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  • Playing with the Book: Victorian Movable Picture Books and the Child Reader by Hannah Field
  • Eleanor Reeds (bio)
Hannah Field. Playing with the Book: Victorian Movable Picture Books and the Child Reader. U of Minnesota P, 2019.

The central argument of Playing with the Book is that sustained attention to Victorian movable books challenges scholars of children's literature, especially picture books, to acknowledge the significance of form over content in understanding how children make meaning with books. Hannah Field approaches the movable book as a technological phenomenon, enabled by advances in paper engineering and other related fields, and places it in the context of Victorian visual culture. Playing with the Book draws on a diverse range of materials from the Opie Collection of Children's Literature, supplemented by other archival sources. Field advocates for a research methodology that builds upon Leah Price's How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (2012) by prioritizing material evidence of nontextual usages such as coloring in and mending rather than the marginalia beloved of most book historians. Such evidence is represented in the monograph itself, which features sixteen colored plates as well as plentiful black and white images embedded within the chapters (including a template for a pop-up rabbit that Field encourages us to remove and play with).

By foregrounding the book as a material object, Playing with the Book emphasizes the body of the child reader. The movable book's status as ephemeral entertainment provoked anxiety about its potential uses by a child reader, leading producers to model and depict appropriate reading behaviors within the books themselves. In examining the negotiations between adult creators and child recipients of movable books, Field draws repeatedly on the scholarship of Robin Bernstein, especially her concept of the "scriptive thing" and the related "questions of scripts, resistance, and revision" (31–32; Field's emphasis). Playing with the Book is also indebted to the foundational studies on movable books by Margaret Higonnet and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh, and I would encourage instructors to make use of Reid-Walsh's digital archive of children's narrative media in concert with Field's scholarly overview.

After her opening discussion of children's physical engagement with movable books, Field's chapters are organized by format. Chapter 2, "Against the Wall: Stories, Spaces, and the Children's Panorama," explores how the panorama challenges our conventional understanding of how time and space are depicted in children's picture books. Providing thoroughly researched contextual material as she does throughout the monograph, Field places children's panoramas among a broader array of Victorian "panoramic objects" in order to emphasize the genre's nonnarrative associations (62). While some children's panoramas represent progressive journeys, others such as alphabets and histories of the monarchy rely on sequence and succession as their more arbitrary organizing principles. The fluid and unstable logic of [End Page 114] the panorama—Field's most compelling example is the right-to-left image of John Gilpin used on the Caldecott Medal—lends itself to practices that "adjust or even disobey … generic and narrative scripts" including pasting such series of images on nursery walls (89).

Chapter 3 on the pop-up book, "The Movable Book in 3-D," is organized as a comparative analysis of this format with two-dimensional landscape pictures, theatrical scenery, and the stereoscope. Field's goal is to consider the pop-up book in relation to "the nineteenth-century preoccupation with regulating perspective and depth of field" (94). She argues that movable books enable children to interact with physical constructions of depth rather than simply training them in conventions of visual perception. This chapter places particular emphasis on the specific technological innovations in chromolithography and paper-making that created the "gorgeous surfaces" of pop-up books (102).

The significance of technological innovation is also foregrounded in Field's chapter on the dissolving-view book, which focuses on the German publisher and inventor Ernest Nister. Field uses Freud's concept of the "family romance" to examine the magical fantasies of production depicted in Nister's books, fantasies that elided the "commercialism" of an enterprise reliant on "prolific, jobbing authors" (130). Archival copies of these books testify...


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pp. 114-116
Launched on MUSE
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