and a new vocabulary of images. Lenin’s plan of monumental propaganda is well known and well researched. This symposium’s project is collaborative scholarly investigation of a less monumental but no less important and pervasive visual language developed by the socialist state for its children. Specifically, the participants will examine the interplay of text and image in illustrated books for young Soviet readers.

As a part of the general desire to translate state socialism into idioms and images accessible to the illiterate, alternatively literate, and pre-literate, children’s books visualized ideological norms and goals in a way that guaranteed easy legibility and direct appeal, without sacrificing the political identity of the message.  Relying on a process of dual-media rendering, illustrated books presented the propagandistic content as a simple narrative or verse, while also casting it in images. A vehicle of ideology, an object of affection, and a product of labor, the illustrated book for the young Soviet reader became an important cultural phenomenon, despite its perceived simplicity and often minimalist techniques. Major Soviet artists and writers contributed to this genre, creating a unique assemblage of sophisticated visual formats for the propaedeutics of state socialism.


In preparation for the symposium a selection of 47 books from the Cotsen Children’s Library underwent digital imaging, and the digital surrogates were mounted as a publicly accessible collection in the Princeton University Digital Library (“Soviet Era Books for Children and Youth 1918-1938”). The 47 books were selected from the Cotsen’s holdings of approximately 1,500 Soviet-era Russian imprints, almost 1,000 of which were published between the 1917 Revolution and the beginning of WWII. All of the selected imprints are very rare; a third of the editions included are held in only one other collection in North America, and more than a third are not held in any other North American collections.

Organizing Committee:

Thomas Keenan, Serguei Oushakine. Katherine Hill Reischl

To learn more about this momentous project (including the schedule of symposium speakers and the collaborative annotated catalogue) see the main site for The Pedagogy of Images.

(Just in case this is your first time visiting, here are the links for the interactive campus map and printable campus map).

		         До свидания!



How to Rub Down Your Pictures

Spoiler alert: this post is not about an obscure form of biblioclasty–or something even more unimaginable.

Cotsen has its fair share of picture book introductions to the ballet, many of them in the Diana R. Tillson collection. Of course there’s a copy of Noel Streatfeild’s The First Book of the Ballet (1956), complete with an inspirational story about a young girl who wants to be a ballerina, a glossary of steps, history of the ballet, and plot synopses of famous ballets (Streatfeild was also the author of  the beloved 1936 Ballet Shoes).

page 29 and 87, Cotsen 85248

Pages 29 and 87, Cotsen 85248. The image on the right reproduces notations for a ballet choreographed by George Balanchine.

For a quirkier approach by a certifiable balletomane, there’s Edward Gorey’s The Lavender Leotard: or Going a Lot to the New York City Ballet (1973).    The page on the right includes a self-portrait of the author-illustrator in raccoon coat and tennis shoes.   It was impossible to miss him on the nights he came to City Ballet.

Front board and page [1], Cotsen 152312

Front board and page [1], Cotsen 152312

For those who prefer to see supple animals instead of trained classical dancers demonstrate an arabesque, entrechat or a pas de deux,  there’s always author-illustrator Janis Mitchell’s The Hamster Ballet Company (1986) or Donald Elliott’s Frogs and Ballet (1979) illustrated by Clinton Arrowood.

Page [4] and [12], Cotsen 86267

Pages [4] and [12], Cotsen 86267


Pages 21 and 29, Cotsen 85247.

Then there is Dennis Knight’s Ballet, Patterson Blick Instant Picture Book number 5. It may be the only introduction to the ballet in the collection that is also an activity book.  It comes with two leaves of “rub down instant pictures,” or forty-six Letraset transfers.  For those of you with enquiring minds hungry for more information about this form of image-transfer technology, check out the webpage for SPLAT, the Society for the Preservation of Letraset Action Transfers.

In the Patterson Blick Instant Picture Book on the ballet, the sheets of Letraset transfers are divided into five sections, A-E, and each has been designed to complete a particular illustration in the text.  B and D require about as much skill as filling in an outline drawing in a coloring book,  while A, C, and E ask rather more of the reader. Each set of  figures has to be arranged on the set of the correct ballet without any synopsis or photographs of an actual production to help visualize the scene.  Perhaps this exercise was intended to engage young artists, who might yearn to design costumes or sets, rather than young dancers.

Luckily, Cotsen has two editions of Instant Picture Book number 5 and the 7th impression has all the transfers untouched on the inserted plates.


Unused plates of Letraset transfers, Cotsen 87411.

The illustrated directions for transferring the figures are printed on the rear wrapper.  The earlier set of directions was illustrated with five pictures, but by the time the 7th impression was printed, the second and fourth illustrations were dropped and a cheery logo featuring a bee added in the upper left hand corner.   A second good reason for keeping both copies in the collection!


Rear wrapper of Cotsen 16093 with fully illustrated instructions for transferring the designs.

Rear wrapper, Cotsen 16093 c.2

Rear wrapper of the 7th impression with abbreviated instructions and logo, Cotsen 87411

Whoever filled in the scenes from the featured ballets in Cotsen’s “used” copy of Instant Picture Book Number 5 seems to have known something about classical dance.  Notice the simpering White Cat (sans Puss in Boots) has been placed near the wings in the background of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty.  It could be the finale, where all the characters return for one last turn on the stage.

Page 8, Cotsen 16093

Page 10, Cotsen 16093

In the scene from Adolphe Adam’s Giselle, the reclining figure of Albrecht has been rotated so that he is balancing en pointe.  Maybe it was an honest mistake, but I’m not so sure.  It does make the romantic hero look a bit like Gene Kelly executing a jazzy move, so maybe it was done on purpose to juice things up.

Page 8, Cotsen 16093

Page 8, Cotsen 16093

And for the third ballet?  I was expecting Stravinsky’s Petroushka. Instead it is Arthur Bliss’s Checkmate (1937), which was choreographed by Ninon de Valois, founder of the Birmingham and Royal Ballet, a work now considered a cornerstone of the modern British ballet repertory.

The ballet’s premise is that chess pieces come to life and act out human emotions (chiefly lust and blood lust) on stage.  Whoever completed the scene arranged the figures so that one of the Red Knights is poised to stab a black pawn, while the Black Knight menaces his twin. The Black Queen, the femme fatale of the piece, looms ominously in the rear.

Page 13, Cotsen 16093

Page 13, Cotsen 16093

I wonder if Checkmate was chosen at the suggestion of  the publication’s technical advisor, the great English danseur noble Michael Somes, who created the role of the Black Knight in the original production.

Michael Somes

Publicity shot of the great British dancer, Michael Somes, the technical advisor for Instant Picture Book number 5.

Who transferred all the Letraset figures in Cotsen 16093?  An older child studying ballet or an adult who was familiar with the repertory?  Whoever it was, he or she seems to have taken the task fairly seriously, whether or not the scenes were composed from memories of choreography from actual productions.  It’s evidence of a different kind of engagement with the book…

checkmate 1

Olivia Bell as the Black Queen in the Australian Ballet’s production of Checkmate.