Fresh from China

In the last two years, Cotsen has received a number of generous donations of Chinese-language books and magazines. Many of these acquisitions are picture books created by Chinese writers and illustrators in the past decade. China has at least a century-long history of publishing illustrated reading materials for the enjoyment of children, but these publications were not always the sort of picture books familiar to Western audiences. Indeed, it was not until the new millennium that short-length picture books with large, full-color illustrations began to be embraced by middle-class Chinese families.

Picture Books: A Luxury Read

Brave early attempts by Chinese publishers to produce pricey children’s content are preserved in the Cotsen collection. Lacking support from robust institutional purchasers and private citizens, however, these publications maintained only a tentative presence in the Chinese children’s book market.

Miniature accordion picture books published in China between 1955 and 1965.

miniatureSize

Two books on an adult palm.

Outside book: Bathing and Sleeping (洗澡和睡觉 Xi zao he shui jiao). Shanghai, 1961. (Cotsen 94643) Inside book: The Swallow and the Bumblebee (燕子和黄蜂 Yan zi he huang feng). Shanghai, 1960. (Cotsen 94649)

Accordion style.

(Right) Outside book: Bathing and Sleeping [洗澡和睡觉 Xi zao he shui jiao]. Shanghai, 1961. (Cotsen 94643)
Inside book: The Swallow and the Bumblebee [燕子和黄蜂 Yan zi he huang feng]. Shanghai, 1960. (Cotsen 94649)

These tiny accordion books are one such example, published for Chinese children during the 1950s and 60s. Their small size lowered the cost of color printing, all coming in under 3 ½ inches and selling for RMB 6-10¢ each. Still, this was no trivial sum for many Chinese families. In a letter of opinion published in the Shanghai-based Wenhui Daily (文汇报) in 1958, a reader applauded the innovative folded format but commented that the price of 10¢ was “still a bit expensive” (Yang 2). To put her complaint in perspective, consider lianhuanhua (连环画), the most popular book format for older children until the mid-1980s. These lengthier illustrated story books were typically palm-sized, featuring cheap black-and-white illustrations on thin pages, and each copy could be rented for 1¢ or less at neighborhood bookstands.

The accordion style was a clever and economical design for young readers who were learning to turn book pages; it was easier for unpracticed fingers to separate double folded pages than single sheets. Obviously intended for a child’s tiny hands, the format reveals the expectation that children, however young, would read the books on their own. The majority of these miniature books contain rhyming text, and some include pinyin—the Romanized, phonetic spelling of characters—to help with pronunciation. Most of the accordion books in the Cotsen collection are well-worn, having clearly entertained young children new to the pleasure of reading.

A board book dated 1978.

The Crow and the Fox (乌鸦和狐狸 Wu ya he hu li) adapted from Aesop’s fable by Yu (吕榆, aka洪汛涛, 1928-2001) and illustrated by Zhan Tongxuan (詹同渲, 1932-1995). Shanghai: Shao nian er tong chu ban she, 1978. 12 pages, 21 cm. (Cotsen 93898)

Caption: Hearing these words the Crow was overjoyed. It stretched open its wings and admired at them, feeling as if it were indeed prettier than a peacock.

The Crow and the Fox (Cotsen 93898) is a board book published by the Juvenile and Children’s Publishing House in Shanghai in May 1978. This date is remarkably early, as the country was just stepping out of the shadow of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) at the time. The book is a beautiful rendition of Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Crow.” Color ink wash paintings by Zhan Tongxuan, a successful anime director and children’s illustrator, portray natural scenery with the elegance characteristic of traditional Chinese landscape painting. At the same time, he captures the lively personalities of animal figures with warm and playful brushstrokes. The inviting full-color visuals, brief text, and thick board pages make The Crow and the Fox suitable for the shared reading of preschoolers and their caregivers.

It is unclear what other board books Chinese children’s presses had issued at the time. What we do know is that board books were rare, and full-color picture books were not widely available in China for another two decades. The Crow and the Fox was marked at a steep price of 1.20 yuan in 1978. The publishing house was ahead of its time in producing high-quality materials when most Chinese families were not yet acquainted with early childhood literacy practices.

Imagination, Humor, and Lenient Parenting

Since the beginning of the 21st century, imported, translated titles have (re)introduced Chinese audiences to the full-color picture book. Inspired by these titles, Chinese authors and illustrators have begun creating their own works. The concept of shared reading is now continually encouraged by education scholars and parenting advocates. Cotsen’s new acquisitions reflect the latest changes and achievements in contemporary Chinese children’s literature. The new genre is nourished by a growing diversity of styles, themes, and subject matter. Particularly noticeable are the increasing number of titles intended for toddlers and preschoolers.

A peep-hole book dated 2014.
The Very Wonderful Little Pebble (好神奇的小石头) written and illustrated by Zuo Wei. Beijing: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 153830) The Very Wonderful Little Pebble (好神奇的小石头) written and illustrated by Zuo Wei. Beijing: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 153830)
The Very Wonderful Little Pebble (好神奇的小石头) written and illustrated by Zuo Wei (左伟). Beijing: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 153830)

If the title “The Very Wonderful Little Pebble” sounds familiar, you’re probably hearing echoes of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The title is not the only part of the book that bears Carle’s influence. Every other page has a pebble-shaped hole, a stable element that introduces surprising visual transformations throughout the book. Each hollow pebble takes its color from the image on the next page, seen through the cut-out. As you turn the page and reveal the rest of the image, the gray pebble becomes the body of a gray mouse; the bright yellow pebble becomes the juicy body of an Asian pear; and so on. The text first invites the reader to observe the little pebble and its color and then asks for a guess of what the pebble’s next transformation will be. Each new object is then described in short and joyful rhymes. The use of repetition and rhymes, the invitation to participate in the guessing game, the teaching of color and object names, the fun of being surprised by the humble pebble’s many transformations, and not to mention the immense satisfaction that will soon come to a toddler from getting the answers right within a few repeated readings make The Very Wonderful Little Pebble an enjoyable picture book for preschoolers.

Who Took a Bite of My Pancake (谁咬了我的大饼) written and illustrated by Xu Zhijiang (徐志江). Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154141) Who Took a Bite of My Pancake (谁咬了我的大饼) written and illustrated by Xu Zhijiang (徐志江). Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154141)
Who Took a Bite of My Pancake (谁咬了我的大饼), written and illustrated by Xu Zhijiang (徐志江). Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154141)

How terribly boring would it be if there were no humor in children’s books? Humor contributed to the immense popularity of many Chinese children’s stories published in the second half of the twentieth century, works which were otherwise didactic, nationalistic, and Communist. Humor continues to characterize contemporary Chinese picture books, which have been considerably de-politicized. In Who Took a Bite of My Pancake (Cotsen 154141), published in 2013, a good-natured piglet wakes to find a bite missing from his freshly made pancake. He begins asking around to identify the culprit. In order to prove their innocence, the suspect animals (a bird, a rabbit, a fox, etc.) take defiant bites from the pancake, so that their bite-marks can be compared to the first bite. One by one, the animals demonstrate that the first bite, which was shaped like a half-moon, could not possibly have been left by their beaks or teeth. The piglet resigns himself to enjoying what little is left of his pancake, still wondering who did it. On the last page, more perceptive readers will notice that the only bite that matches the first one is the piglet’s own. Who Took a Bite is a definite giggle-inducer. Toddlers will relish being the wiser as the piglet takes on his inevitably fruitless investigation. This flattering feeling of wisdom is not to be taken for granted at an age when everyone else in your life seems to know more than you do.

Is It Morning (天亮了吗) written by Xiao Mao (萧袤) and illustrated by Liu Xuebo (刘学波). Nanning: Jie li chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 154239) Is It Morning (天亮了吗) written by Xiao Mao (萧袤) and illustrated by Liu Xuebo (刘学波). Nanning: Jie li chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 154239)
Is It Morning (天亮了吗), written by Xiao Mao (萧袤) and illustrated by Liu Xuebo (刘学波). Nanning: Jie li chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 154239)

In Is It Morning (Cotsen 154239), we meet a young rooster on the eve of his first cock-a-doodle duty. Too excited to fall asleep, he stays up lest he miss the first sign of dawn. Over the course of the night, he mistakes the glow of fireflies, the sparks of fireworks, the radiance of a shooting star, and the glare of headlights for the break of day. After so many false alarms, he is exhausted. When dawn finally does arrive, as you might have guessed, our protagonist is fast asleep.

Is It Morning is part of a 20-volume toddlers’ series titled I Have Never Thought of That (没想到: 婴儿创意图画书) (2014), which intends to teach parenting skills in addition to amuse children. Each volume contains a one-page guide to sharing the book with a child reader, often spelling out the “moral” of the story for adult caregivers. These morals break away from traditional values such as self-constraint, modesty, and perseverance, and encourage self-esteem and assertiveness in children. Overall, they advocate a parenting attitude that is more tolerant and sympathetic to children. The shared-reading guide for Is It Morning points out that it is okay to make mistakes, especially on your first try, promoting a more positive view of failure. As the guide suggests, the young rooster will be able to respond to teasing and laughter by saying, “Yes, I have overslept and missed my crow duty, but last night I saw the dance of fireflies, beautiful explosions of fireworks, and the shining journey of a shooting star.”

Do I have to go to sleep when evening falls?

The owl, “No, I won’t.”

I Won’t (就不), written by Gong Ruping (巩孺萍) and illustrated by Dou Dou Yu (豆豆鱼). Nanning: Jie li chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 154239)

In another title I Won’t (Cotsen 154239), the shared-reading guide warns that it is unhealthy for children to bottle up their feelings and remain constantly obedient, a message that is alien to traditional Chinese culture. The guide suggests that such repressive parenting strategies have the potential to cause estrangement in the long run. In I Won’t, a little girl finds a voice and an emotional outlet through “disobedient” animals who are not afraid of saying “no” to commands. Revolutionary as the message sounds, it reflects a shift of what children are most valued for–from being a source of material returns to that of emotional rewards.

Authors and Illustrators Renewed

A sign of vitality in the world of Chinese picture books is the even distribution of authors along the age spectrum. These new picture book titles are created by a range of writers and illustrators, including Wang Xiaoming (王晓明, born in 1945), a nominee for the 2004 Hans Christian Andersen Award for illustration, and a young, accidental author, Shao Yinjie ( born in the late 1990s). Shao and his mother got the idea for their picture book when he became disgruntled about eating “the same old breakfast” yet again (Shao).

The Big Cardboard Box (大纸箱), written and illustrated by Zhong Yu. Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154137) The Big Cardboard Box (大纸箱), written and illustrated by Zhong Yu. Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154137)
The Big Cardboard Box (大纸箱), written and illustrated by Zhong Yu (钟彧). Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154137)

Zhong Yu (born in 1985) won a picture book award for her drawings of a girl’s imaginative play with a cardboard box. The girl’s resourcefulness and creative mind transform the box into an airplane up in the sky one minute and a fancy restaurant dining table the next. She might be able to offer a few tips to the contestants in the annual Cardboard Canoe Race at Princeton, wouldn’t you say?

Caption: [If you like grass for breakfast,] then you might be an ox, or a sheep, or a horse, or an elephant.
What Do You Like for Breakfast? (早餐, 你喜欢吃什么?), written by Yin Xiuhua (殷秀华) and Shao Yinjie (邵殷杰); illustrated by Zhou Xiang (周翔). Nanjing, 201-. (Cotsen 154138)

What Do You Like for Breakfast? (Cotsen 154138) plays with the food habits of animals, repeating the pattern “If you like X (e.g. fish) for breakfast, then you might be a Y (e.g. cat)” throughout. It also builds upon the deep-seated assumption that children naturally identify themselves with animals, or perhaps upon adults’ subconscious association of children with animals and lesser humans. The book seamlessly switches from describing various animals to describing a toddler at the end: “If you like bread, egg, and milk for breakfast, then you might be a human child.” If these foods are not the “authentic” Chinese breakfast you’d expect, it is worth knowing that they are common on the breakfast tables of contemporary urban Chinese families, a reflection of constantly changing and partially Westernized lifestyles in the country.

The Chinese picture book industry faces some of the same old hurdles it did more than half a century ago. Lacking the backing of strong institutional purchasers, most children’s books clearly rely on individual buyers and are kept at the low price of 8-10 yuan (under $2 USD). Nearly all have been issued in softback edition alone and are not ideal for a public library to collect and shelve. We can only hope that Chinese picture books are here to stay this time, bringing color, joy, and useful knowledge to children in 21st century China, as well as enriching children’s literature for the whole world.

Acknowledgement

The list of individuals, authors, publishers, and a peer library that made generous donations of Chinese children’s literature to Cotsen in the past two years is too long to appear here. Special thanks goes to the Dong fan wa wa (东方娃娃) magazine, Jieli (接力) Publishing House, professors Tan Fengxia (谈凤霞, Nanjing Normal University, China), Zhu Ziqiang (朱自强) and Luo Yirong (罗贻荣, Ocean University of China), Mei Zihan (梅子涵, Shanghai Normal University), Qi Tongwei (齐童巍, Hangzhou Dianzi University), and Hou Ying (侯颖, Northeast Normal University, China), and Yunhe (云和) Public Library of Zhejiang Province.

References:

Shao, Yinjie. “《早餐,你喜欢吃什么?》诞生记” [The birth of What Do You Like for Breakfast?]. 2014. Web. http://baby.sina.com.cn/edu/14/2907/2014-07-29/2112275235.shtml

Yang, Xiaomei. “对新形式小画片的意见” [Criticism of Small Pictures in a New Format]. Wen hui bao: 2. 26 May 1958. Print.

(Edited by Melody Edwards)

House of Cards? Or, the Case of the Queen of Hearts and Her Tarts…

‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’  –Alice

Queen of Hearts

“the Queen turned crimson with fury… Off with her head!”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. MacMillan & Co., 1866. 1st ed. CTSN 27693)

Alice’s assertion, at the end of the climactic confrontation with the Queen of Hearts in the trial scene in Alice in Wonderland, dramatically brings the proceedings to an close…  But it also highlights one of the many sources of humor in the book: Alice’s nemesis in the court—the Queen of Hearts – is indeed nothing but a playing card animated by Lewis Carroll’s imagination into a comically malevolent personality, whose favorite utterance seems to be “Off with her/his head”!  Tenniel’s classic illustrations seems to perfectly complement Carroll’s presentation of the Queen.
And remember, Alice is not even the accused in the trial!  She’s merely called as witness in the trial of the Knave of Heart for stealing the tarts, as per the nursery rhyme, which Carroll incorporates into his story, as an indictment read by the White Rabbit:

The Queen of Hearts
She made some tarts,
All on a summer’s day;
The Knave of Hearts
He stole the tarts,
And took them clean away.

The Queen is depicted as a comical stereotype, a despotic harridan brought to life, a “blind and aimless Fury,” as Carroll himself once described her.1 The King and Knave (the latter more familiar to us now perhaps as the “Jack”) are similarly depicted as individualized “three dimensional” comic personalities, and it seems as though the other royal members of the court—the “face cards”—are too.

Gardeners

“Why, they’re only a pack of cards, after all.  I needn’t be afraid of them!”

But  Carroll’s text describes the number cards as animated playing cards—“oblong and flat” who fall face down at the approach of the Queen—and Tenniel correspondingly pictures the gardeners like the cards they’re comprised of, essentially animated walking-and-talking sandwich-boards with heads, legs, and arms attached.

As such, I think they serve to foreground the more important characters: the Queen, King, Jack, Alice, etc.  They really are the sort of “cardboard-cutout” characters that literary critics tend to mock! They also serve to remind readers of something we’re always implicitly aware of—that all these “characters” are playing cards brought to life—and this is another reason why their antics seem so comical.  The inanimate, animated—objects and animals brought to life and imbued with human qualities, even if satiric ones. This provided a tried and true literary device in children’s literature long before Carroll.

lLice & the cards

“the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her…”

Yet when Alice blurts out: “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.  The court deconstructs back into a pack of cards, raining down on Alice’ head, a moment of humor which is, however, not without some anxiety, as Tenniel brilliantly depicts.  Amid the confusion, the non-playing card Wonderland characters in court—animals comprising the erstwhile jury—are pictured as fully reverted back into unfrocked frogs, mice, and birds.  And a storm of cards swirls toward Alice, whose face shows clearly that she is not amused, all set against a darkly cross-hatched backdrop calling to mind an ominous storm (a Kansas tornado perhaps?).

Again, this depiction seems to perfectly match Carroll’s language, and perhaps extends it, thereby deepening the presentation of a funny, yet scary scene, one final vision before the sometimes-nightmarish midsummer-night’s dream finally yields back to bucolic daytime reality:

At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her: she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank, with her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face.

A “scream, half of fright,” flying objects around Alice’s head and face which she “tries to beat off”… This could be right out of Poe—or Hitchcock.  (The Birds, anyone?).  The sudden deconstruction of the Queen and her court back into a pack of cards that briefly assails Alice before falling onto the floor like dead leaves fluttering down is a terrifically dramatic moment.  But in a flash, it’s all over and she’s back on the calm riverbank—all’s well.

Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts, as conceptualized by the Salzburg Marionette Theatre
(reproduced with permission)

The visual aspect of the this reverse-metamorphosis was dramatically realized in a production of Alice in Wonderland that I saw not long ago by the Salzburg Marionette Theatre (where the Queen was presented as an overt caricature of Queen Victoria, something Carroll wouldn’t have done but which was a funny adaptation for a modern audience).  All the cards, as all the characters were “brought to life” on-stage by marionettes, adding a nicely surreal effect to the comical, ever-so-slightly-nightmarish fantasy.

When puppet Alice uttered the line, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”, the whole pack exploded, and Alice was deluged by a literal rain of playing cards falling on her and all over the stage—a perfect dramatization of Tenniel’s drawing, yet I think one more dramatic than a still illustration could possibly provide, no matter how striking.  It’s one thing to read a description, even a vivid one, or to see an image, even one as evocative as Tenniel’s, but it’s quite another to see actual kinetic movement and tumbling items cascading down before your eyes. The effect isn’t “better”—it’s just more inescapable and dramatic to a modern viewer—at least this one.

Queen and the Knave

The Queen & the Knave (The Queen of Hearts and her Damson Tarts. Dean & Son, between 1857 & 1865. CTSN item #6040014)

I was recently reminded of that staging—and of course Carroll’s story—while cataloging a “toybook” version of the story about the Queen of Hearts and her tarts: The Queen of Hearts and the Damson Tarts, published sometime between 1857 and 1865 in London by Dean & Son.  (Coincidentally—or maybe not—Carroll’s Alice was first published in 1865.  Hmmm…)  This illustrated eight-page paperback (somewhat like a comic book in format) begins with the first stanza of the “Queen of Hearts” nursery rhyme and then elaborates the story through the combination of text and illustration that characterizes the toybook format.  (Damson by the way, is a type of sweet plum, popular for jam-making in the 19th century—I didn’t know that either and had to look it up.)  Note the toybook depiction of the Queen. Here, she appears quite benevolent, and even slightly dishy, in contrast to either of the other versions we’ve looked at so far.

The Queen "sent out her cards about to every King and Queen, / Who were in the pack, in red or black, and always to be seen."

The Queen “sent out her cards about to every King and Queen, / Who were in the pack, in red or black, and always to be seen.”

The Queen makes her tarts “to feast a chosen few” and sends “her cards” out to invite all the other kings and queens to a noble feast—a play on words reinforced by the accompanying illustration.  (Remember, in those days people sent out invitation cards and left calling cards when visiting.)  As in Tenniel’s later rendition, we see the combination of “three-dimensional” royalty and “sandwich-board” card-like courtiers.  But for the most part, the characters are pictured as being “3D,” even though they retain the trappings and symbolic accoutrements of playing cards—the Knave’s poleaxe, for instance.  Otherwise,  what’s he otherwise doing with that in the court, especially as a suspected thief and a defendant?

I wonder if perhaps Carroll or Tenniel saw this depiction—or one like it—or if this playing card/realized character distinction was part of the received idea for this basic story that was then taken and reconceptualized.  The nursery rhyme characters are, after all, based on playing cards: the King and Queen of Hearts, etc.

Dean & Son - Knave and cat

“Your Majesty… Your cat it must sure be.”

Note the thievish Knave lurking in the background behind the oblivious Queen in the first illustration.  He’s depicted as a pretty disreputable—dare I say, knavish-looking—character in this version.  He’s the thief—as readers, we know that from the rhyme—but when called upon to produce the tarts (which he has already eaten in this version, as we later read/see), what does he do? He blames the King’s cat!

“Your majesty,” said he, [the Knave]
I think I know who is the foe,
Your cat it sure must be:
He looked at me quite guiltily
And ran away full speed…”

And the accompanying illustration shows the cat of course high-tailing it away—imagine a cat doing that when in trouble!  The King doesn’t buy the Knave’s lame excuse—“Oh Knave for shame!… Do cats eat damson tarts?”—and he rages before the court.

"To hide his sin, his mouth and chin / To wipe, he did forget"

“To hide his sin, his mouth and chin / To wipe, he did forget”

The Knave is eventually indicted by his own jam-stained chin, and the King commands that he confess on “bended knee.”  (Unlike the nursery rhyme version, there are no tarts for the knave to bring back in this telling.)  But remember that friendly-looking Queen?  She has other, distantly non-merciful, ideas: “Oh sire…He surely ought to die.”

In this version, the King rules, not the Queen who railroads the proceedings in Alice, and he opts for “mercy”—the Knave is to be beaten, as per the nursery rhyme. The text states this, but there’s no corresponding illustration of the actual beating, only one of the cowering Knave.  The effect is to lighten the cautionary tone considerably, I think–illustration predominates over the text in terms of imparting overall meaning to us.  Then, with justice dispensed, the king decides that a party is in order:

The King's Ball

“The company felt such delight, they danced til it was morning quite.”

The King did then for music call,–said he, “We now will have a Ball.”
The company felt such delight, the danced till it was morning quite.

The story thus concludes with an all-nighter celebration, rather than pandemonium, as  “Queen of Hearts episode” in Alice.  The accompanying illustration, labeled “the King’s Grand Ball,” perfectly captures this festive-comic resolution–excluding the Knave though, if you look closely.

Having let the knave eat the stolen tarts, this version also does away with his repentance—and, of course, with his restitution of the stolen goods; the lines above take the place of the last three lines of the nursery rhyme, which have mysteriously disappeared:

The Knave of Hearts
Brought back the tarts,
And vowed he’d steal no more.

So with the same basic story line, we’ve seen essentially three different resolutions, if we factor in the combined effect of text and illustration: 1) restitution and repentance; 2) beating of the malefactor; 3) dancing and celebration.

First page of New Story of the Queen of Hearts -- leaf laid down to front wrapper (New Story of Queen of Hearts. Dean  & Co., between 1847-1854. CTSN 1738)

First page of the New Story of the Queen of Hearts — leaf laid down to front wrapper (Dean & Co., between 1847-1854. CTSN 1738)

An apparently earlier toybook version of the Queen of Hearts story, published between 1847-1854 by Dean & Co., features most of the same illustrations (omitting the smaller insets), and essentially the same text (the Queen is “troubled” instead of “ireful,” etc.).  Titled New Story of the Queen of Hearts, it provides a variation of the ending with the Knave being beaten.  The last illustration in this version shows the cowering Knave before his beating, and the last lines of text are here:

…mercy shall guide my will,
So let the thief be beaten.”

The lines ending the Damson Tarts have been deleted altogether and the illustration showing the festive dancing scene has been moved—somewhat incoherently, in terms of the accompanying text, or even the plot itself—to the front pastedown, above the beginning of the text: “The Queen of Hearts once made some tarts…”  But when is this dancing celebration supposed to take place?  And what’s its cause in this retelling?  Things don’t really add up logically, but illogical or inconsistent plotting doesn’t really destroy delightful aspects of a children’s story as long as it’s indeed entertaining–and perhaps also instructive in a cautionary way.

As first, I was tempted to think that the New Story might be a one-time publication variation, or even a book whose leaves were rebound, a not-infrequent occurrence in old toy books—cheaply-bound, inexpensive items, often “read to death” by child readers.  But book in hand, I can see that this toybook is still intact, as issued—the first, unnumbered leaf and leaf number eight are laid down to the original wrappers, which are still attached to each other along the spine edge.

Queen of Hearts, French version

La Reine de Coeur, et Les Tartes Volees ([Dean & Son?, ca 1850?] CTSN 150467)

And another toybook variation—an undated French-language version probably dating from about 1850, possibly published by Dean too—essentially duplicates not only the New Story’s version of the story but also the page layout and design, the decorative bordered boxes into which caption title text is set, and also provides a text that’s a pretty close French translation—almost word-for-word.  Again, the text ends with the Knave being beaten:

Le Roi…dit…
Main la merci encore guidera ma volunte,
Ansi, que le voleur soit battu.

It’s hard to know why both books end this way—with the Knave being punished with a beating—instead of with the restitution and repentance from the nursery rhyme version.  Perhaps the toy book maker simply didn’t plan well and ran out of space in the preset eight-page format?  (This sometimes happens.)  Or, more likely, perhaps, the message for children was intended to be one frightening them away from theft by playing up the consequences, both in language and illustration?  There may well be other explanations too.  Beatings, or similar punishments, were quite common features in stories about bad children, as shocking as this seems to us now in a story aimed at children readers.

Caldecott, The Queen of Hearts

Randolph Caldecott, The Queen of Hearts (Warne & Co., ca. 1890?. CTSN 13172)

The story of the Queen of Hearts and her tarts was popular fodder for other illustrated children’s versions too.  One of the best known is Caldecott’s The Queen of Hearts, first published by Routledge in 1881, and later reissued by Warne (which is the copy the Cotsen Library has).  This book offers an interesting interplay of the text and interpretative illustrations, as well as an example of how book design can affect meaning in an illustrated book.  Caldecott reproduces the classic nursery rhyme text verbatim, but his own illustrations and overall page design both shape—and indeed, modify—a reader’s reception of this text.  Caldecott provides his characteristically gently satiric take on a “story,” via visual elements.

Caldecott's Queen (The Queen of Hearts. Warne & Co., ca. 1890. CTSN 13172)

Caldecott’s Queen of Hearts

His cover design sets the tone: against a background of playing card on the ground, a comically wild archer of Diamonds (perhaps a youth?) apparently shoots at Hearts balloons, while a foppish attendant of the Queen of Hearts protests.  The Queen is depicted partly within a bordered a frame making her look like a two-dimensional playing card—she’s both within the scene and outside it, an interesting narrative ploy.  Is she a person? A playing card?  Or both at once?

Caldecott presents a fairly glamouous Queen, like Dean’s earlier toybook version—and very much unlike Tenniel’s. Apparently, she’s quite a reader too—reading cook books, if you look closely—Caldecott’s creative invention, and perhaps his wry “educational” message to young readers?

Caught in the act...by the cat!

The Knave caught in the act…by the cat!

The Knave’s thievery is also depicted with Caldecott’s gently satiric humor—the Knave is another real court dandy, shown caught “in the act” in Caldecott’s depiction.  But how is he discovered this time?  Take a look!  The cat is witness, and Caldecott’s illustrations show the loyal cat ratting out the Knave…no doubt strictly in the interests of justice!

While adding no new text, Caldecott thus creates a much-enhanced role for the King’s cat via illustration, a role he expands even further with the line drawings accompanying the color wood-engravings in this book.  The cat—which is not mentioned at all in the nursery rhyme and which is merely the Knave’s absurd object of blame in Damson Hearts—is turned into the eyes and ears of the King and an active agent of justice, as you can see in the composite view below of Caldecott’s line-drawings on four separate pagesno text is really needed!

Caldecott's cat

Caldecott’s cat: Adding to the “story” with graphic elements.

"And [the King of Hearts] beat the Knave full sore..."

“And  beat the Knave full sore…”
Here, for illustrative purposes, the punishment of the Knave, barely noticeable in the background of the scene as Caldecott presents it, has been magnified and added below the dancing scene.

Following the nursery rhyme text, Caldecott shows the Knave being beaten by the King of Hearts—but here the act takes place in the background, with color illustration shifting the focus to the rest of the royals happily dancing the night away.  (Note: the Queen of Hearts is dancing with the King of Clubs, while her consort administers punishment.) Illustration reinterprets the text, lightens the tone considerably, and adds a festive slant.  Celebration is foregrounded, while punishment and severity are pushed into the background.

The Knave brings back the tarts, but Caldecott shows him giving them to celebrating little royal children of all four suits, not feasting adults as in Damson Tarts.  So restitution is made—and crowned children get a treat, an ending with obvious appeal to child readers! (“Plumb-cake for ever, Huzza!,” as John Newbery put it.)

Interestingly, Caldecott also depicts liveried court-servants and heralds as playing-card, sandwich-board wearers—but unlike Tenniel, he provides them with bodies underneath.  This certainly seems like some sort of visual allusion to Carroll’s work and Tenniel’s illustrations to me, which wouldn’t be a too surprising, since Alice in Wonderland was still hugely popular in the 1880s and 1890s, as it remains to this day.

Knave of Hearts & Children

The Knave of Hearts,
Brought back those tarts.

cards...

Caldecott’s take on the playing card heralds…now granted bodies.

1.Quotation from an article by Carroll, “Alice on Stage,” quoted by Martin Gardner in The Annotated Alice (Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1960, p. 109)