Interactive Books for Kids: A Not So “New New Thing”

Sing-A-Song Player Book (McLoughlin Bros., Springfield, Mass., c. 1938) Cotsen 7158175

“Interactivity” is one of the bywords of new media and contemporary books of all sorts. It’s hard to read a book review or an article about books or publishing these days without finding some reference to interactivity or mention of an interactive, online adjunct to a printed book. A quick Google search for “interactive books” turns up a whopping 158 million results! Included in the list are: Android apps, iPad items, and yes, even some now relatively”old-format” computer-based books, as well as interactive versions of novels, plays, and poems.

Children’s books are a particularly fertile area for interactivity too. A slightly refined Google search for “interactive books for kids” returns over 56 million items. But interactive books for children are hardly a new idea, or even a fundamentally technology-based phenomenon. From the early days of publications intended for children, interactive aspects have been common. Books with volvelles, flap-books, “magic transformation” books, pop-up books, and various drawing and coloring books were seen by publishers as both appealing and educational offerings for child readers (and their book-buying parents).

Foreword to Sing-a-Song Playerbook with instructions and list of songs below

McLoughlin Brothers, a pioneering publisher of children’s books, games, educational toys, and novelties was finely attuned to the market — and to helping create a market via extensive and persuasive advertising. Thus, it’s hardly surprising to find a wide variety of their interactive items for children in the Cotsen collection; pop-up books, panoramas, books that open up to create a zoo or circus toy, as well as many instances of drawing and coloring books abound.

An unusual example of a McLoughlin item that spans the genres of books and toys is the 1938 Sing-a-Song Playerbook. It has the appearance of a book and has some reading matter and music, but it actually functions as a musical toy. The cover displays some characteristic features of McLoughlin books of the time: bright colors in a visually arresting style, color-printed illustrations, and, of course, a depiction of children having fun. Children have always liked seeing and reading about other children; grown-ups, while they have their roles in children’s literature, are just too boring on their own!

Detail of xylophone and playing mallet (Note the numbers on the individual xylophone bars, which correspond to notes on the simplified musical scores shown below).

But this spiral-bound item — for which McLoughlin sought a patent — is more than a book. Take a look at the small xylophone that’s visible though the cover. It comes complete with its own small wooden mallet for playing, which still remains with the book — a survival that’s somewhat amazing some eighty years after publication.

The interior pages of the book feature bright process-printed  illustrations of children (generally presented in characteristic 1930s clothing), facing pages with a song and a simplified musical score, which a child could play on the xylophone in a “play-by-number” manner — and perhaps sing along to, since all the songs have lyrics. Instructions on the Table of Contents page (shown above) instruct a child how to use the book. But McLoughlin’s accompanying Forward section disclaims the “teaching of technical music.” The goal of the book is instead to “provide an interesting medium” for the “sheer joy of doing.”  “Delight” is usually the dominant aspect of the firm’s “Teach and Delight motto in their publications for children.

A variety of traditionally popular children’s songs are featured in the Sing-a-Song Playerbook, from “Jack & Jill” to “London Bridges Falling Down” to “Jingle Bells,” all accompanied by illustrations providing a window (however idealized) onto how children looked and how childhood was depicted in the late 1930s.  It’s a world where boys wore short pants and girls wore skirts or jumpers (and when “men wore hats,” as John Cheever once noted.)

“Jack & Jill” with children clothed in period 1930s attire.

Playing “London Bridge is Falling Down” on an idyllic summer day.

“Jingle Bells” and a nostalgic depiction of Christmas fun.

McLoughlin Brothers thought the Sing-a-Song Playerbook sufficiently novel to feature it in an advertising flyer for booksellers: “McLoughlin Brothers Money Makers, 1938,” which touts the Playerbook as: “Unique! Entertaining! Low Priced! Appealing! Handsome! A Sure Fire Hit!” All music to a retailer’s ears. Note that the firm’s Zoo Book-Toy is also highlighted as “the book that becomes a toy!” — another variation of the interactive book format.

“McLoughlin Money Makers, Fall 1938” (Cotsen 97060)

And the Sing-a-Song Playerbook did indeed seem to have been a hit. A later McLoughlin retail flyer (presumably from 1939) advertises a sequel, The Second Sing-a-Song Playerbook, and notes that the original sold over 400,000 copies in nine months, a staggering sales volume for a children’s novelty item in 1938, especially one priced at $1.25 in a time when many McLoughlin books sold for a quarter!  And take a look at McLoughlin’s PR-speak: ” musical notes play a profit tune,” “more a gift than just a book could be,” “appeals to children from six to sixty.” (Hmmm…)

“Second Sing-A-Song Player Book” advertising flyer (1939) Cotsen 96882

The Sing-a-Song Playerbook and McLoughlin’s marketing materials for it combine to provide a window onto childhood at the time, the marketing of children’s books, and what was new and exciting in terms of interactive material for children. But by themselves, the book or advertising materials tell only part of the story. It’s only by looking at them together that we can really see how publishing and marketing were combined by the premier American publisher of children’s books of the era. Providing context for the books and how they were presented to the public is one of the real values of publisher’s advertisement and publisher’s catalogs, which, as ephemera, often weren’t saved and reused in the way children’s books themselves were.  Cotsen Library has one of the largest collections of McLoughlin Brothers publisher’s catalogs and advertising flyers, which are the subject of a an ongoing digital project now.  Stay tuned for more on that in a subsequent blog posting…

To see some glorious French interactive books, see the on-line exhibition on Pere Castor

Francis Barlow “A Famous Paynter of Fowle Beastes & Birds”

Animals, birds, and nature… Who doesn’t like them and find them fascinating?  Pretty much all children, as well as illustrators, painters, naturalists.

Wild Lives,” the recent conference at Princeton, explored the intersection of naturalism, art, and science, and focused on how humankind sees and depicts animals and birds in visual terms.  Among the topics explored by speakers were dynamism of representation of animals and birds and the depiction of the “whole animal,” as opposed to a focus on microscopic presentation of detail.

Where Sheep May Safely Graze

Where Sheep May Safely Graze… (plate from Francis Barlow’s Animals of Various Species)

Francis Barlow, a seventeenth-century illustrator and etcher, was not among the subjects discussed at the conference, but looking at Barlow’s work this past week while cataloging a Cotsen Library collection of published plate-books featuring his work, it was easy to think of the conference and reflect on how an illustrator can depict nature, animals, and birds and provide all sorts of insights in the process.  I have to admit I hadn’t known much about Barlow or his work beforehand, but I was astounded by various aspects of his illustrations as I looked through Cotsen’s book and even more interested once I learned more about him.  A contemporary called Barlow “a famous paynter of fowle beastes and birds” (1), not necessarily a term of praise (“foul” beasts not “fowl” and beasts).  More recent writers have termed Barlow: “the central figure of British graphic art of the second half of the seventeenth century” (2) and “the leading illustrative interpreter in England before 1800… the first and one of the best of English animal and bird draftsmen” (3).

Barlow’s notable work also included political commentary prints and illustrations for an edition of Aesop’s Fables that he published himself in 1666.  His Aesop illustrations of course picture animals — the anthropomorphized actors in the fables — and his political prints make use of animals to convey a message. But I’d like to focus on his illustrations in this collection of plate books that feature more “naturalistic” depictions of animals and birds, in which where the illustrations themselves not only depict animals and birds in remarkably dynamic detail but also convey subtle interpretations about the “whole animal” and the workings of nature.

Animals of Various Species

Title page plate: Animals of Various Species

Cotsen’s volume of plates books includes four separate Barlow titles: Animals of Various Species accurately drawn by Francis Barlow, and three other published collections of his plate books: Divers Species of Birds (Parts 1 & 2, separate publications) and Birds of Various Species, both Foreign and English.  These four titles were all been bound together later on, along with two other, slightly later, collections of plate books featuring work by other illustrators: the Book of Horses and the Book of Cattle.  So, while all these individual titles were published and most can be found in other libraries, Cotsen’s volume is a unique, with a number of particular aspects (more on that aspect in a moment…).

“Interpretive illustrations” of birds and animals are evident in all four of Barlow volumes, as we can see on the title-page plates of each of them.

Animals of Various Species

Animals of Various Species

Birds of Various Species

Birds of Various Species

 

 

 

 

 

 

The title plate from Animals of Various Species is shows a highly dramatic scene, not really what we’d expect to introduce a series of illustrations intended to depict different animal species.  Barlow depicts a fox in the process of taking a goose and beginning its escape; in the background, other terrified geese cry out, and a farmer rushes out of her house, one leg over the fence, and broom in hand in an attempt to chase off the fox (too late). The detailing of the animals is impressive, as is the sense of dynamic motion; the fox, farmer’s broom, and larger background goose all lean to the left, enhancing the sense of sweeping movement.  All the figures are in motion — nothing is static.  Take a look at the background detailing too; Barlow provides a snapshot depiction of what a small English farmstead must have looked like. And fear of a fox in the hen-house or one preying on a goose flock would have been a very real fear — and recurrent event — even though it’s the stuff of fairy tales to us now

Barlow’s illustration tells a nuanced story all by itself — no words are really needed!  And apart from the details of this scene, his illustration also suggests a broader vision of “nature red in tooth and claw.”  Even in an apparently bucolic pastoral setting, predator animals hunt and prey.

Detail of eagle's feathers and clawsThe title plate for Birds of Various Species places a top-level predator — the eagle — front and center.  Look at the detailing of the eagle’s feathers and those claws!  And even though the overall arrangement of this scene is an artificial, somewhat static mini-compendium of birds, the eagle’s wings are unfurled, its beak open, and its claws seemingly ready for grasping prey.

Eagles and raptors feature prominently in other Barlow illustrations throughout all four sets and on the title-page plates for Diverse Species of Birds and Birds & Fowles of Various SpeciesCertainly these birds of prey are visually dramatic in a way that would appeal to a naturalist-artist, and they would also presumably have caught the eye of a potential book-buyer in an era before bright book covers or dust-jackets.  But Barlow’s frequent use of birds of prey also suggests something about his own naturalistic interests and overall view of nature, I think.

Birds & Fowles of Various Species (Part 2)

Birds & Fowles of Various Species

Diverse Species of Birds (Part 1)

Diverse Species of Birds

 

 

 

 

 

 

A large eagle in a dynamic pose and a more static hawk and vulture frame the engraved title cartouche of Diverse Species of Birds. Take a closer look at the at the cartouche, though.  It’s a sheep.  In a sense, the illustration summarizes the life of much of the natural animal world: predators take their prey and the scavengers clean up the remains.  The title-plate of Birds & Fowles also features a central raptor and its prey (which at first may look like a log or something else convenient for the hawk to be posed upon).  These images may seem disturbing to us today, but they were really very much a part of everyday life that an Englishman like Barlow would have frequently seen at the time pretty much anywhere outside London or another major city or town.  And it seems likely to me that Barlow used these illustrations to provide a visual commentary on his view of nature.  (And he did use animals in symbolic ways in his political commentary illustrations.)

The body language of the two fancier, crane-like birds in the Various Species illustration is striking too: both turn away, but whether out of fear or disgust at the red-in-tooth-and-claw “animal” instincts of the hawk is hard to say — Barlow does seem to have given them somewhat haughty expressions, an expressiveness seen in other animal illustrations in these sets.

Elk (Animals of Various Species)

rabbitsThe range of Barlow’s vision of the natural world in these four sets of illustrations is striking.  He sometime presents finely-detailed studies of animals in a peaceful settings.  He thus shows us sheep safely grazing in England’s fair and pleasant land.(above), rabbits eating and playing, and a pair of elk at rest.  Take a closer look at the depth of perspective he achieves in these illustrations by picturing animals and things in their natural environments with other animals or figures at various distances in the background, as opposed to the more flat-plane presentation of some contemporaries.

deer-hunted rabbits-huntedBut in other illustrations, Barlow shows these same peaceful animals being attacked by other animals, sometimes as part of the cycle of nature and sometimes at the behest of humans, as shown in two separate illustrations of hunting dogs pursuing rabbits and deer. The animals are doing the hunting, but not really for themselves.

dog-cat-birdAnother Barlow illustration presents the hierarchy of natural predation, whereby a dog is shown attacking a smaller animal that has itself just preyed upon down a small bird.  There’s real emotion depicted in the scene.  It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the plight of both victims, which I think is Barlow’s intent.

He also presents an owl sitting impassively while other birds apparently seek to frighten it away in one scene, and then another with an owl seeking to protect its own chicks from a menacing hawk, one of several illustrations in these four collections of his work which show animals protecting their young, one of the key aspects of animal behavior that Barlow no doubt observed during the close observation he made of them in their natural contexts.

owl2owl1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Overall, Barlow’s work seems to not only display details of animal life and his vision of the natural order, but also to evince considerable sympathy for animals in their various roles in nature.  It’s hard to think of a more important lesson than that.

uppercover

Upper cover of Cotsen collection of plate books (#17032), showing lion illustration and armorial crest pasted down

Apart from the four sets of Barlow plates and the two other collections of animal etchings that all bound together within this unique Cotsen  volume, the book is further extra-illustrated with a number of additional plates depicting animals mounted on blank pages at the end of the volume, on the endpapers and inside covers, and even on the upper cover (along with an armorial crest).  How these items all came to be bound together is something we’re still investigating, but it seems safe to say that it was done by someone with a keen interest in animals and nature — and judging from the well-worn covers and pages, this was a volume perused many times over its lifetime.


Notes:

  1. John Evelyn, quoted in the Oxford DNB
  2. Antony Griffiths, The Print in Stuart England, 1603-1689
  3. Edward Hodnett, Francis Barlow: First Master of English Illustration