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

Before Pooh and Piglet: Honor C. Appleton’s Dolls Pose in Mrs. H. C. Cradock’s Josephine Series

trunk

The trunk (if you look just under the lid, you can tell that the trunk was once a bright green), (Cotsen 61180)

This unassuming canvas trunk holds the inspiration for some of the early 20th century’s most recognizable children’s book illustrations. It belonged to Honor C. Appleton (1879 – 1951), whose delicate watercolors are perhaps best known for their appearances as full color plates in the work of her long-time collaborators.

A Photograph of Honor C. Appleton in round frame, ca. 1912-1914 (Cotsen 61179)

A photograph of Honor C. Appleton in round frame, ca. 1912-1914 (Cotsen 61179)

Appleton maintained long working relationships with two prolific authors, Mrs. H. C. Cradock (best known for her stories about a young girl named Josephine and her imaginative adventures with her dolls) and F. H. Lee (best known for the series “Children’s Bookshelf,” adaptations of classic literature for young readers).

Honor C. Appleton's initals

Honor C. Appleton’s initials at the top of the trunk; the C stands for Charlotte, just in case you were wondering. . .

The trunk allows us to gain special insight into the Appleton’s work with Mrs. Cradock. How can a trunk do that you wonder? Well, it’s what’s inside that counts:

DOLLS!

DOLLS!

When first purchased for Cotsen, along with other items from the Appleton estate, Appleton’s trunk was full of dolls (don’t worry, they have long since been rehoused). Totaling thirteen dolls (not all shown above, but all included in images following), they come in a variety of sizes and materials. We do not, unfortunately, know much about the origin or manufacture of the dolls, though many seem homemade.

If you are familiar with Appleton’s illustrations for Cradock Josephine books, it might be immediately apparent to you why these dolls are so relevant to her artwork. But if you’re not (and don’t worry, I wasn’t either until quite recently), many of the dolls found in Appleton’s trunk seem to have served as models for characters in her illustrations.

For example, the four dolls below make recurring appearances in the Josephine books:

Four of Josephine's dolls

Four of Josephine’s dolls, from left to right: Margaret, Christabel, Quacky Jack, and one of the “Korean Dolls.”

33806frontispiece

Frontispiece to Josephine and Her Dolls (London: Blackie and Son Ltd., 1916), the first title in the Josephine series. (Cotsen 33806)

Appleton's proof and notes for page 17 of (Cotsen 34319)

Appleton’s proof and notes for page 16 of Josephine Goes Traveling (Cotsen 34319)

23698plate[44]

Plate [44], Josephine Keeps School (London: Blackie and Son, [1930s]) (Cotsen 23698)

As you can tell, the dolls’ appearances in Appleton’s illustrations are not identical to the real dolls she used as models. Christabel, for example, (featured towards the back of the parade illustrated above), is missing her right arm and has black hair in the stories. The Margaret doll has a pink dress while her counterpart in the illustrations has a white dress (I was terrified to discover that both versions lose their wigs quite easily). But I think the similarities, for some of the dolls at least, are obvious.

Take the roguish Quacky Jack:

quackyjackforever

Though time has not been kind to Josephine’s mischievous plaything, this real stuffed duck bears an undeniable likeness to his character in the books:

Vignette, page 35

Vignette, page 35, Josephine goes Traveling (London: Blackie and Son, 1940), Quacky’s better days. . . (Cotsen 23694)

Two of the other dolls might have served as models for another doll-centric collaboration between Cradock and Appleton, Peggy and Joan.

2 models for dolls found in Peggy and Joan

2 models for dolls found in Peggy and Joan

Plate [14], though not identical, the two horses in this illustation bear a resemblance to the stuffed horse above. (Cotsen 7332)

Plate [14], The two horses in this illustration bear a resemblance to the stuffed horse above. London: Blackie and Son Limited: [ca. 1920] (Cotsen 7332)

Plate [53], The doll above can clearly be seen sitting in the bottom left of this illustration. (Cotsen 7223)

Plate [53], The doll above can clearly be seen sitting in the bottom left of this illustration. (Cotsen 7223)

One more doll is an almost complete match for “Mrs. Smith” featured in the story Where the Dolls Lived:

Mrs. smith with plate 10 of (Cotsen 23702)

Mrs. Smith next to plate 10 of Where the Dolls Lived. (Cotsen 23702)

The rest of the dolls, though unique and interesting in their own right, don’t seem to resemble dolls in Appleton’s illustrations:

As you can tell, some dolls are in far better shape than others. The center of the image shows what remains of a doll's head and her dress.

As you can tell, some dolls are in far better shape than others. The bottom left of the image shows what remains of a doll’s head and her dress.

Though using play things as inspiration for children’s literature might be par for the course, few authors and illustrators create whole worlds and series based on actual toys. It is significant then, that Appleton’s approach of using doll models actually predates her more well known contemporaries: A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard.

Milne, of course, is best known for his stories centered around a certain bear named Winnie-the-Pooh, and Shepard was Milne’s original illustrator (as well as the original illustrator for Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows). What you may not know, however, is that most of Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh characters are modeled after actual toys as well:

Children's Center at 42nd St, The New York Public Library. "Kanga, Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and Tigger." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1925. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e9-1aab-d471-e040-e00a180654d7

Children’s Center at 42nd St, The New York Public Library. “Kanga, Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and Tigger.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1925. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e9-1aab-d471-e040-e00a180654d7

The shot above is provided by the New York Public Library. In their Children’s Center in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, Pooh and his friends remain on display. The dolls were originally bought for Milne’s son Christopher Robin Milne,  the real life inspiration for Christopher Robin in the Pooh series of course), starting with the gift of “Edward Bear” from a Harrod’s department store on August 21st, 1921, Christopher Robin’s first birthday.

Winnie-the-Pooh first appears by name in the London newspaper the Evening Post as the main character in Milne’s short story “The Wrong Sort of Bees” published on December 24th, 1925. Later, the bear appears in the first title in the Pooh series, the eponymous Winnie-the-Pooh (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1926).

3014page[3]-1

Pages [3]-1, Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh make their début together in the opening lines of Winnie-the-Pooh. (Cotsen 3014)

3014pages4-5

Pages 4-5, the clever formatting and Shepard’s endearing illustrations helped make the Pooh series an instant classic (Cotsen 3014)

But “Edward Bear,” the earlier incarnation of Pooh who shares the name with his model counterpart from Harrods, shows up in text a few years earlier in Milne’s best-selling collection of poetry: When We Were Very Young (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1924), in the poem “Teddy Bear” (Teddy is a nickname for both Edward and Theodore):

10411pages86-87

Pages 86-87 from the poem “Teddy Bear” (Cotsen 10411)

Interestingly, however, “Edward Bear” actually shows up a few pages earlier in Shepard’s illustration for a different poem “Halfway Down”:

Pages 80-81, "Edward Bear" can be seen at the top of the stairs; while a very familiar boy sits on the stairs. (Cotsen 10411)

Pages 80-81, “Edward Bear” can be seen at the top of the stairs; while another very familiar boy sits in the middle. (Cotsen 10411)

So even though Winnie-the-Pooh arguably first appeared in print as early as 1924, the process of building an imaginative world based around real dolls had already appeared eight years earlier in Cradock and Appleton’s Josephine and Her Dolls (1916). Our collection of Appleton’s dolls exists as the artifact for what might be the first transformative process of using children’s dolls as direct inspiration for a series of children’s fiction. Though sentient dolls have played rolls in children’s fiction since the beginning, Appleton and Cradock created a popular series that chronicled the adventures of Josephine and her dolls across numerous years and titles.  At least in America, Appleton, Cradock, Josephine and her dolls have not enjoyed the same kind of sustained familiarity and adoration as Shepard, Milne, Christopher Robin, Pooh and friends.

_________________________________________________________________________

In addition to Appleton’s dolls and suitcase (61180), her portrait (61179 above), the artists’ proof from Josephine Goes Travelling (34319 above), a run of the Josephine books and the “Children’s Series,” Cotsen is home to an Appleton sketch book (61177), and more of her finished artwork and artists’ proofs (61181, 61182, 61183, 5053062, 5641042, and 6527185).

If you are interested in more dolls in the Cotsen collection, check out this blog post as well:

Toys and Books from a Czech Fairy Tale: Dlouhý, Siroký a Bystrozraký (High, Wide, and Cleareyed)

To learn more about the NYPL collection of “Pooh and his friends” and the history of the dolls check out these links too:

http://exhibitions.nypl.org/treasures/items/show/28

http://www.nypl.org/about/locations/schwarzman/childrens-center-42nd-street/pooh