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Learning as Playing


What is a movable book?

A movable book is a literacy toy where reading words and looking at pictures becomes a game. Also called mechanical books, or toy books, most movable books look like regular books (or codexes) but some of the words and images are presented by mechanical devices such as a flap, tab, slot, wheel and so on. The reader becomes a player who in order to engage with the story must manipulate the mechanisms to create movement. These may be simple such as the flaps that animate a flap book when they are lifted up to reveal pictures that transform one into another or complex such as the architectural structures hidden in pop-up books that seem to jump out when the pages are turned. In all cases, playfulness, movability and the ability to make changes or transformations are of the essence. 

 How are movable books “read”?

The approach to reading a movable book sets it apart from conventional books or picture books.  Besides the words and images, the reader also needs to manipulate the object in order to completely understand all the elements. Each movement creates a change in meaning. In modern media terms the reader thus becomes an “interactor” in an interactive story.  (Murray, 1997; Reid-Walsh, 2012).


lion from flapbook

When were the first movable books made?

This genre has an ancient history across cultures. In the West, movable books predate the invention of printing and were used by early thinkers in science and philosophy, such as astronomy and in divination. One of the earliest books was created in the 13th century by the Catalan poet and mystic Ramon Llull of Majorca who used a revolving disc or volvelle to illustrate his theories. From the 14th century onwards, layers of flaps were used to illustrate anatomical treatises. (Montanaro 2001.)  (Note: See an online exhibit of Anatomical flap books called “Animated Anatomies” from the Renaissance onwards at Duke University

After the invention of the printing press, books with movable components continued to be made for scholarly purposes for adults. In the Renaissance, emblem books became literally “speaking pictures.” (Bath 1994). Emblem books contain a title, a poem, and images; the reader-viewer is supposed to reflect on them as an integrated whole.

Occasionally book makers used movable devices such as the volvelle to indicate the motion in the heavens. George Wither’s Collection of Emblems Ancient and Moderne (1635) has a Divine lottery page that has the reader moving a dial with a cardboard pointer; spinning the dial points to the emblem most pertinent to the situation (Bath 1994:123).

(Note: See the project devoted to Emblem Books at Penn State University ). This device was adapted on occasion to early children’s textbooks. For example, the humanist thinker Johann Albert Comenius used a volvelle to illustrate the heavens in his encyclopedic textbook Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1659).

When did the connection occur between children and movable books?

Movable books in the form of religious flap books began to cross over into children’s culture as a form of didactic storytelling in the early modern period, but gained momentum in the 18th century with the explosion of children’s-book publishing.  This was another time of “media in transition” and a more commercially motivated period of demand and experimentation considered to be the beginning of children’s literature English (Darton, Muir). 

Some of the founding London publishers experimented with movable parts in educational books such as fold-out and cut-out pieces of the letters of the alphabet in a book produced by Mrs. Cooper, The Child’s New Play-Thing being a Spelling Book Intended to make the Learning to Read, a Diversion instead of a Task (1745).

During the latter part of the 18th century, a shift to children’s books as entertainment occurred (Darton). Movable books in the form of flap books began to achieve recognition as a form of popular culture, and the texts began to be based on popular theatrical entertainments such as puppet shows, the circus or “equestrian drams,” and especially pantomimes. With further developments in paper technology in the mid 19th century, movable books become more elaborate, especially with the invention of multiple moving components (such as slats and tabs), creating multiple effects.  They were followed by the spectacular “stand-up” books of the Victorian period, precursors of the modern pop-up. They are still produced today in ever increasing complexity by artists in conjunction with paper engineers (McGrath).

What is the cultural context for early movable books? 

The 18th century was a time of a burgeoning commercial culture for children (particularly of the “middling” classes). These artifacts included educational toys (or what we currently call “edu entertainment”) and now includes magazines, television, and digital media (Education, Entertainment and Learning in the home Buckingham and Scanlon 2003). These objects included card games (adapted from gaming), board games, and “dissected maps” or puzzles (Plumb, Shefrin). These educational playthings were part of a fad for domestic activities that included card tricks and optical experiments and captured in the book by William Hooper called “Rational Recreations” (1774).

In the late 17th and 18th centuries, women, dame school teachers, and particularly mothers began to make educational playthings to teach their charges (Spufford, Briggs). One such affluent mother was Jane Johnson, who in the mid-18th century devised an entire library of teaching aids. (Please see the website at the Lilly Library

How are early movable books relevant in the 21st century?

In terms of design and playability, they are precursors of interactive media today, more commonly associated with digital media such as websites and computer games.  Currently, interactive children’s stories with movable components and three-dimensional effects exist on two platforms: paper and digital. With classics of children’s literature such as Alice in Wonderland, we can read the novel and participate in the story through a spectacular pop-up book produced by artist Robert Sabuda in conjunction with paper engineers.

We can also engage with an innovative ibook app with moving illustrations and sound. The original illustrations by Tenniel are animated so they appear to come alive when the reader-viewer moves or shakes the screen:

Why is it important to continue to study movable books? 

Despite a long history and innovative design, the place of movable books in histories of Anglo-American children’s literature and culture is on the margins because the narratives tend to be minimal and rarely of purely literary interest.  If they are discussed, they tend to be placed in a side chapter as novelties or knick-knacks (Muir, 1954).  If studied as children’s books, they are usually approached as a subset of the picture book (Arizpe & Styles, 2003).

For the most part, research on movable books continues to be the province of collectors and curators (Haining, 1979; Montanaro, 1993; McGrath, 2002) although discussion of the genre has begun to emerge in recent historical surveys of children’s literature and culture (Grenby & Immel, 2009). In addition, some who study the relation between late 19th-century visual culture and the early cinema have studied several of the period’s more spectacular movable books. For instance, Eric Faden (2007) is interested in the mutual exchange between the creators of cinema and movable books, using this intersection as an impetus to theorize how in each case, readers and viewers negotiate the balance between linear narrative, visual interactivity, and spectacular effects (74).

In terms of academic contribution, the “Learning as Playing” website seeks to re-value the status of early movable books in historical accounts of children’s texts.

It also argues for the relevance of an historical approach to children’s media in order to show there are lines of continuity between old and new media. Studying them through an historical, comparative media lens will provide a perspective on an overlooked early cultural form significant in its own right, as one forerunner of interactive media today. Importantly, it also gives insight into the reading-viewing-playing activities of children hundreds of years ago that similarly may provide context for contemporary children’s multimedia literacy practices. Intriguingly, children have also made their own simply designed movable books as leisure activities for hundreds of years, an instance of early DIY culture.