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

Mother Goose Gets a Makeover…

Courtesy of McLoughlin Brothers…

What does the name “Mother Goose” call to mind?  For one thing, it’s pretty much synonymous with fairy tales and nursery rhymes, isn’t it?  The name Mother Goose also tends to conjure up a picture in the mind’s eye of many people a kindly old lady, telling stories to children, but very much a figure from times past–just like the tales associated with her, which are actually rooted in the (pre-printing) oral story-telling tradition in France1.

I’ll take a quick look at some aspects of the “history” of Mother Goose tales in a moment, but first I’d like to focus on how she’s pictured–both in actual illustrations and in imagination.  I’ve always seemed to imagine Mother Goose as a timeless sort of character, not changing much with passing trends, in much the same way that the tales associated with her remain relatively “stable” as texts (which isn’t to say that details in the tales don’t change in different versions–they do–but rather, that the tales themselves and their essential outlines have generally been remarkably durable and quite constant over time).

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Mother Goose, as pictured on the cover of “McLoughlin Brothers 81st Annual Catalogue” (New York, 1909) Cotsen 94404

What sort of a portrayal am I talking about?  One much like the view of Mother Goose featured on the cover of a sales catalog issued in 1909 by American children’s book publisher McLoughlin Brothers, which I recently cataloged.  Take a look for yourself!  The hat, the cape, the “granny glasses” … clearly, a figure from a bygone era.  Nobody dressed like that in 1909!  McLoughlin Brothers wants to hearken back to another era, not a specific one, but one generally located in the past. And it’s worth pointing out that Mother Goose isn’t actually mentioned by name anywhere on the cover, but it’s immediately obvious who is pictured, now as it was then.  Talk about an image fixed in the public’s mind!

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Upper wrapper of McLoughlin Brothers 1909 “Catalogue” (Cotsen 94404)

Since Mother Goose is featured on the the cover of McLoughlin’s catalog, it’s almost as if the firm is trying to appropriate her as their spokesperson, endorsing the products they want to sell!  And who could resist an endorsement from Mother Goose herself?

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Mother Goose, as pictured on the title page of 1909 catalog (Cotsen 94404)

A similar depiction of Mother Goose appears on the title page of this McLoughlin catalog too.  Her appearance and clothing is consistent, as you can see.  She’s mounted on a goose here–a visual play on her name!–set against a circle suggesting the moon, a depiction McLoughlin Bros. frequently used, including as a series logo for their “Mother Goose Series.”

That same image of Mother Goose appears in more than ten McLoughlin catalogs, as we can see on the two title pages below, one from 1909 and one from 1913.  All McLoughlin changed on the title page was the date (and the catalog’s content, of course).

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1909 catalog title page (Cotsen 32836)

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1913 catalog title page (Cotsen 94154)

 

 

 

 

 

 

A timeless character, an unchanging pictorial rendition… Pretty much what we’d expect…

Mother Goose on the cover of McLoughlin Bros. 1923 "Catalogue" (Cotsen 94157)

Mother Goose on the cover of McLoughlin Bros. 1923 “Catalogue” (Cotsen 94157)

But as I worked my way through some of the other, later, McLoughlin catalogs, I noticed something  surprising!  McLoughlin modified their portrayal of the “timeless” figure of Mother Goose, more or less in sync with shifts in the overall “look” of their artwork and design.

The first catalog where I noticed a change was McLoughlin’s 1923 issue.  She’s still riding the familiar goose on the cover, but she has lost her “old-fashioned” glasses and her clothing has been slightly updated.  Her cape is billowing out behind her, and the figure is less static and little more dramatic.  Small changes perhaps but quite a different look.

The change becomes more noticeable in McLoughlin’s 1947 “Catalog,” which drops the Anglicized spelling “Catalogue” in favor of the “American” and more “modern” version of the word.

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Mother Goose on the title page of McLoughlin’s 1947 “Catalog” (Cotsen 94156)

Mother Goose’s “look” has really been made over by McLoughlin’s artists this time, in terms of both her clothing and her determined facial expression.  No granny glasses.  She seems to be a woman who knows exactly where she wants to go and who is getting there fast, as her flapping cape suggests.  After all, she’s flying, much like the planes that had become increasingly familiar objects to readers in the 1940s.  (Her goose also seems to have gotten progressively happier too.)

To me, the overall impression of the 1947 illustration is consistent with the artwork we see in McLouglin’s actual children’s books of this period–also generally more schematic, less fussy in the detailing of feathers and clothing folds, and just more “modern” in feeling than the previous versions.

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Cover of McLoughlin Bros. “1947 Catalog” (Cotsen 94156)

The change in the cover design of the cover of the 1947 catalog is really striking–that’s really what keyed me to the changes in Mother Goose’s appearance on the title page.  The colors are vivid and bright, the text pared down, and a more stylized font used. The actual cover illustration is populated with characters from the “Little Lulu” books that this catalog itself touts as a new McLoughlin offering in children’s books.

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New look–traditional title: Little Lulu reads “Fairy Tales”

But, despite the new look and new characters, what is Lulu herself reading to the children?  Why, it’s “Fairy Tales,” the familiar old favorites associated with Mother Goose!  Some things really are timeless!

 

 

Fairy tales themselves are essentially timeless.  Tales and stories get told and retold over and over again. Part of their attraction lies in their very familiarity, the same way that part of Mother Goose’s attraction is how familiar a figure she seems to be.  McLoughlin Bros. repeatedly uses illustrations of her in their advertising, apparently in hopes invoking this comfortable familiarity to appeal to child-readers and their book-buying parents.  But in terms of both how Mother Goose is depicted and the overall look of McLoughlin’s catalogs, things come a long way in 40 years, as we can see in the grouping below of the catalog covers I’ve been talking about:

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1909 “Catalogue” (Cotsen 94404)

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1923 “Catalogue” (Cotsen 94157)

1947 Catalog" (Cotsen 94156)

1947 “Catalog” (Cotsen 94156)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

McLoughlin Brothers–always attuned to ways they could update children’s classics with an eye to sales and marketing–does much the same thing with the “timeless” figure of Mother Goose in other places too.  In addition to recycling old favorites in many  cases, the firm also seemed to be endlessly trying out “new takes” of them–just to see if these might catch on with customers. Sometimes “old” and “new” coexist side-by-side, as we see in the catalog entry below for two “Mother Goose Editions”:

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Two “Mother Goose Editions” advertised in McLoughlin’s 1909 catalog (Cotsen 32836)

Next to the cover of one book featuring the familiar “old” version of Mother Goose is another cover depicting Mother Goose as a little girl on the cover of “Little Mother Goose.”  A very different character, one presumably seeking to capitalize on how much children are attracted to illustrations of other children. But apart from her trip to the Fountain of Youth, Little Mother Goose’s paraphanlia is very much in the traditional mode–and instantly recognizable to a child-reader or adult book-shopper as “Mother Goose.”

Another version of Little Mother Goose appears on the cover of McLoughlin Brothers’ 1906 catalog, one of those featuring the same traditional view of Mother Goose on the title page that we saw above (in the 1909 and 1913 catalogs).  Traditional and updated views of Mother Goose are thus juxtaposed, quite different depictions but both immediately recognizable.  (Note how the hint of a moon in the “logo version” has been turned into a smiling Man in the Moon here.)

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Mother Goose on the upper wrapper of McLoughlin Bros 1906 catalog (Cotsen 94406, v. 57)

McLoughlin Bros. invokes the “timeless” aspect of Mother Goose, while feeling free to innovate and update, just as they did time and time again with virtually all children’s literature they published.

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  1. Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose,” Robert Darton (The Great Cat Massacre, (Basic Books, 1984)