Speaking of Picture Books

Kind of scary to go into the children’s book section of a bookstore sometimes: it’s the noise.  There are so many things that a child can push or pull to play sounds of Winnie the Pooh, Thomas the Tank Engine, or Wesley the Wombat that one wonders what libraries do at times like these. (Yes, I know it’s not al “Sssshhh” in the modern library–Hi, ALA Convention!–but what do you do when little Susie smacks little Trevor and says “Shut off your Train Sounds; I wanna hear the pig go oink!”?)

It all started long ago, of course, and one of the early classics of the genre is The Speaking Picture Book, published by FAO Schwarz from the 1890s apparently right on into the 1940s. An 1893 copy of this was dropped off at the Book Fair a while back, and it is an amazing piece of work.

The book consisted of a brief narrative with great big pictures, pasted onto a decorative wooden box. All along the side of the box were ivory buttons. Little arrows in the picture book pointed to particular buttons, which meant you were to pull on them. When the button was released, it set off a little bellows and spring somewhere in the wooden box and made the most realistic meow, arf, moo, or baby cry. I think there were ten of these in a full book.

Our copy was greeted with modest cries of delight. The copy in the Newberry’s collection had just been restored, but some of the pieces were still missing, and there was not a single page remaining of the text. Our copy had the text of the book, and a couple of the pieces needed for the library copy. (Which you can LOOK at in the library, but you are cautioned to ask a librarian to pull the strings for you if you want to LISTEN.)

Our copy was returned to us in decent condition, and will be for sale next week. Of course, it no longer has the bits that were taken, or the bits that were missing when it came to us. But the wooden box is intact, and inside it are seven little gimmicks that will work, I am told, if new strings are attached. We do also still have two of the original strings, but I’d prefer you wait until you get it home to pull these.

We do also have some of the modern variations in the Children’s section, though a lot of them will need new batteries by now. It’s reassuring to think that there are some constants in life: give kids an new way to make noise and watch their eyes light up.

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