Weird Books in the Cotsen Stacks!

the bronte castle alphabet

(Cotsen 60766)

Today, we turn the blog over to the one and only Dr. Dana Sheridan,Cotsen’s scrumdiddlyumptious Education & Outreach Coordinator. This post is based on the program that she and Cotsen curatorial assistant, Ian Dooley, dreamed up for the Cotsen Critix based on collections materials. It’s cross-posted on the two Cotsen blogs for everyone’s enjoyment. Take it away, Dr. Dana and Ian!

The Cotsen Children’s Library is part of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton University, but it also houses a whimsical gallery space and outreach programs that promote a love of literacy in children. Today, I’d love to share a collections education presentation we hosted for Cotsen Critix, our literary society for children ages 9-12.

cotsen critixThe session was entitled “Weird Books,” and our goal was to give kids a deeper appreciation for the unusual formats books can take. The books were selected and presented by Cotsen’s curatorial assistant, Ian Dooley – a frequent contributor to this blog (here, in fact, is his most recent post on Dickens).

The first book Ian presented was a tiny volume stashed inside a leather-hinged walnut shell. It’s The Bronte Castle Alphabet by Elmira Smith Wilkey (Bronte Press, 1981). The book is a mere 3 cm (1.18 inches) in height!

ian displays miniature bookIn contrast to the miniature book, Ian brought out an extremely oversized one – the aptly titled Let’s Count Big Book (World Book Co., c1953). He discussed how this book might have been used in a classroom, and why it needed to be so large.

let's count big book

(Cotsen 23000)

And what about books that have no pages? While the kids puzzled this question over, Ian brought out two horn books. The first was an Urdu horn book created in Lahore, Pakistan by Mubarak’s Sons Stationers. While undated, it’s most likely 20th century.

urdu horn book

(Cotsen 151623)

Here’s another, very different horn book. The illustrated blocks on the face of the horn book depict the 6 days of Creation. The illustrations appear to be printed from blocks used in the Coverdale Bible, which means that this object dates back to 1535. The kids were simply stunned by its age.

wooden horn book

(Cotsen 63377)

And then there are books made out of unusual materials. Such as this metal book, L’Anguria Lirica (Edizioni Futuriste di Poesia, [ca. 1933]). It’s a collection of poetry by Tullio D’Albisola, illustrated by Bruno Munari. The text and illustrations are color lithographed on tin.

l'anguria lirica

(Cotsen 26541)

Some books might appear normal, but they contain a secret. This 1877 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Macmillan and Co.) has a hidden fore-edge painting. Fan the pages just so, and you are treated to John Tenniel’s illustration of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (Ian describes the fore-edge painting of this book in much more detail in this post).

alice fore-edge

(Cotsen 30998)

And speaking of Alice, Ian thought the kids might recognize this famous artist’s interpretation of the story.

dali alice

(Cotsen 26631)

The melting clock is the giveaway, really. This is a 1969 folio edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Maecenas Press, Random House) with illustrations by Salvador Dali. One very unusual thing about Dali’s Alice is the binding. It doesn’t have one! The chapters float freely apart and are stacked and stored inside a clam shell box when not in use.

Ian also brought out a lift-the-flap book and a book on wheels for the kids to examine. He remarked that while we might not find these formats unusual today, at one time, they would have been extremely novel to young readers. He added that early movable books and shape books like the ones below also helped push the boundaries of what can be traditionally considered a “book.”

early lift the flap book

Die Praxis des modernen Maschinenbaues : Modell-Atlas (C. A. Weller, Berlin [191-?]) (Cotsen 28687)

a ride to fairyland

A Ride to Fairyland (Valentine & Sons, Ltd., London [ca. 1915]) (Cotsen 11891)

The presentation’s grand finale was a book so lengthy, we needed to display it on a 6 foot table! It’s The City Park (Viking, 1981), a reproduction of an antique German toy book by Lothar Meggendorfer. The book unfolds into multiple arrangements that can display different scenes and perspectives in a 19th-century city park.

the city park fold out

(Cotsen Reference PZ7.M5143 Ci 1981)

the city park close upAll in all, “Weird Books” was a fantastic presentation full of surprises and revelations for the kids. Ian was kind enough to stay for 30 minutes after his presentation ended, answering questions about rare books, Cotsen’s collections, his job at the library, and inexplicably, robots. Thanks so much Ian!

Who Can Turn the World Upside Down?


The World Turned Upside-Down, or The Comical Metamorphosis. London: E. Ryland, ca. 1770. (Cotsen 360). In Tale X, the boys crown their teacher with a dunce cap and horse him (bend him over the back of another person) before beating him.

School boys in classrooms


The Taylors of Ongar, Signor Topsy Turvy’s Wonderful Magic Lantern, or The World Turned Upside-Down. London: B. Tabart, 1810 (Cotsen 7411). This poem was the work of Ann Taylor Gilbert, better known for her sentimental classic, “My Mother.”

A fish angling on the river bank

World Darton 3883

The World Turned Upside-Down Illustrated in 16 Wonderful Pictures. London: W. Darton, ca. 1830. (Cotsen 3883).

Hard working sheep and bears


Die verkehrte Welt in Bildern und Reimen., plate 2. Stuttgart: Hoffmann’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1850. (Cotsen in process 6344921).

A girl or a nutcracker in the nursery


The Taylors of Ongar, Signor Topsy-Turvy’s Wonderful Magic Lantern.  (Cotsen 7411). This savage little poem was also the work of Ann Taylor Gilbert.”

A hare, a turkey, and a tortoise in the kitchen

Committing sedition instead of being nutrition,



Detail from the chapbook The World Turn’d Upside Down, or, The Folly of Man Exemplified in Twelve Comical Subjects, p. 2. London: W. Dicey, ca. 1720? (Cotsen 153885)

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s showstopping number,  “Yorktown: The World Turned Upside Down,”  uses examples that resonate deeply with a contemporary audience instead of  the symbols of subversion from below that circulated  in popular prints (and even earlier in the margins of medieval manuscripts).  Just a few of the traditional role reversals are featured above, so here are two “World Turned Upside Down” prints to show more of them.