By Jacqueline Reid-Walsh and Margarita Rivera Santiago
Recently I gave a talk in Montreal at the main reading room of McGill University’s special collections library. It concerned a collection of some 2300 historical children’s books collected by Mrs. Sheila Bourke and donated to McGill University. Given the strength of the collection and my passion for interactive and movable books the organizers ingeniously entitled the event –it consisted of a library display, a film and a talk- “books that pop.” Itook the phrase to mean books that are spectacular or unusual in some way. They may be important historically since they are illustrated by a ground-breaking illustrator or produced by a key early printer of children’s books. Or they may literally “pop” : They may have pop-up illustrations that jump toward you when you open the covers, or they may be designed to be interactive in other ways, such having sets of accordion folds that you can stretch out to create a panorama, or movable flaps that you can lift up or down to cause the pictures or tabs that you can pull to cause the figures to move. In all cases, the books look ordinary but reveal secrets or surprises when a reader-viewer-player engages with them and brings them to life. One most unusual book has strings attached so when you pull them voices “talk” at you.
I first encountered the book in the summer at McGill special collections where a kind librarian put it on my book trolley. It looks like a large, lavishly illustrated 19th century picture book quite thick –31.8 x 24.2 x 5.8 cms. When I looked closer I saw that that three edges were decorated with orate wooden designs painted gold. On the one hand they reminded me a bit of fore edge paintings but touching them shows that they are asymmetrical holes with three -dimensional carvings set across the spaces. I tried to look through but could see nothing. I was intrigued. Spying little cords emerging from the fore edge I tentatively pulled one—it baaed, I jumped and the entire reading room looked up startled. (thankfully it was not a busy time).
Since I had to return to school the next day to Penn State, to my joy I learned that their special collections has not only one but editions of the book decorated differently and produced in two countries: the 19th century German one and a possibly 20th century American one for the famous toy store FAO Schwarz. One day in October Margarita and I met with curator Jose Crus Guerrero and he gave us a private “show” of the books.
Link to event at McGill with videos of some of the books and of the lecture: https://www.mcgill.ca/library/branches/roaar/events/past-roaar-events-and-exhibitions/past-event-lecture-books-pop-historical-childrens-books-sheila-bourke-collection
As Jacqui mentioned earlier in her portion of this blog entry, during our visit to the Special Collections library at Penn State we were able to observe two editions of different speaking picture books. The books were thematically similar, focusing on pastoral life and farm animals. Looking at The Speaking Picture Book: A New Picture Book with Characteristical Voices was a real treat for us. Originally made in Nuremberg, Germany (c.1893) and distributed by a mysterious “TB” the book’s innovative design (for the 19th century) propelled my curiosity to do more research to find to other details about its production and who the initials belonged to. At Special Collections the name of the distributor was not yet catalogued as these were recent acquisitions. However, after doing some research online, I stumbled upon a blog post written by one of the assistant curators at the Brighton Museum, Alexia Lazou. Lazou had worked with an earlier edition of the book some years ago and even had a link to a video that showed the inner-workings of the book’s sound mechanism. This was such an exciting find and a testament to the powerful contribution of blogs and new media in book history.
We were able to know the name of the publisher and get more information on the books themselves. The inventor of this ingenuous proto-media book was Theodore Brand (TB). As Lazou’s details in her blog: “Brand obtained a German patent for the book in 1878, and a British patent followed a year later. In addition to the German edition, English, French and Spanish translations were published.” The book at Penn State is seemingly a newer edition published in English and was fully functioning. As we were pulling on the book’s sound strings we were amused by the unfamiliar sounds attributed to each animal. This brought up an interesting discussion about a possible phonetic discrepancy between the language of print and the sounds for the animals.
If the original language of print was German, it would be safe to assume that the sounds might represent how animal noises are replicated in the German language, not English or any publication language that followed. An example of this phonetic discrepancy could be how in English a sound colloquially used to replicate the noise a rooster makes is “cock-a-doodle-do” whereas in Spanish the same animal would be known to make the sound “Qui-quiri-quí”. This was interesting to me as the mechanism used to create the noise were bellows, small air pipes inside of the book, and it is doubtful that the animal sounds would have been changed which each new language published. Admittedly, these are perhaps far-reaching assumptions without having access to the other editions, the original German as well as French and Spanish. That said, because of the little information on them there are engaging discussions still to be had about their contributions to children’s literature through the incorporation of sound.
Link to Alexia Lazou’s lovely blog on Brighton Museum’s edition of the book: https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2012/01/11/the-speaking-picture-book-a-new-picture-book-with-characteristic-voices/