recess radio program

11/12/03
When Books Learned to Talk
    by John Cech

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Perhaps you think you're hearing a recent recording of farm animals, but this is really a very rare children's book from the late 19th century called The Speaking Picture Book. It is one of those many novelty books that were produced near the end of the last century by such geniuses of paper engineering as the German artist Lothar Meggendorfer, whose pop-up books sell in the thousands of dollars today if you can find them. Very few of these books survive in working order because the children who received them as presents usually played them to bits. Which is why it's so rare for a very of this book, with its nine color plates, each with an arrow in the margin that points to a little ivory nob on the side of the book that you can pull to get the sounds of the lamb and cow, which you've heard, but also the donkey, the goat and a very unusual rooster

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The book was produced by Theodor Brand of Germany and was eventually sold in English, German, French and Spanish editions. The one you're hearing is about a foot tall, nearly ten inches wide, and several inches thick, with a red cloth cover and a golden wooden sound box that has a carved, gold-painted opening to release the sounds. It costs around $2,000 now, if you can find it, but it was expensive even then in the days before Speak and Spell and sound chips. After all, it was, as the book said in its introduction:

Meant for children good and mild
Not for the rude and naughty child
who cries and stamps with rage.
But you, I know, deserve this treat
So side by side upon the seat
We'll turn each pretty page.

"Yes listen!" the book goes on,

For each creature talks
Just as you hear them in your walks
As if they all were real.

Brief sound clip

Copyright 2003 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."