The Case of the Elusive “J”

By Colette Slagle and Jacqui Reid-Walsh1817 Metamorphosis; or, a Transformation of Pictures, with Poetical Explanations, for the Amusement of Young Persons. Photo courtesy of Penn State Special Collections.

This week we began engaging with the Metamorphosis texts differently—not as a set of narrative episodes directed by the panels, but as a literacy abecedary.  Instead of following the directives in the text to turn-up and turn-down the flaps, attending to the alphabet requires opening and laying out all of the flaps at once.  The alphabet is displayed horizontally across the length of the open artifact.  Interestingly, if you follow the directions in the text and turn the flaps up and down in the intended manner, the order of the alphabet is disrupted.  For example, in the first panel the letters revealed when opening the flaps read “A B C C D D” across the top, followed by “U V W X Y” across the bottom.

The letters are printed in the upper and lower border of the central images, but bear no obvious relation to the images or the accompanying verse. Although an alphabet is textual, in this case it is not printed by the metal type, but is part of the woodblock illustrations.  We ascertained this by comparing Sands and Poupard’s editions to G.S. Peters’ editions.  The images and alphabet remain the same across the Sands and Poupard editions, but when Peters changes the images in his editions, the alphabet also changes.

1831 (1960 facsimile) Metamorphosis; or, a Transformation of Pictures, with Poetical Explanations, for the Amusement of Young Persons. Photo courtesy of Penn State Special Collections.

We also noticed that the alphabet border resembles the style of a sampler.  For example, the letters are all capitalized and are on a faintly lined background.  The letter style is also ornate and appears “stitched” rather than printed in the standardized letterpress style.

1853 Sampler by Anna Timmis. M974.119.2.  Photo Courtesy of McCord Museum.

Some of the letters appear twice—one in a more basic style, and one in a more ornate style.  Curiously, not all of the letters appear this way, only C, D, I, and T have duplicates.  This partly seems to follow the sampler style which would sometimes duplicate the whole alphabet in capital letters.  We are still puzzled as to why only certain letters are duplicated in the Metamorphosis.  Perhaps it is only due to the allotment of space and the chosen letters are arbitrary.

Moreover, while there is a double “I”—one simple and one ornate—there is no “J” present.  The history of the English alphabet is complex and the development is not perfectly linear. According to E. Jennifer Monaghan in Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America (2005), the authors of spellers “differed about the treatment of the consonantal i and u (which eventually became the j and v of the modern alphabet)” (216).  Interestingly, the Metamorphosis has both the letters “U” and “V” but no “J”.  While no “J” is listed in the alphabet, it is used in the text: “There nothing could their joys controul” (emphasis added)—even more interesting is that it is used in the same panel that the double I (and absent J) appears.

1817 Metamorphosis; or, a Transformation of Pictures, with Poetical Explanations, for the Amusement of Young Persons. Photo courtesy of Penn State Special Collections.

The inclusion of a secret alphabet hidden inside the flaps may have been intended for utilitarian purposes, indeed, an 1814 edition of the text printed by Robert Porter makes this clear through the subtitle: “also, an alphabet of large and small letters to aid females in marking linen.”  At the same time, however, there could be a more playful option.  One possible educational game that could emerge from the object would be matching some of the letters to the images in the text when all of the flaps are open.  For example, “A for Adam or Apple,” “E for Eve, Eden, or Eagle,” “L for Lion,” “G for Griffin,” “S for Serpent,” etc.

We then began to question if there were any possible image connections with the missing letter “J.”  We did not find many, but one possibility is that the empty scales featured in the third panel with the wealthy merchant could be read as an allusion to the “scales of justice,” particularly as the verses in the fourth panel condemn his greed.

1817 Metamorphosis; or, a Transformation of Pictures, with Poetical Explanations, for the Amusement of Young Persons. Photo courtesy of Penn State Special Collections.

Guest Blog of “Books that Pop!” Display

By Jacqueline Reid-Walsh

In December when I went home for the holiday, the first thing I did was go to rare books at McGill because I wanted to see the display that had accompanied my talk from the previous month.  McGill University Libraries Special Collections invited me to write the following blog, which describes my self-guided tour of the display.

A Walk Through “Books that Pop!”

Encountering a Talking Picture Book

By Jacqueline Reid-Walsh and Margarita Rivera Santiago

“The Speaking Picture Book,” courtesy of Penn State Special Collections


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).

“The Speaking Picture Book,” courtesy of Penn State Special Collections

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:


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:

Re: Widdershins

“Melmillo” by Dorothy Lathrop

In the previous entry Jacqui detailed her experience at the Walter de la Mare conference in Cambridge this past month. Although years have passed since her doctoral dissertation, Reid-Walsh’s current research on eighteen-century turn-up books aligned with her graduate work on de la Mare. By way of arguing that the theme of transformation found in his poems are compatible with the process of critical making, Reid-Walsh proposed to the audience at the conference the construction of a hypothetical turn-up book inspired by de la Mare’s work.

I was struck by the novelty of this idea. As a pedagogical tool, critical making is an incredibly immersive, creative and reflective process. With this in mind I familiarized myself with de la Mare’s poetry and decided to try and create my own turn-up book inspired by the poem “Melmillo”.

-The process began by reading the poem a few times and thinking about how I wanted to go about starting the turn-up book.
-I took a few minutes to think about how the different lines in the poem could be best incorporated in each flap and how I wanted to convey the transformation of the narrative in the poem.

Turn-up draft, sketching the concept

-It was surprising to me that as I thought about how to draw the elder wood/elder tree (line 2) mentioned in the poem, that I began to think more critically about the meaning of it in relation to the nymph-like nature of Melmillo.


Turn-up, first flap open

The mock-up draft:
-Used a blank turn-up book of my own making and began to sketch out my plan for the narrative. The turn-up books are easy to make. Take a rectangular piece of paper, in my case I used the standard 8.5 by 11 letter size. I folded the top and bottom to meet at the center and sketch three lines with pencil where I would cut the flaps.
-The concept was a simple one. Each flap would have an elder tree except the last one in which Melmillo reveals herself as a the “elder mother” of Celtic mythology.
-The idea was for the birds was (thirty-three in total at the beginning of the poem) to be part of the tree itself (leaves) and progressively leave the tree naked in the process of transforming into Melmillo. This made sense to me as the poem speaks of Melmillo’s breast being where the birds went to rest: “All the birds were flown to rest /In the hollow of her breast;” (lines 17-18)

Turn-up book, all flaps open

Admittedly, because of my artistic limitations I was not able to do as much with it with as my imagination would’ve liked. However, the process of making this object was the catalyst to other avenues of research. I recalled Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Elder-Tree Mother” as well as other folklore about dancing goddesses and tree spirits. Throughout my sketching, my curiosity grew and I began to research the symbolism of the elder wood and found affirming information regarding the Celtic, Germanic, and Judeo-Christian connections.

My research is in its beginning stages at the moment but already I have found some interesting sources on Celtic mythology and the Elder Mother. Most of the more Elder-mother/elder-tree specific sources were found in other academic blogs on mythology, however, some recently been published books (Ayn Cates Sullivan’s Legends of the Grail: Stories of Celtic Goddesses and The Book of Celtic Myths) were also of use while looking for information on myths about goddesses.

While looking for the root of the Elder tree’s folklore, the common assumption is that it arises from the plant’s extensive medicinal properties. Part of the mythology attached to it stems from it being thought to have the ability to protect from harm. It was believed that the Elder Mother or ‘Hylde Moer’ (Danish) was living inside of the tree as its spirit. This pairs well with de la Mare’s own interpretation of her in his poem “Melmillo” as well as Hans Christian Andersen’s take on the Elder mother. The transformation that Melmillo has undergone in the beginning lines of the poem is reflective of the process of transformation that is part of critical making. I’d be interesting in doing this exercise with other poems by de la Mare. The prevalent themes of transformation and movement in his children’s literature are suitable for an interactive interpretation of his poems.


Widdershins: connecting harlequinade turn-up books to Walter de la Mare’s poetry of transformation

Mac Vermuelen and myself deep in conversation about de la Mare

Two weeks ago, I presented and animated a session at a conference devoted to reading Walter de la Mare, a British poet, short story writer, novelist and essayist. Although he wrote for adults and children, it is his children’s poetry that has long fascinated me. Indeed, I did my dissertation on his poetry writing during my daughter’s naptime. As I introduced my talk I observed that since she is now married and living in Nashville, the thesis was written a while ago!

When the organizers of the conference had first contacted me, I was thrilled and felt privileged to have the opportunity to revisit de la Mare’s work with my present-day interests in mind. As I immersed myself in his poetry over the summer, I sensed how his brilliant poems of transformation invite a connection with my passion for turn-up books! I submitted a proposal and it was accepted.

The conference was held in the English Department at Cambridge University and in the evening a performance of folk and opera music set to de la Mare’s poems was held at the beautiful Newnham College.  In keeping with the multimodal nature of his work, my talk was called “Widdershins: Transformations and multimodality in Walter de la Mare’s children’s poetry—an imagined metamorphic turn-up book project.” My hinge idea was linking de la Mare’s use of the transformation scene in pantomimes in order to explain how his child figures in his poetry temporarily enter another world to a type of turn-up book derived from the transformation scene — the harlequinade.  I took with me a PowerPoint based on several published harlequinades in special collections, a number of facsimiles based on one homemade religious turn-up book that Penn State owns, and some folded blank paper. My aim was to provoke thinking about how to make a turn-up that could demonstrate materially shifts in perception that the child figures and by extension readers experience when engaging with these poems.

Taken by Anne Welsh, University of London; de la Mare poem about the pantomime, illustration by Harold Jones


It was a busy half hour. I shared the images, my thoughts and handed out folded paper sheets and several poems we could possibly engage with –poems where children, girls and boys, through dance and twirling encounter a mysterious other or double. Although there was not enough time to make a book, in our brainstorming session people suggested different types of theatrical metamorphic movable books such as those with volvelles or complex turn-ups that might also work. After the session ended in addition to all keeping the facsimiles, some people took the folded paper away to work with their families at home.

Taken by Anne Welsh, University of London Harlequinade images courtesy of Penn State Special Collections

The experience of attending the conference, listening to brilliant and sometimes famous scholars was inspiring. More importantly since it was a small conference we all attended all the events together and the presence of the publisher grandson Giles de la Mare added a vital intertwined personal and research dimension. I am reading a book by one of the presenters about the sound of poetry and in correspondence with some other delegates. I look forward to continuing to work on bringing my two scholarly passions together.