Tag Archives: picture book history

Contribution of Toy Books to the Modern Day Picture Book

© Copyright 2017 Brianna Silva, Ryerson University



Movable toy books are an important part of children’s literature as they incorporate various elements to appeal to the sight and touch senses. Toy books can be defined as children’s picture book with features that allow readers to play with it as well as read it. These books are used to help children visualize what they are reading as they are reading it. The history of how toy books were created is a long and fascinating one that traces back to the Victorian era and the paper making process. It is important to focus on different means of communicating text such as using pop up visuals because not every reader is alike. Just like each person is unique, each person has a different way of learning and comprehending information. By using tactile, artistic elements, movable toy books are able to communicate literature in a different way to readers who are more visual and hands on. By looking at the history of the first movable toy books, we can understand how they adapted to become the present day children’s picture book.


The first movable toy books can be traced back to Medieval origins. The English Benedictine monk Matthew Paris (1200 ca. – 1259) used various paper elements to construct foldable maps in his text Chronica majora (Crupi, 2016). By using various folding techniques, Paris was able to create a “multi-sensory experience” for readers by allowing them to open and close parchment flaps, “thus through this performing action, the map became a dynamic space and an exercise in memory, in the eye of the reader offering the possibility to undertake an interior journey of meditation, a mental pilgrimage that could be remodulated, open to alternative itineraries” (Crupi, 2016). Matthew Paris is also reputed for creating the “volvella” which “consists of one or more paper or parchment discs, shaped and overlapping and fixed to the page with a pin (a string or a rivet), allowing each disc to be independently rotated around its central axis” (Crupi, 2016). By inventing this new mechanical device, Paris “modified the relationship between reader and text, introducing a new practice of reading through interactive processes, as in the case of the flaps, transforming the manual gesture into an intellectual experience, one of knowledge” (Crupi, 2016). By doing so, the reader now controls the book as well and becomes a part of how the information is interpreted. The rotating disc elements were created for entertainment purposes as a  means of “fortune telling” but also scientific purposes as they aided in understanding astrology and astronomy. The introduction of the volvellae was used as a teaching support to transmit “technical information in an interactive format” (Crupi, 2016). The art of using paper elements as a mode of learning became highly popular in the 15th and 16th centuries, “the technical ingenuity of paper flaps in fact demanded a full command of the graphic arts and extensive experience in three-dimensional design: without recourse to the expedient of optical illusion, sculptural paper shapes had to be created that communicated the sense of movement as well as depth. Not by chance, the greatest designers of paper instruments were also experts in the art of graphics and printing” (Crupi, 2016). A printer named John Day was the first to create the initial “pop-up” book to explain and demonstrate geometric solids to readers (Crupi, 2016).

Astronomical Volvelle, Astronomical and Medical Miscellany, late fourteenth century, The J. Paul Getty Museum

In the 18th century,  two English book publishers and sellers, John Newberry (1713-1767) and Robert Sayer (1725-1794), introduced a new literary genre, the children’s picture book (Crupi, 2016). The new genre of the children’s book became a commercial and literary success. The books that Sayer and Newberry created, incorporated elements of illustration, text and movement to create an ultimately unique new way of reading and learning for children. Their most famous books were the classified by the “harlequinade”, and which “was the first printed item for young readers that could be classified as a movable” (Crupi, 2016). These books allowed readers to take control of the scene before them. These artist-publishers of the 18th century “transformed the book into an enchanted toy, which opened before children’s eyes like a magic trick that they themselves could control. Books that were physically animated, like the stories they told..” (Crupi, 2016). In the 19th century the idea that an object could be both book and toy was a popular concept, “And readers, young readers no longer simply read, or rather, are not merely bound by the act of reading, but through reading can interpret other roles: magician, player, prophet or showman, depending on the type of book-object in hand” (Crupi, 2016).



Tab used in turning rotating discs to create kaleidoscope image. Magic Moments, Clifton Bingham and Florence Hardy, Ernest Nister, 1892, Ryerson Special Collections

Various adaptations throughout the 19th and 20th century later involved the disassembly of illustrations to communicate more artistic ways of thinking. In 1860 the first “theatre book” was created by Dean and Son. The “theatre book is a special type of movable book, the support of which can be transformed into a theatrical stage used to represent the narrated story; the characters (actors) may be still or, using mechanical elements, animated” (Sarlatto, 2016). The production of the movable book in the 19th and 20th century required many changes to the overall printing process, “this led many publishers to hire specialist craftsmen to oversee all the  hand performed activities involved in the production of the movable elements” (Sarlatto, 2016). The production of toy books was a careful and tedious process as elements needed to be handled with care so they were not damaged when the book was opened.

Ernest Nister

One of the most memorable contributors to the toy book phenomena of the 18th and 19th century was Ernest Nister (1842–1909). Nister was an author and publisher from Germany that supervised all phases that took place during the process of his book creations. His books were extremely popular in the Victorian era and were “easily identifiable by the high quality of the pictures and above all the ingenuity of the moving mechanisms

Magic Moments Clifton Bingham and Florence Hardy, Ernest Nister, London 1892, Ryerson Special Collections

used”(Sarlatto, 2016). During his life “Nister produced over 500 children’s books, but from 1890 onwards his production was mainly focuses on movable books” (Sarlatto, 2016). The illustrations that Nister used in his books were representative of his own ideas of an “ideal world” where wealthy children played in the English countryside in flower-filled meadows (Sarlatto, 2016). His books usually consisted of pastel illustrations and mechanical movements on one page with short simple rhymes on the accompanying page. Nister is most famous for his patent on the revolving picture mechanism. By using the previously discussed “volvella”, and adapting it to make it something entirely new and unique, Nister was able to create a “kaleidoscope” effect with picture illustrations. This revolving picture mechanism can be seen in his 1892 publication of “Magic Moments” which can be found in the Ryerson Special Collections. This book incorporates short stories and rhymes with illustrations of wealthy Victorian children and anthropomorphic characters. The rhymes and short stories often teach lessons and good morals to children. The kaleidoscope effect is a unique way to captivate readers and allow them to engage with the story in a different way.

Rotating discs turned to reveal another image underneath.
Magic Moments. Clifton Bingham and Florence Hardy, Ernest Nister, 1892, Ryerson Special Collections

Why Movables are Popular and Modern Day Picture Books

The creation of movable books was the first step into creating a different genre of popular visual culture. Research has been done to connect the relationship between word and image. In Eric Faden’s article “Movables, Movies, Mobility: Nineteenth‐century looking and reading”, Faden discusses how “picture books force readers to negotiate two different presentational modes: ‘The verbal text drives us to read on in a linear way, where the illustrations seduce us into stopping to look’” (2007). Picture books enormous success is also due to the fact that it was a mode of entertainment and pleasure for young children as it encouraged interactive engagement from readers. Readers are able to become involved in the story and the way it plays out, “Renowned contemporary pop-up artist and author Robert Sabuda notes pop-ups interactively engage the reader in a direct, physical way: ‘It’s a completely different book experience. There’s a different kind of engagement mechanism. … They come right out and touch you. I’ve seen people jump back and that’s a serious reaction, very visceral.’” (Faden, 2007).  Modern day picture books still incorporate elements from their historical relatives to encapture this reaction from their readers, surprise, entertainment and pleasure. Throughout the years many adaptations of movables have been created to incorporate other senses such as “scratch and sniff” elements and dress up. With recent advancements in technology, toy books have been adapted to be completely paperless and entirely electronic. With applications on phones and tablets, children are now able to engage with picture books at an electronic level with a swipe of their fingertips.


Beginner Book, Collection #1, Dr Seuss, Oceanhouse Media, digitalmediadiet.com

The history of toy books is extensive and can be traced back to medieval times. The influence that toy books have had on movable texts and interactive literature is prominent. Movable toy books allowed a new genre of books to be created for children about children. The unique way in which toy books have altered the way readers interpret a text has changed the platform for picture books. Children’s picture books are now more interactive than ever and appeal to several different senses. With new technology, the adaptations of movable picture books have now gone completely paperless and incorporate new ways of learning at the reader’s fingertips. The evolution of toy books has been an important aspect to children’s literature because it allows for visual learners to immerse themselves into a text with the ability to engage with visuals instead of just being able to look and read. Toy books will continue to be popular texts for children and readers of all ages because of their engaging qualities and teaching abilities.

Works Cited

Bingham, Clifton, and Florence Hardy. Magic Moments. Ernest Nister, 1892.

Crupi, Gianfranco. “”Mirabili Visioni”: From Movable Books to Movable Text.” JLIS.it, vol. 7, no. 1, 2016, pp. 25-87, SciTech Premium Collection, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/1764230909?accountid=13631, doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/10.4403/jlis.it-11611.

Faden, Eric. “MOVABLES, MOVIES, MOBILITY: Nineteenth‐century looking and reading.” Early Popular Visual Culture, vol. 5, no. 1, 2007, pp. 71–89., doi:10.1080/17460650701269820.

Sarlatto, Mara. “Paper Engineers and Mechanical Devices of Movable Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries.” JLIS.it, vol. 7, no. 1, 2016, pp. 89-112, SciTech Premium Collection, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/1764230849?accountid=13631, doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/10.4403/jlis.it-11610.

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