Jim Kay’s Wizarding World 2: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets begins with an assault on the reader.   Turn to page five and you are forced into Harry’s shoes, suddenly confronted by a large pair of green eyes staring fixedly between the leaves of the hedge.  How many of us involuntarily wanted to turn away or put out those eyes?Those startling pink-rimmed eyes belonged to Dobby the house elf, the first, least but bravest of Harry’s protectors in The Chamber of Secrets.  Look at Dobby’s eyes after reading the entire novel and they may look more watchful than malicious.

It’s the first of many images of wide open eyes (and references to eye sockets) in a story stalked by an unseen beast whose gaze kills.  The terror it arouses at Hogwarts is foreshadowed in the illustration at the end of The Philosopher’s Stone  that shows the reflection of Professor Quirrell lifting up a fold in the back of his turban to reveal the red eye of He Who Must Not Be Named.

At the climax of The Chamber of Secrets, Harry, with eyes shut tight in the dark, senses the stone serpents’ empty eye sockets tracking his movements.  Disarmed by Tom Riddle, who twirls his wand like a cat toying with a mouse, Harry is told how Ginny was the pawn in a scheme to entrap and destroy the boy she adores  Taunted by Riddle in an  attempt to break his spirit, Harry’s defiant insistence  that Dumbledore is the greater of the two wizards summons the phoenix Fawkes to the chamber Slytherin built.  What Riddle forgets is that Fawkes can blind with the basilisk with its beak and cure any mortal wound it inflicts with its tears.  The phoenix’s bravery reinvigorates Harry’s strength so he give the basilisk its death blow with Godric Gryffindor’s sword and thrust the monster’s fang into Riddle’s diary, unknowingly destroying the first Horcrux.

At their best, Kay’s illustrations capture the grandeur of an uneven story, one of whose functions is laying down material that will drive the complex plot forward in the series’ successive volumes (not unlike The Subtle Knife or The Two Towers).  From scene to scene, the shifts between low comedy and heroism are not always managed skillfully and some of that awkwardness is reflected in the pictures.

It’s quite noticeable in the illustrations of Dobby, a crucial supporting character who unites servility with unexpectedd bravery.  Like Hagrid, he speaks in an awkward dialect that demotes him to a caricature.  obby is  first compared to “an ugly rag doll” and Kay obliges with a picture of the house elf perched on the edge of Harry’s bed.  His pink slab of a lower lip, enormous pop eyes, huge ears fringed with fine bristles, and filthy feet with long untrimmed nails do not make him loveable, although his resemblance to a Frank Oz creature is unmistakable.  The equally unattractive portrait of Dobby cradling Harry’s filthy sock to his face (here pristine) gives the reader permission to laugh the moment of freedon from slavery.  More revelatory of Dobby’s toughness, loyalty, and misdirected ingenuity, is the vignette of him with the pillow case above his buttocks, intent on the destruction of Aunt Petunia’s pudding.   His appearance is off-putting but funny without being as hideous or ridiculous as in the other two pictures.

Creating portraits that blend the admirable with the risible was perhaps one of the biggest challenges the text presented to Kay.  Moaning Myrtle has a mug right out of a cartoon when a better model would have been Shirley Henderson, who playing the ghost in the film with a crafty yet infantile expression that was delectable.

More satisfying is the second of the two portraits of Mrs. Weasley, holding up a flower pot of Floo powder, her red hair in need of a good hair cut under the crumpled green witch’s hat.  Kay was perhaps justifiably a little cruel in his depiction of an older woman’s body, but Mrs. Weasley’s warm, unguarded expression makes her individual and likeable  without sacrificing the realistic edge.Kay proved he can do gross…  The sketchy picture of Ron vomiting slugs is followed with a full-page spread decorated with more slugs dragging trails of bright yellow bile.  The artist’s attempts to create something like cinematic special effects are more mixed than magical.  Harry’s figure on his maiden voyage on Floo powder should look as if it were speeding out of control instead of frozen in one moment (if indeed that’s posssible).  When Harry bursts through the window in Tom Riddle’s diary, he seems to have fallen into an Abstract Expressionist painting instead of a memory strategically selected by his nemesis.

The October 2016 publication date for The Chamber of Secrets must have obliged Kay to repeat himself, not having the time to realize more of those important but potentially difficult scenes like the magnificent aerial view of St. Pancras,  Hagrid making his way down Knockburn Alley, or the tense interview between Aragog, Harry, Ron, and Fang.  For my money, the three following illustrations are critical to establishing the novel’s mood (and play to  Kay’s strengths) than do the two pictures of Dudley stuffing his face or the crowds of garden gnomes, Cornish pixies, and spiders.Architectural subjects are one of Kay’s fortes.  Yet it is easy to understand  why he chose to draw a frieze of high relief figures disporting themselves delightfully in medieval bathrooms instead of the entrance the Chamber of Secrets.  Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom may be in desperate need of remodeling, but that sink cannot have survived intact after a thousand years’ of abuse by school children with magical powers.  More to the point, where is Dumbledore’s office, a scene tailor-made for Kay, which I would have been willing to trade for the four new blocks of Diagon Alley?  Why is there no stupendous view of the Chamber, with its columns, serpentine decorations, and ominous statue of Salazar Slytherin with the weedy beard down to his feet?  The spread with the basilisk’s gigantic moulted skin with small figures of Ron, Harry, and Lockhart in the middle distance is nothing more than a teaser.

Nor is it clear why there are no pictures anywhere of the two most important actors in the drama–Ginny Weasley with her vivid red hair and Tom Riddle.  Perhaps Kay was unable to find the right models in the time he had to complete the set of illustrations.  As wonderful as the pictures of Sir Patrick brandishing his severed head astride his skeletal steed, a rueful Hagrid, or the label for Skelegro are, they are no substitute for seeing the handsome, charming and utterly ruthless sixteen-year old shimmer in and out of focus.  Too many missed opportunities ultimately diminish the novel.  I wish the publisher had done away with most of the black pages, which are the equivalent of movie music that tells members of the audience what to feel, instead of trusting their imagination.  Sections with the pages specially patterned with shadowy outlines of snake scales, spider webs, lime green triangles, and imitation foxing don’t add enough to the reading experience to deprive readers of a chance to see Fawkes fly off with Harry, Ron, Ginny, and Lockhart, after those tantalizing pictures of soaring birds (and magical cars) in the novel’s opening chapters.  If it were up to me, I’d give Kay the time he needs to draw the illustrations The Prisoner of Azkhaban  that will bring the story to life.

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