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

Illustrating Summertime in Children’s Books

Little Tot's Holiday Book (Warne: not before 1881) Cotsen 30357

Little Tot’s Holiday Book (Warne & Co.: ca. 1881) Cotsen 30357.

As the days of summer dwindle into a precious few, the long days of sunshine slowly get shorter, and a new school term impends, we all tend to wonder: “Where did the summer go?”

With that thought in mind, we might help keep summer alive a little longer by taking a look at how children’s book illustrators picture summer and its activities.

It certainly didn’t take children’s books to make school kids (and the rest of us) love the prospect of having time off from school and being able to enjoy all the activities available for a few precious months a year. But nineteenth-century books for children certainly stressed summertime fun and vividly pictured outdoor activities, some relatively ‘novel’ ones at the time, such as beach holidays at newly-popular (and accessible) ocean-side resorts. As such, they provide a terrific window onto life and leisure-time activities at the time.

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Children at the shore (detail from Little Tot’s Holiday Book).

Frederick Warne & Co., one of the major nineteenth-century publishers of children’s books readily added “holiday” books picturing seasonal and summertime fun to its line of books. The large format (over 12″ tall) picture book Little Tot’s Holiday Book features vivid, full-page chromolithographed illustrations of children in all sorts of holiday activities (including some in winter). The bright red cloth front cover features a paper onlay of two Victorian children at a seaside locale. Note their fashionable, but modest, attire, fairly typical for the time.

“A Holiday at the Seaside.”

One of the illustrations inside the book shows children happily engaged in a range of contemporary seaside activities: playing on the beach and making sandcastles, taking donkey rides, and riding in a goat cart. I like the background detail of “On the Sands,” which shows a Brighton-like pleasure pier, one of the “novel” aspects of Victorian seaside resorts.

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“Off to the Seashore”…via train.

Another full-page illustration features a train. While trains were always popular with children, particularly boys, why does a train appear in a holiday book? The answer lies in the caption: “off to the seashore.” Trains were a relatively novel form of transportation at this time, and one of the ways that middle-class and more prosperous working-class families went to the seashore in the 1880s.

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Little Tot’s Holiday Book, alternate cover – Cotsen 30357 (c.2)

Little Tot’s Holiday was apparently a popular title, because Warne issued another version of the same title, with identical content, but a different cover, one showing a very different kind of summertime activity. Again, two fashionable and apparently affluent children (similar to the book’s target audience) are featured, but this time they’re presented in a rural setting, getting donkey rides from a young adult from the country (note, his mustache and “rural” attire).

Warne’s picture books repeatedly show children at the seaside, attesting to the popularity of the subject.  Another large-format picture book, Little Tots Playtime Book includes an illustration of a girl on a donkey, a sailor-suited boy, and the family dog on the beach, with sailboats in the background and a nearby patriotic Union Jack, which breaks the perfect (“boring”?) symmetry of the rectangular frame and creates visual interest via a technique sometimes used by painters.

At the seashore again… (Little Tots Playtime Book, ca. 1881) Cotsen 30359

LittleTotsPlaytime-cover

Cover of Little Tots Playtime Book

The general design of the Playtime Book’s cloth cover is essentially the same as that of the Holiday Book (perhaps this was Warne’s stock design for these picture books?), but the inset chromolithographed medallion provides quite a different, more formal and stylized, view of little women in summertime — a somewhat Kate “Greenawayesque” presentation.

Cover of Kate Greenaway’s Book of Games, (Routledge & Co., ca. 1899) Cotsen 5633

Speaking of Kate Greenaway (whose presentations of children are famous), let’s take a quick look at how she pictures summer in Kate Greenaway’s Book of Games, issued by by George Routledge & Sons in 1889 (and later reissued by Warne in 1899). The cover shows a vignette of children on a rustic teeter-totter. The twenty-four colored wood-engraved illustrations by Edmund Evans show children in Greenaway distinctive style: extremely well-dressed, fashionable, and not very kinetic. The two illustrations below present several girls in caps playing “Battledore & Shuttlecock” (“badminton” to us now) and “Puss in the Corner,” both accompanied by brief descriptions of the games.

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“Battledore & Shuttlecock”

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“Puss in the Corner”

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wouldn’t want to give you the impression that summertime and beaches are featured only in English books for children — that was definitely not the case! For instance, a German book, In Sommer, from about 1900 features a terrific, highly-saturated color depiction of children playing on the beach on its cover. And illustrations inside the book show children busily involved in other summer activities: flying kites, picking flowers, and making quite a fuss over an apple!

InSommer-apple

In Sommer: quite a fuss about an apple in the woods on a bright summer day

InSommer-kites

In Sommer: Children and their kites, including the “Man-in-the Moon” and giant clown face

InSommer-cover

Children on the beach: cover of In Sommer, ([Germany? ca. 1900]) Cotsen 52215

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another terrific book cover appears on Johnny Headstrong’s Trip to Coney Island, published about 1882 by New York’s McLoughlin Brothers, perhaps the preeminent children’s books publisher in the USA at the time. In the 1880s, Coney Island was a seaside resort for residents of New York City and Brooklyn Heights, a place reached by train and with the same sort of summery, festive ambience as Cape May or Cape Cod, if you can imagine that. The chromolithographed cover of this “toybook” presents an idyllic beach scene via illustrator William Bruton’s artwork, although something in Johnny’s own facial expression suggests another strand in the thread of the story…

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Johnny Headstong’s Trip to Coney Island (McLoughlin Bros, ca. 1882) Cotsen 540

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Johnny arrives at Coney Island with his family (note the masted sailing ships in the background)

Johnny Headstong’s story begins in much the same way as the other summertime books we’ve been looking at – a fashionable youth sets out for the Coney Island seaside resort accompanied by his sister, nanny, and father, a “kindly man of good repute…and wealth.”

But as his name suggests, Johnny is impulsive and lacking in self-discipline — he gets into all sorts of trouble… He climbs over the railing while sailing a toy sailboat, falls into a pool, and has to be fished out. He then “slips away” from the adults “to see things by himself.” More trouble ensues in the form of various misadventures, as Johnny hits another boy in the face with a ball, falls off a swing he pushed too high, and finds himself on a runaway donkey, causing mayhem on the beach and knocking over an apple-seller (as Bruton’s double-page illustration vividly shows). Eventually, covered in bandages, Johnny winds up back home, where his father admonishes: “You see what comes to heedless boys, whene’er they disobey.”

JohnnyHeadstrong-center

Bruton’s double-page illustration of Johnny Headstrong on the pony causing mayhem

So McLoughlin’s Brothers’ rendition of this “summertime story” is really one of the “cautionary tales” inspired by Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter for which the firm was famous: stories showing kids “acting badly” and suffering the consequences. Some of their other classics in this vein have titles like: Little Suck-a-Thumb, Naughty Girls, Lazy Sam, Inky Jake, Foolish Fanny, Paulina Pry, and Moping Mary. After all, “to please and instruct” was the company motto, even during summer vacation!

Enjoy more summer at the virtual exhibition on swimming!