Set the Stage with Letraset: A Patterson Blick Instant Picture Book on Ballet

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.



Cotsen Research Projects: Lothar Meggendorfer’s Mechanical Books

The text below was kindly provided by Amanda M. Brian, recipient of a 2012 Princeton Library Research Grant, following her August 2012 research project with Cotsen Children’s Library special collection materials: “The Wider & Whiter World in German Mechanical Books.”  Dr. Brian is currently assistant professor of history at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC.

Lothar Meggendorfer’s Mechanical Books

by Amanda M. Brian

Beginning in the 1970s, pop-up books enjoyed a kind of renaissance in the United States. Within this trend, the name of Lothar Meggendorfer (1847-1925) was continually floated as an early master of movable illustrations in children’s books. Meggendorfer began his career as an illustrator for the Munich-based humor magazines Fliegende Blätter and then Münchener Bilderbogen. Like several of his colleagues at these publications, Meggendorfer became a crossover success in the world of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century children’s literature. His books became bestsellers during his lifetime; the most popular went into multiple editions and were translated into many languages.

Lothar Meggendorfer, Gute Bekannte (Stuttgart: W. Nitzsche, c. 1880), p. 25.

Lothar Meggendorfer, Gute Bekannte (Stuttgart: W. Nitzsche, c. 1880), p. 25.

It seems he was aware of both his influence and its monetary reward, for he included a telling self-portrait in which he stood at an easel and received a commission in Gute Bekannte. This discovery was one of several unexpected and deeply satisfying moments that I experienced as a researcher in the Rare Book Division at the Princeton University Library.

Moreover, Meggendorfer’s books were frequently reproduced and widely distributed along a German-British publishing network, which then collapsed in the face of World War I. After the war, Meggendorfer continued his work in puppet theater, a passion that had clearly influenced his figures’ exaggerated physiognomy, especially their large noses and wide mouths.

Then in 1975, the New York book dealer Justin G. Schiller purchased and prepared a catalog of a cache of production files found in J. F. Schreiber’s Esslingen warehouse for what was believed at the time to be the entire surviving Meggendorfer archive. Maurice Sendak provided an aptly named “Appreciation” in Schiller’s The Publishing Archive of Lothar Meggendorfer, adding to a certain frenzy for Meggendorfer’s books, particularly his movable books. Following this advertising, between 1979 and 1982, five of Meggendorfer’s most popular movable books were reissued and reproduced, culminating in 1985 in a kind of anthology of his most intricate and humorous pull-tab illustrations, The Genius of Lothar Meggendorfer. This relatively recent attention has cemented Meggendorfer’s reputation as a paper-engineering master on both sides of the North Atlantic. It is, therefore, not too surprising to find such an extensive collection of Meggendorfer’s children’s books in the United States; the Cotsen Children’s Library has perhaps the best examples of his works States-side, which is particularly impressive considering the wear and tear movable illustrations from over a century ago have taken.

Cotsen Children’s Library also houses an almost equal number of Meggendorfer’s non-movable books to his movable books. This acts as a kind of corrective to the amount of attention afforded his pull-tabs and panoramas at the expense of his overall production of texts and images. His self-portrait, after all, was in the non-movable Gute Bekannte. A collection that just focused on Meggendorfer’s elaborate pull-tabs–which, do not misunderstand me, are impressive with their simultaneous movements achieved by paper levers attached to small copper rivets hidden between the pages–would overlook the non-moveable (in the scholarly definition of movable parts) but equally interactive Nimm mich mit!

Lothar Meggendorfer, Nimm mich mit! Ein lehrreiches Bilderbuch, 5th ed. (Munich: Braun & Schneider, c. 1890), cover and p. 173.

Lothar Meggendorfer, Nimm mich mit! Ein lehrreiches Bilderbuch, 5th ed. (Munich: Braun & Schneider, c. 1890), cover and p. 173.

This small, 8 centimeters by 24 centimeters, picture book was designed for the non-reading, or read-to, child to “take along” around the home and into the field to compare the drawn object to the real object. It presented a comprehensive catalog of things in the child’s “garden and room” to be examined “with love,” as the introduction explained. For example, pages 125 to 184, the largest section of the book, portrayed animals with skill at expressive caricatures. Many of these animals could have been found in the child’s backyard (e.g., chicken and grasshooper), nearby woods (e.g., deer and hedgehog), or traveling menagerie (e.g., elephant and parrot), but some of these animals (e.g., whale and ostrich), the child would not have seen in nature.

In Meggendorfer’s oeuvre, animals were the most pervasive theme, followed by music. Focusing on the content and not just the mechanics of his works, it is clear that Meggendorfer’s audience was expected to identify and enjoy both domestic and foreign animals. But there were clear differences between how he portrayed domestics–meaning both native to Europe and pervasive in his audience’s lives, like dogs, horses, and sparrows–and exotics–meaning non-native to Europe and perceived as wild by his audience, like elephants, lions, and apes. How domestic and exotic animals behaved differently became instructive in Meggendorfer’s books, representing hierarchies among and between Europeans and non-Europeans, and teaching his middle-class youthful audience about their place in the world.

Lothar Meggendorfer, All Alive. A Moveable Toybook (London: H. Grevel, c. 1891).

Lothar Meggendorfer, All Alive. A Moveable Toybook (London: H. Grevel, c. 1891).

To offer but a single example, compare the poem with the movable illustration “Good Friends” [above]  in the British production All Alive, which featured rabbits, a goat, and a cat as a “happy family,” to the poem with movable illustration “Die Heimkehr” [below] in the original German version Reiseabenteuer des Malers Daumenlang und seines Dieners Damian.

Lothar Meggendorfer, Reiseabenteuer des Malers Daumenlang und seines Dieners Damian. Ein Ziehbilderbuch (Esslingen: J. F. Schreiber, 1889).

Lothar Meggendorfer, Reiseabenteuer des Malers Daumenlang und seines Dieners Damian. Ein Ziehbilderbuch (Esslingen: J. F. Schreiber, 1889).

In “Good Friends,” the ideal middle-class home was portrayed by domestic animals “living in such harmony.” Domestic animals continued to model appropriate behavior for bourgeois children in Meggendorfer’s works. By contrast, in “Die Heimkehr,” the young lord, Daumenlang, and his servant, Damian, have traveled the world, including Africa, and have headed for home loaded down with booty, including the skins of the tiger and black bear that they had encountered and mastered, and live apes and birds. They found danger, but not harmony, among exotic animals, which were perceived as part of the conquerable landscape of certain non-European territories. I first saw the illustration of the tiger “attack” from Reiseabenteuer in the Cotsen Library; those pages have been excised in the late-twentieth-century reproduction of the book.

The books by Lothar Meggendorfer that delighted audiences in the late nineteenth century and were embraced with enthusiasm in the late twentieth century were not simply examples of paper acrobatics. Rather, they both reflected and shaped the historical context of the expanding German empire at the turn of the twentieth century.