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

The Good Things That Come out of Collisions

跑跑镇

Paopao Zhen / written by Yadong; illustrated by Maikexiaokui. Jinan, China: Ming tian chu ban she, 2015. (Cotsen N-000731)

In a small town named the Run Run Town, everybody likes to run fast. They run and run, and “Wham!”—it is inevitable that they will collide into each other.

So begins The Run Run Town 跑跑镇, a Chinese picture book written by Yadong 亚东 and illustrated by Maikexiaokui 麦克小奎 (Tomorrow Publishing House, 2015). What happens after every collision is a playful rendition of the idea of “combination,” which, as the author points out in the afterword, is important in everything from the origin of life to written language, human imagination, science discoveries, and inventions. He gives two great examples: atoms combine to form molecules; combinations lead to innovations and the majority of patented inventions.

跑跑镇

跑跑镇

How the porcupine fish got its spikes, explained by a “collision theory.”

Some of the “combinations” in the picture books are whimsically fun. A cactus pot scuttles. A small fish rushes. They collide into each other right around the street corner and, voilà, a porcupine fish appears! A princess collides into a dolphin. Guess what we get? A mermaid! In the Run Run Town, even mountains are restless and don’t like to stay put. When a fire-breathing dragon crashes into a wandering mountain, a volcano is born.

跑跑镇

跑跑镇

How the owl got its night vision, explained by a “collision theory.”

Some combinations are inspired by Chinese language and culture. Why would the collision of a cat and an eagle produce an owl? Because in the Chinese vocabulary, “owl” is “mao tou ying 猫头鹰,” or “cat-headed eagle.” Steamed bread (馒头) and meat balls bump into each other head-on, and delicious steamed buns (包子) are ready to be served. If you are familiar with dim sum, you will appreciate that steamed buns with savory fillings are more popular than plain steamed bread.

跑跑镇

跑跑镇Other combinations are based on science. A blotch of blue and a blotch of yellow rush to each other and merge into a splash of green, reminding us of Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni. A young man and a young woman dash towards each other, and, on the last page of the book, a happy nuclear family of three is born.

跑跑镇 跑跑镇What collisions would you imagine if you are asked to add a picture or two to the book? When I tried to answer the question myself, I was tempted to come up with impressive invention ideas, but could not. So instead I will share cases of combinations I have found elsewhere.

The Classic of Mountains and Seas 山海经, a Chinese classic text that first appeared as early as the fourth century BC, describes mythical beings, gods, and deities. The creatures and stories in the book fascinated young people before children’s literature was intentionally produced in China at the turn of the twentieth century. (Lu Xun 鲁迅, regarded as China’s greatest modern writer, was a famous fan from boyhood.) There is a Chinese version of a “mermaid” in The Classic of Mountains and Seas: residents in a nation called Diren (氐人) are described as having human faces, the bodies of fish, and no feet (Chapter 10). The deity Yingzhao (英招) is another example among the numerous outlandish beings that are imaginatively formed by combining features from familiar species. This deity has a human face, the body of a horse with the stripes of a tiger, and a pair of wings (Chapter 2)—akin to griffins and centaurs found in Western mythology.

Depictions of Diren and Yingzhao in an illustrated edition of The Classic of Mountains and Seas published in the 17th century. (courtesy of the East Asian Library TC368/46.zggk)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling; attributed to Newt Scamander. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2001. Purported to be a textbook copy owned by Harry Potter and having been written on by him and his two best friends. (Cotsen 58436)

The ancient method of combination has been used to create “fantastic beasts” from the fourth century BC to the twenty-first century. The Classic of Mountains and Seas and J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, first published in 2001, bear astonishing similarities in both being a descriptive catalog of mythical creatures and strange beings.

A bowtruckle, a niffler, and an occamy in the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), the latest addition to Harry Potter’s wizarding world. Image sources: pottermore.com, thisisinsider.com, buzzfeed.com.

Next time you spot those magical beings on the movie screen, you will be able to reverse engineer them and understand how they come to be—the niffler, which has its eye on glittery objects always; the bowtruckle, whose sharp fingers are good at picking locks; the occamy, which fiercely guards its eggs in pure silver; and many more. Combination is not for imagining fantastic creatures only. Isn’t the briefcase carried by Newt Scamander, the Magizoologist, a cross between Pandora’s box and a magical portal like the wardrobe in Narnia? Credence Barebones, the nervous and scared teenager who obeys an oppressive mother, can find his forebear in Hitchcock’s creation—Norman Bates, the young motel manager who has turned mother’s suppression into an uncontrollable destructive force.

Sources:

Wu, Renchen 吳任臣 (annotator), and Shu Ya 舒雅 (illustrator). Shan Hai Jing Guang Zhu. Shan Hai Jing Tu 山海經廣注.山海經圖. China, between 1667 and 1722.

Yadong 亚东, and Maikexiaokui 麦克小奎 (illustrator). Paopao Zhen 跑跑镇. Di 1 ban. Jinan: Ming tian chu ban she, 2015.

Acknowledgment

Thanks go to Helen Wang, children’s literature translator, for her generous editing work and feedback to the first draft of this post!