Stroll into nearly any home, school, grocery store, or gas station and, if you look around, you’ll begin to notice books everywhere. I say “if you look” because books have become so commonplace that they barely register in the mind’s eye. Through fiction or fact, verse or prose, art or photography, books exist to spark your interest, ignite your imagination, and propel you on a journey of the mind. Doomsayers may predict the gradual disappearance of books as modern technology makes them obsolete, but I choose to believe that books will only grow more appreciated and valued.
Consider a time before Johannes Gutenberg’s 1440 invention of the printing press. Books belonged to an elite few and literacy itself was uncommon. Although the printing press loosened the restraints on book publishing, it took another 400 years before the invention of the steam-powered rotary printing press unleashed the mass production of printed works. Imagine being a child in the 1700s or early 1800s—what books might you have access to? Would your imagination be captured by a book from 1778 titled Youth’s instructive and entertaining story-teller: being a choice collection of moral tales, chiefly deduced from real life, calculated to enforce the practice of virtue, and expand every social idea in the human heart ; adorned with emblematical cuts, from the most interesting part of each tale, and methodized after the plan recommended by the late ingenious Dr. Goldsmith; to which is added, by way of preface, Thoughts on the present mode of education? Or perhaps you would enjoy The instructive history of industry and sloth. Some of these early books were illustrated with simple woodcuts or engravings which made them even more appealing such as Accidents of childhood, or Cautionary stories for heedless children, with twenty illustrations by J. D. Watson, engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. Perhaps “enjoy” is not the word that immediately comes to mind which is fitting since “enjoyment” was not the primary objective of these books. Children were not meant to be entertained, they were meant to be schooled. [You can find out more about these books and many more in the Online Catalog of the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong.]
Fortunately for the child in all of us, new printing technology brought new choices. The steam-powered printing press made books available at a relatively low cost, and the introduction of chromolithography in the mid-1800s would soon illuminate children’s books. Authors, illustrators, and publishers alike found themselves inspired to create books that were not only instructive but highly appealing to young minds. Fables, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales delighted young and old alike. McLoughlin Brothers of New York emerged as the foremost producer of inexpensive picture and story books, books that could make something as necessary as learning the alphabet fun. McLoughlin Brothers also turned its book illustrations into board games, puzzles, and paper dolls.
Transcending color, publishers also began to experiment with the concept of “toy books” with moving pictures and transformations, as well as other novelties such as tunnel books and pop-up books. Among pop-up books, Lothar Meggendorfer and Ernest Nister produced some of the best and most treasured examples. My own favorite is Nister’s The Children’s Tableaux. Pop-up books continue to appeal to talented contemporary artists, such as Robert Sabuda who uses their three dimensions to give new life to old stories such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
When The Strong decided to create an exhibit about the history of children’s books, one of the first steps involved meeting with groups of schoolchildren and asking them what they would want in such an exhibit. All agreed that it should feel like a giant pop-up book. With that directive in mind, Reading Adventureland developed as a multidimensional space where you’re the main character in your very own story. While at the National Museum of Play at The Strong, you can also visit The Wizard of Oz and Berenstain Bears exhibits—colorful museum spaces also based on books. And, if you look around, you’ll discover throughout the museum there are books, books, and more books that you can sign out from the Grada Hopeman Gelser Library using your Monroe County library card. After all, nothing is better than curling up with a good book!