Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Weird Vintage Pop-up Books in the Basement

The creepy pop-up clown.
When I was a kid, I was always amazed to read stories in which the child protagonists felt fortunate to own a book.

I loved to read, so it wasn't that I thought a book was a strange item to cherish. It was just that books seemed like something everybody had, like air, or spoons.

Books were indeed plentiful and relatively inexpensive by the time the 1960s had rolled around (for a typical middle-class family, that is, such as mine).

My childhood home was awash in Little Golden Books, Big Little Books, and "I Can Read It All By Myself" Beginner Books. School order forms for paperback books routinely trailed me home, and books regularly appeared wrapped up for birthdays and Christmas.

There were also the somewhat mysterious books that had come down through the ages to reside alongside our colorful books on the shelves. At least, they seemed to me as if they came from antiquity--they dated back to my mother's childhood, a time that seemed as distant to me as Jane Austen's heyday. (I believed her when she said, after being badgered for hours by five-year-old me to reveal her age, that she was 100 years old.)

Among those books were four battered cardboard books filled with clever pop-ups and some vaguely unsettling illustrations.

I didn't like the stories very much, but I did enjoy opening the books to the pages that contained the pop-ups.

My mom always spoke reverently of the books, noting that they were very old and very valuable.

She wasn't far off the mark--they would have been valuable, if they weren't in terrible condition. Though they'd come by that condition honestly; they'd been read to pieces by my mom and her brother when they were kids.

My uncle had also colored in most of the pictures with paints. He filled them in very neatly and carefully, but I don't think they've done much to increase the books' value.

Their value wasn't further enhanced when one of my siblings, discomfited by some of the distorted, exaggerated features of various characters, went through the books and cut off the heads of many of the pop-up people and animals.

In researching the books, I learned they were part of a British book series called Bookano Books (which made sense family-history-wise, because they'd been sent from Ireland by my great-grandmother to my uncle in the 1930s).

Their creator, a publishing-industry executive named S. Louis Giraud, teamed up with a paper engineer named Theodore Brown to create pop-up books that featured "mechanical" moving parts. The name "Bookano" was a blend of the words "book" and "Meccano," the name of a popular European building-toy kit. The team produced 16 or 17 books between 1929 and 1949 (sources vary on the number).

Giraud geared the books to sell to a wide audience by using very thick, cheap paper, inexpensive printing techniques, and low-cost bindings (which is obvious to collectors of the falling-apart books) so that the books could be priced low. Oddly, it's the colorful pop-ups in each book that have best stood the test of time.

Bookano Books was also a cottage industry. Cutting out and constructing the pop-ups was a job hired out to women working from home. The materials would be delivered to them and picked up when finished. The pop-ups' claim to fame was that they could be viewed from all angles.

That was a big part of their appeal, and I can personally attest to that appeal because I spent a lot of time getting down on eye level with the books to peer into some of the scenes. I remember being particularly fascinated by this one, with characters gathered around a table, because you could see them from the front and the back, unlike a flat illustration in a book.

I don't know why I thought this was magical--I certainly didn't regard my three-dimensional toys in this way. I suppose there was just something about the 2-D managing to be 3-D that was inherently amazing, like View-Master slides. Or like getting one of those postcards with a plastic corrugated front that turned the picture into a 3-D image. (I spent a few hours of my youth trying to peel the plastic off one of those cards so as to enter the world of Mowgli and Baloo the Bear on a Disney postcard. I never succeeded.)

The regular illustrations in the books were, as mentioned previously, just kind of weird. I mean, jeepers. Check out this one. The first of many scary ringmasters in children's books. And clowns.

The comical stories were illustrated in a style similar to that used in the early Disney cartoons, with exaggerated features and rubbery limbs, lots of big teeth and giant nostrils. The serious fairy tales' illustrations were peopled by stiffer, more remote characters. The writing varied from formal and wordy to overwhelmed-by-cupcakes cheerful.

There were stories the likes of which you'd probably not find in the children's section today:

And I don't think I've ever run across the words "eunuch" and "female slaves" in any other children's books outside of these ones.

But the books' endpapers often delighted with more enchanting images:

The pop-ups really could be astonishing, such as this one of a Red Admiral butterfly and an orchid:

Though I don't think I'll ever forgive Bookano for giving me nightmares about clowns.