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Review of Playing with the Book: Victorian Movable Picture Books and the Child Reader

By Laken Brooks

Field, Hannah. Playing with the Book: Victorian Movable Picture Books and the Child Reader. U of Minnesota Press, 2019. 

Hannah Field’s interdisciplinary expertise shines in her first book, Playing with the Book: Victorian Movable Picture Books and the Child Reader. Published in 2019 by the University of Minnesota Press, Playing with the Book builds on her previous research, such as her articles “All Toys At First I Find: Theorizing the Material Culture of Childhood in ‘A Christmas Tree’” (2012), “The Magic of Finger and Thumb: Early Movable Books for Children” (2013), and her co-edited collection Space and Place in Children’s Literature, 1789 to the Present (2015). Field’s dynamic monograph weaves a nuanced case study of pop-up, panoramic, and toy books from the Golden Age of literature. Each chapter scaffolds readers’ knowledge of embodied readership, children’s novelty books, and print culture in Victorian England. Field’s interdisciplinary and accessible writing style will appeal to experts and students alike, inviting adults’ wonder as she draws readers’ attentions back in time to historical children’s texts. 

Chapter Content 

Field deconstructs complex material and cultural histories through the thoughtful organization of her book. Playing with the Book has seven main content sections: an introduction, five chapters, and a brief conclusion. The body content guides readers through some of the most popular forms and examples of Victorian movable children’s media. Chapter one, entitled “The Three Rs: Reading, Ripping, and Reconstructing,” serves as an important framework on embodied readership and book history. The chapter establishes the materiality of the Victorian children’s novelty book and the dichotomy of how children did(n’t) conform to adult expectations when reading these immersive texts. For example, Field describes novelty texts’ “nonbookness” and how this changes our definition of reading to  engage with multiple parts of the body: “the Victorian novelty picture book diversifies the reading experience” because it recognizes “reading as comprising physical acts as well as intellectual ones, or even refusing the opposition of the two” (27). In fact, Victorian picture and novelty books referenced the reader’s manual actions (flipping pages, sitting with the book, etc.) as much as the mental actions (listening, beholding, considering) of reading. The acts of reading and meaning-making are physical and ongoing, which Field emphasizes with the verbs in her title: ripping and reconstructing. Therefore, Field argues that the materiality of Victorian children’s literature is unique because “The reading habits of actual children also lead to a sense of this distinctiveness of the child as reader” (29). Field asserts that such novelty books have a unique relationship with children because they further enhance the children’s status as active agents, readers who may have ripped or colored pages and reconstructed their own meanings from the books that adults bought and distributed for them. 

The content in Chapter one smoothly transitions to Chapter two,  “Against the Wall: Stories, Spaces, and the Children’s Panorama,” as Field describes the physical practice of folding a panorama, applying the lessons of materiality to a “case study” of a more specific medium: the panorama. The panorama is a fitting example of the complicated genre of novelty books because it “evokes a hybrid of book and picture … If the panorama were not folded, it would be a mural, not a book” (59). Field connects panoramas to other popular print objects, like wallpaper, to describe visual and spatial rhetoric in the Victorian period. This chapter more specifically addresses how panoramas, as children’s literature, originated in/as trade and technical writing: fold-out pamphlets, periodicals, and other folded paper pieces that blended images and words. Panoramas complicated ideas of children’s literature because, instead of stories, they often conveyed sequences like seasonal changes, travel locations, and the ABCs. Field thinks beyond the confines of the panorama page, though, to envision  the different forms that these novelty texts took throughout their lives. For example, one of the most popular iterations of panorama reuse was as wallpaper in nurseries. Field elaborates: “The child’s radical interaction with print affects not just the print object itself but also the nursery space” because the way children and families repurposed these panorama images “might adjust or even disobey the generic and narrative scripts embedded in these texts” (89). Therefore, Field articulates that Victorian readers were co-authors, ripping and making new meanings or new sequences in places outside of their bookshelves and “reconstructing” our ideas of what reading was like for children during that time. 

Field’s third chapter, “The Movable Book in 3-D,” connects to the previous chapter’s focus on sequentiality in images with the physical construction of children’s texts by filling a gap in book history: the role of the pop-up book. This gap, Field elaborates, is that “bibliographers record only the measurements of the page when cataloging,” but the materiality and thickness of “Illustrated books can reconcile the flatness of the text with the depth of the picture as they [readers] move through word and image” (93). The sizing categories bibliographers use do not account for the deep and diverse ways authors have used illustrations to make a world come to life off the (typically) flat pages. The picture book adds dimension to a reader’s experience with color, shape, and texture, while pop-up books add an even more literal layer of depth to these children’s books. 

Chapter three probes the role of the pop-up book in Victorian print culture. Field argues “The pop-up format changes the reader’s relationship to the book as an object … the pop-up encourages larger perspectival play from the child reader” who holds the book, flips it upside down, and looks at the layers of mechanics and paper on the page (94). The chapter chronicles the history of pop-up children’s books by tracing paper engineering from panoramas to greeting cards before bookmakers incorporated these pop-up mechanics into books. After this brief genealogy, Field elaborates on how some of the mechanisms for building pop-ups, such as nesting (in which all pieces of the pop-up are printed or cut from the same paper), “[meld] conventional cues for reading depth in a picture with the pop-up technique, which brings physical depth into the book” (102). This 3-D image format adds an element of theatricality to children’s books as the paper characters move across the page and the landscape changes like a play’s set. By acknowledging how pop-up books transcend the physical confines of their pages, Field pushes bibliographers to reconsider dimensionality (such as page size or width) as one of their primary categorization tools when dealing with picture books. 

Field carries her concern for sociopolitical identity and material history into Chapter four, “Ernest Nister Christopher Columbus: The Tale of a Dissolving-View Book,” which documents how Nister, a printer and publisher, repurposed images from different texts into various stories without considering the origins of the images. While  Nister was not the only printer to repurpose illustrations across different texts to avoid commissioning new drawings and to save money, Field centers him in this chapter because his “eponymous publishing house produced more than one hundred titles in an ingenious array of formats,” such as the “dissolving page” (123). Field defines a dissolving page book as a type of movable text constructed with layers of illustrations that can appear and disappear. When the readers pull a tab, the front image may move or slide open to reveal a hidden, second picture. 

Furthermore, Field argues that Nister’s books are unique because they often contain metanarratives that were rare in children’s books at the time. For example, the poem “A Puzzle” (1893), featured in the children’s book More Pleasant Surprises for Chicks of All Sizes, combines this dynamic connection between two images in the dissolving book form. The poem involves a discussion between the publisher and the poet about including ponies in the story: “One day old Nister he came to me; ‘I want you to write some verses … About a dear little girl of eight, / Who’d two little ponies’” (lines 1-6) (127). Illustrator Nister chooses to conceal one of the two ponies in Robert Mack’s poem, playing a trick on the young readers. The poem reads: “There is a pony, a white one too / But Nister clearly said there were two” (lines 12-13). When readers pull a tab at the bottom of the page, they find the concealed second horse. Field’s demonstrates some of her strongest close reading when she deconstructs “A Puzzle” on page 127 as she writes a nuanced reading of the text’s materiality, narrative, and construction that she expands to the larger trend of publishers repurposing images in different children’s books. Field concludes this chapter by arguing that the “dissolving-view format makes a lack of connection between the two pictures, and by extension the fairy tales they contain, impossible: two characters or stories become physically linked” as their images are used across storylines, and the young readers must make or “justify those links” (150). By ending her penultimate chapter with this focus on the children’s interpretative responsibility, Field continues her important intervention of inserting children’s studies, and children’s autonomy, into the field of book history. 

 While Field describes novelty publishers like Ernest Nister in Chapter four, she contrasts her thus-far speculative approach to book history with a more classic figure in her final chapter: “Going Through the Motions: Lothar Meggendorfer and the Mechanical Book.” Meggendorfer was famous for his vibrant and lifelike illustrations, often of animals. But as readers could control a paper elephant’s trunk, they could, at the same time, pull a tab to control the arms or mouth of a cartoonishly illustrated African man. In this chapter, Field questions the ethics of a child readers as performers (and directors) by analyzing how movable books encouraged middle-class children to physically manipulate the bodies of characters, especially when these characters are people of color. 

Field pinpoints two main social issues with mechanical books. The first is that “the physical power of the child readers … over the mechanical figures, which they can manipulate at will, metaphoricizes their problematic position of power over the representations the books contain” (154). In other words, middle-class, English children who read Meggendorfer’s books will find their socioeconomic positions of power reinforced. Meggendorfer frequently wrote  and illustrated Black characters or lower-class subjects, and these mechanical texts encourage children to literally control the bodies of “different people” on the page (154). 

The second of Field’s critiques of mechanical books is that “mechanical movement threatens to implicate, or even overpower, the reader” as “child readers become mechanized as they operate the book” (154). Book historians have praised Meggendorfer’s art as demonstrating some of the most lifelike movement possible in paper engineering; this is an impressive feat given that movable books can only move in one repetitive set pattern, a historical precursor to the modern GIF. This lifelike movement, demonstrative of excellent craftsmanship, presents its own paradox: Meggendorfer’s mechanical books reinforce both social and racial hierarchies and disempower the child readers who become “part” of the machinery as they must, like the cogs in the book itself, push and pull pages to reveal the effects. Middle-class children complete manual tasks as they repeatedly interact with the book’s machinery while reading movable books, which, ironically, may resemble the repetitive motions of factory labor or of child workers who helped to build Meggendorfer’s books. These physical actions foil the middle-class readers with their more destitute counterparts, Victorian working-class children, “even as the [former] remain excluded from those tasks in real life” (165). 

Structure 

Field’s book is successful on numerous levels, including the structural integrity of her writing and the construction of the book itself. Field uses sentence variety to guide readers through her paragraphs. By using shorter topic sentences and interspersing em-dashes and colons throughout the middle of her paragraphs, Field draws the readers’ eyes linearly across the page and scaffolds dense content. This writing pattern introduces new material with shorter sentences and elaborates on past information with longer sentences. On the sentence level, Field deconstructs the complex genealogies of book history and Victorian children’s literature into an approachable narrative. She also thoughtfully incorporates images with detailed footnotes to connect every figure into the narrative of the chapter. For example, Field introduces her first photograph without assuming her readers have prior knowledge: “FIGURE 1.1. This rare lift-the-flap picture book conjures a model of Victorian children’s literature as silly, formally playful, and above all else novel” (3). Field welcomes readers from various fields, not only those familiar with Victorian print culture, with her grounded writing style. 

Since Field studies book history and construction, readers shouldn’t be surprised that her monograph is beautifully designed. The University of Minnesota Press has printed the book with a matte-textured cover that feels smooth against readers’ hands. This non-glossy cover also prevents glare, preparing the book well for an e-copy. The bright primary colors on the front stand out on their own, and the orange backdrop contrasts well with the blue highlights of Meggendorfer’s fisherman. Although Field’s book is not a novelty text, its cover encourages readers to consider it (and all books) as “movables.” On the front cover, the pull tab sits in the bottom right corner, the spot where many readers will most likely reach down to flip the page. As movable books prompt readers to interact with the text, Field’s pages remind readers that they have a bodily relationship with her printed research. The back cover also contains a tongue-in-cheek “pull” tab instruction on the bottom of the book blurb. This “pull” direction can reference several actions, such as a curious browser pulling the book off the shelf for the first time. 

Playing with the Book blends playful book construction with traditional scholarship. This combination of genres, of novelty with academic research, comes to a head at the end of her conclusion, in which Field writes the following: “So, to end with an instruction: the next page is to be cut or ripped out, and made into a white rabbit, and played with” (195). The next page contains the silhouette of a rabbit and a pop-up paper base. Solid lines direct the readers to where they should cut, while dotted lines indicate where the readers should fold. By ending her first book with this memorable instruction, to play with her research, Field once again reminds readers that books are meant to be material objects and experienced both physically and ephemerally. The instruction to cut or rip the page provides a sense of catharsis; the (presumably) adult reader has completed this book, but now they metaphorically return to childhood by playing with their text. The interactive component also connects the adult readers to the middle-class children of the past. New academic texts, including Field’s, are often relatively expensive at market value. Field inadvertently reminds readers that, like her book, Victorian pop-ups were also an investment, and readers can have a positive relationship with their books by, ironically, harming them. Additionally, Field (like the creators of Victorian movable books) must anticipate a noncompliant reader. While she provides the instruction to rip or cut the page, many readers (including myself, admittedly) will not do so. Therefore, Field provides readers with a choice and ends her book with the same reader autonomy that she analyzes throughout her chapters. 

Implications and Potential Uses 

Field’s book focuses on Anglophone children’s literature, but her research demonstrates a transnational effort. She includes images from children’s collections from the Baldwin Collection in Florida to the University of Oxford. Field also relies on numerous print culture repositories, not exclusively children’s literature libraries, such as the Library of Congress and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her research thoroughly blends children’s literature scholars like Gubar with book historians such as Ann Montanaro, and she reinforces disciplinary connections between two fields that few other researchers have intertwingled. This research might be made even stronger in future editions if the author chooses to include Gittelman’s Paper Knowledge. Furthermore, Field’s interdisciplinary approach could include cultural rhetoric scholars, including Sean Zdenek, Gabriela Rios, and Angela Hess, to enhance her analysis of document history and embodied readership. 

Field’s research complements other books that consider the cultural role of books and readership across time and space: Jonathan Senchyne’s The Intimacy of Paper in Early and Nineteenth-Century American Literature (2020), Jane D. Griffin’s The Labor of Literature (2016), Paul B. Ringel’s Commercializing Childhood (2015), and Gregory M. Pfitzer’s History Repeating Itself (2014). Field’s Playing with the Book will be a valuable addition to graduate and undergraduate-level courses in children’s literature, book history, and Victorian studies. Students new to these topics and experts alike will both appreciate Field’s well-rounded analysis of children’s media in Victorian society. Ultimately, Playing with the Book teaches readers that we might pave the future of children’s literature by looking back into the past innovations and complications of movable books. 

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