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: 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/

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.



Comparing Two Metamorphosis Books 1810 published by Wiatt and 1811 printed by Rakestraw

By Colette Slagle and Jacqui Reid-Walsh

At the beginning of this school year, Jacqui and I wrote a blog in which we compared the 1810 Metamorphosis book printed by Solomon Wiatt and the 1811 Metamorphosis book printed by Jonathan Pounder (held at the Bodleian Library).  Penn State Special Collections recently purchased an 1811 Metamorphosis book printed by Joseph Rakestraw.  Today, we decided to revisit the 1810 Metamorphosis book held at Penn State, and compare it to the newly purchased 1811 Metamorphosis book, due to the close proximity of their publishing dates and locations.

The 1810 version was published by Solomon Wiatt at No. 104, North Second Street, Philadelphia, PA.  The 1811 version was printed and sold by Joseph Rakestraw at No. 248, North Third Street, Philadelphia, PA.  These two addresses appear to be only one street apart from one another.  The similarities between the two versions are striking; however; they are not without differences.

The images in the main text of both versions are identical, though the images on the verso differ.  In Wiatt’s 1810 version, there is an image of a man seated in a chair and handing a little boy a book, and an image of a woman in chains in prison.  In Rakestraw’s 1811 version, there is an image of a woman beneath a tree with a reclining African American man beside her, and an image of a couple fleeing.  The title pages also both feature the same image of a man sitting underneath a tree.  According to Welch, Wiatt’s 1810 version is the first one to feature this image (392).

Verso of Wiatt’s 1810 version (top) and verso of Rakestraw’s 1811 version (bottom) (Special Collections, Penn State Libraries)

Interestingly, Rakestraw’s 1811 version and Pounder’s 1811 version are completely identical in the images they use, including the extra images on the verso.

Verso of Jonathan Pounder’s 1811 version. (Bodleian Library, Oxford University Vet. K6 f.92)

The text in Wiatt’s 1810 and Rakestraw’s 1811 is also identical, with only a couple of minor differences, likely due to typographical errors (i.e. the occasional missing comma, and the misspelling of “Saviour” as “Savour” in Rakestraw’s 1811 version).

Misspelling of “Saviour” as “Savour” in Rakestraw’s 1811 version. (Special Collections, Penn State Libraries)

The biggest differences, however, were not in the images or the text.  The most striking difference is the size of the paper.  The 1811 version printed by Rakestraw is visibly larger.  It measures approximately 14 ¼ inches x 5 ¾ inches, while the 1810 version published by Wiatt is approximately 13 ½ inches x 5 5/8 inches.  This means that the difference in length between the two is about ¾ of an inch, and the difference in width is about 1/8 of an inch.  While the widths of the two texts are very close in size, the lengths are significantly different.

Wiatt’s 1810 version (top) and Rakestraw’s 1811 version (bottom). (Special Collections, Penn State Libraries)

Another interesting difference between the two are the borders used in each version.  In the 1810 version by Wiatt, when the flaps are closed, the borders around the text are straight and rectangular, except for the set of verses numbered 7 on the top flap of the third panel.  Here, the border is a wavy line rather than a straight line.

Wiatt’s 1810 version (top) and Rakestraw’s 1811 version (bottom). (Special Collections, Penn State Libraries)

When the flaps are open in the 1810 version by Wiatt, they all have wavy borders around the text, matching the 1811 version by Rakestraw.  The only difference between these two versions when all of the flaps are open is the dividing lines between the original verses and the added verses.  In Rakestraw’s 1811 version, all of the dividing lines are wavy, matching the borders that surround the text.  In Wiatt’s 1810 version, however, the dividing line has a different design, with the exception of the top flap on panel one featuring sets of verses numbered 13 and 2, which strangely matches the wavy dividing line of Rakestraw’s 1811 version.

Wiatt’s 1810 version.  The wavy dividing line featured on the left matches the wavy dividing lines used in Rakestraw’s 1811 version. Special Collections, Penn State Libraries)

We have enjoyed comparing these two texts and going forward we are excited to look at other versions of Metamorphosis books that are presently being catalogued at Penn State. With the help of curator Jose Guerrero, Jacqui was able to locate a few more versions.  In addition to the 1811 version, there are 1815 and 1816 versions, both also printed by Joseph Rakestraw.  This means that Penn State now holds editions printed by Rakestraw from 1811, 1814, 1815 (a hand-colored version), 1816, and 1817, which we are excited to compare when we return in the fall.

An Alternative Origin Story?: A Printerly View

By Jacqui Reid-Walsh and Colette Slagle

The last blog post ended with a question about the centrality of the mermaid in the making of the strip. In this post, we take a “printerly” view of the entire printed object in order to explore a possible alternative narrative where the mermaid is central.

As mentioned in the earlier blog, in the first panel there are four images produced by the two blocks (mermaid and Adam). From a reader-player’s view the sequence is Adam, Eve, the merman (when lifted against instructions) and the mermaid. Moving from the opposite direction, from the bottom up, we see that both Eve and the merman are formed by moving one flap each, and Adam is created by closing both flaps. Therefore, there are two prime positions: the top and the bottom both made by full blocks. Due to the ease of lifting the flaps to make these transformations, all from a mermaid first perspective, is there an alternate origin story being suggested?

(Jacqui’s woodblocks made from the Bodleian Library, Bodleian MS Wood E 25(10))

The official origin story is created by following the instructions. It places Adam as the major image and the mermaid as only an extension of Eve—the swirling tail suggests the serpent of the fall and the evil sexuality of Eve. Eve and the mermaid’s connection is reinforced by both figures having a flower in their left hand and a comb in their right.

(Photo courtesy of Penn State Libraries, Special Collections)*

If we start from the “printerly” view an opposing origin narrative is suggested. In a podcast for the University of Liverpool entitled, “Why do we love mermaids?”, English Professor Sarah Peverley discusses the function of merfolk as protective guardians in the ancient world. She notes that mermaids have long been present in our cultural mindset, although their form has changed over time. Even ancient Mesopotamia include frequent representations of merfolk. Peverley notes: “Largely it’s mermen to start with, although there are merwomen as well….They’re associated with creation itself. In these legends… the merfolk are there in the primordial oceans, the soup that creates all living things, and they act as protective guardians.” (https://www.online.liverpool.ac.uk/resource/why-do-we-love-mermaids)

(Photo courtesy of Penn State Libraries, Special Collections)*

Because this reading is physically submerged or hidden under the flaps, so not as easily accessible to a reader-viewer-player, Jacqui proposes this could be an alternate narrative to the official and more readily available story of Adam and Eve.

*These photos are of the undated Beginning, Progress, and End of Man owned by Penn State Libraries, which has no bibliographic information.  As such we do not know for certain how it relates to the 1688/9 edition held by the Bodleian Library.  We hypothesize that it may be a version based on this this edition due to the similar text and images.