Novel Interactive Books for Kids: McLoughlin’s Sing-a-Song Playerbook

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

Else Wenz-Vietor’s Slot Book: Nürnberger Puppenstubenspielbuch

3 covers in order

Respectively: Cotsen 2333, 1616, 14315 (Oldenburg : Gerhard Stalling, [ca. 1921])

Nürnberger Puppenstubenspielbuch  is not only a mouthful of German, it’s also the title of a wonderful slot book by Else Wenz-Viëtor. Literally translated as: Nuremberg dollhouse game book, the three books pictured above are consecutive editions (auflage in German) three, four, and five; all published in the early 1920’s.

Slot books (sometimes, unfortunately, referred to as “slotty books” in England) are part doll house and part book. While they are clearly a codex, pages or spreads feature illustrated backgrounds (often of a domestic nature) with little or no text. Each book is accompanied by any number of cut-out figures which can be fit into slots on the pages. These figures are often people and various objects which can be fit into the book in order to, by the powers of the user’s imagination, form scenes or narratives about the figures and their background environment.  Essentially then, slot books serve as a kind of two dimensional (and much more transportable) doll house.

Nürnberger Puppenstubenspielbuch  features six household scenes, each occupying their own double page spread. The book runs through a middle class German household, from the front hallway, to a parlor, a bedroom, a nursery, the kitchen, and the backyard garden.

The parlor, spread 2

The parlor, spread 2

The nursery, spread 4

The nursery, spread 4

In addition to the obvious slots necessarily present in any slot book, Nürnberger also includes various flaps. Here, figures can be places behind doors, in ovens, in cabinets, etc. Since these flaps need to be manipulated in order for the figures behind them to be revealed, this kind of interaction allows for a sense of motion and time to be introduced into a particular scene.

a door flap and an oven door flap in the parlor, spread 3

The door flap and the oven door flap in the parlor, spread 2

We recently received a reference question regarding the figure cut-outs that belong to the different editions (sparking this blog post in the first place). As it turns out, there are some slight cosmetic differences between the three editions that we have here at Cotsen.

As you can tell from the picture at top, the fourth edition has a blue spine while editions three and five have red spines. Since this blue spine is so much worse for wear than the other contemporary editions, it might indicate that the publisher attempted to save money by cutting a corner in production. But with our sample size so small, we can’t be sure about the spine color or material of different editions or printings.

The editions have different figures as well. The varying number of figures between our different copies, however,  has more to do with time than it does with production choices. Many cut-outs have simply been lost or damaged with use.

Figures for edition 3, Cotsen 2333

All the figures with edition 3, Cotsen 2333

All the figures with edition 4, Cotsen 1616

All the figures with edition 4, Cotsen 1616

All the figures with edition 5, Cotsen 14315

All the figures with edition 5, Cotsen 14315

As you can tell by comparing the pictures, some of the surviving figures from the third edition do look different from the later two editions. The little girl, the housekeeper, and the nanny have a different appearance.

While the fourth and fifth editions overlap in all but a few extra outfits and objects (though light and time have affected the figures differently), you’ll probably notice that the fifth edition includes some extra guests in the bottom left of the picture. These figures are from a different slot book and must have been introduced by a former owner. Besides the obvious coloring differences, they are made of much thinner paper.

Figures from other sources, replacements, and custom cut-outs were often introduced by savvy children more interested in play than collection. As a result, those who do collect slot books often find an array of outside material.

Now, with the technical exposition out of the way, what blog post about slot books would be complete without a little fun scene making?

parlor scenezzz

Young Hans loses control of the parlor while babysitting his sister Helga.

nursery scenezzz

Here little Odetta fails at quietly playing tea with her dolly and wakes the babes in the nursery.

With such a variety of backgrounds and figures slot books could potentially provide hours of imagination and fun. I, at least, had some fun making my own scenes and I hope you enjoyed learning about Nürnberger Puppenstubenspielbuch.