Thursday, December 3, 2009

Review: Nineteenth-Century Paper Doll Books

Modern-day paper dolls typically entail a cut-out figure (cardboard) and a set of costumes (paper) that are hooked onto this figure with tabs, but the nineteenth-century originators of the form, the publishers and printsellers S. and J. Fuller, utilised a different format. The basic elements of their paper doll books, produced from around 1805 to 1815 but available well after this period, were a small black-and-white book containing a moralistic children's story, a number of coloured cut-out images printed separately on card, showing costumes but sometimes framing these in a wider scene, and a single coloured cardboard head. Each costume had a small tab at its back into which the 'stem' of the head could be inserted to produce a standalone illustration to the storybook.

What I find most interesting about these early paper doll books is the tension between word and image. Moveable books, as has been observed by a number of critics, are characterised by the interplay between narrative and spectacle, expressly, the visual spectacle of both their illustrations and the mechanics of those illustrations. Paper doll books add another dimension to this picture book economy: they focus on clothing and costume, which are inherently spectacular topoi in and of themselves.

To explore this tension further - the titular heroine of the Fullers' History of Little Fanny (1810) is reproached by her mother for her desire to 'show off' her new clothes; her narcissism is the catalyst for the subsequent misfortunes which befall her. But the paper doll figures perform an exactly parallel move when they display Fanny's outfits for the delectation of the child reader. Lucinda of Lucinda, the Orphan (1812) visits a nunnery and idly expresses a wish to join the order. A nun's habit is then produced, and the narrator is at pains to remark, in a manner that throws the book's costume-proud features into relief, 'How much she eclipsed the sisters of the veil need not be told'. Lucinda's hazy admiration for religious belief is much less important than her pleasing appearance in the garments of a nun. More broadly, the drive to propel costumes into each tale, dictated by the formal focus on the paper doll as technical innovation, generates pictorial subtexts which undermine the purported textual morals.

Some images of the Fullers' paper doll books are reproduced here.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Review: Patricia Wrede's The Thirteenth Child

Eff, born the unlucky thirteenth child of her large family, is the somewhat troublingly meek protagonist of Patricia Wrede’s The Thirteenth Child. Exploring an emblematically American frontier filled with magic, mythological/prehistoric beasts, and an encroaching enchanted wilderness that her generation will be called upon to combat, Eff struggles to cope with the stigma of her birth, as well as the shadow cast upon her by a magically talented twin brother. After the family is relocated to a growing university town near the Great Barrier, built to keep the dangerous but alluring wilderness at bay, Eff finds herself in that opportunistic space between civilization and wildness where she can begin to develop her hidden talents.

The book has received a lot of attention in the blog-o-sphere this year on the topic of Wrede’s erasure of native populations in her fantasy retelling of the American frontier story. From what I’ve read, these incensed readers offer more of a general critique than a textual one (that is, there isn't a lot of actual close reading that illustrates how colonial or possibly racist themes are played out in the writing), but I do agree with the underlying sentiment, which is that Wrede makes a huge misstep in failing to acknowledge the much more troubling American story that lies beneath Eff’s New World. Wrede’s fantasy, while frequently funny and occasionally enthralling, relies on the American fantasy, or on the erasure of parts of the American story that are ugly, cruel, devastating, and deeply important to remember. Unfortunately, Wrede’s world building suffers as a result of this removal, and the story feels a little plain despite all of Wrede’s storytelling magic.

The Thirteenth Child

by Patricia Wrede

Scholastic Press, April 2009

ISBN: 978-0545033428

Review: L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, illustrated by Graham Rawle

Collage artist and author Graham Rawle’s 2008 edition of The Wizard of Oz features his cut-out, constructed, borrowed, photographed, glued, and photoshopped illustrations, whose wild hybridity make them appropriate modern companions to L. Frank Baum’s original text. The novel was first published in 1900, but Rawle admits to knowing the story primarily through the 1939 film adaptation, which reached its current iconic status through repeated US television airings beginning in the late 1950s. So it seems fitting that Rawle combines household objects and bits of trash with more traditional collage elements in digital layers to create an Oz that is simultaneously nostalgic and new.

His Oz is, like the Technicolor universe in the film, lush and bizarre and dependent on contemporary technology for the shocking aesthetic that marks it as a true otherworld. But while Rawle uses photographs and other mixed media combinations for a number of minor characters, Dorothy and her travelling companions are all intact, poseable toys, each vintage or reconstructed to look old and worn. The expressions of these characters remain frozen, their gestures stiff, but as the reader accompanies the homely playthings on their adventures through the bright, fantastical landscape, they become increasingly familiar and imbued with personalities. These toys, especially Dorothy, with her matted, patchy hair and homemade doll’s clothes, evoke a wistful air of remembered (or imagined) childhood play in an ambiguous earlier era. And yet the settings against which they pose could not exist without the aid of digital manipulation, and for this reason Rawle’s images seem to be themselves a kind of multi-layered play: they revel in building a comprehensive make-believe world from ordinary objects, project complex personalities onto beloved toys, and delight in the possibilities of new technology, showing it off in images that can include up to 200 digitally arranged layers.

Meanwhile, the large, heavy format of the book and the mixed-font excerpts of text inset on the margins of most pages hint at who is meant to join in this play. Although it can be read straight through, Rawle’s edition feels more like a coffee-table book for adults to flip through, looking at the illustrations and skimming the enlarged quotations as if reading a magazine (indeed, Rawle has also written a novel composed entirely of collaged words from women’s magazines). Thus Rawle’s The Wizard of Oz is in many ways a celebration of a now-past childhood experience of that story. The more disturbing images in the book invite adult readers to consider what role the strange, frightening, and unsettling play in childhood, and to examine their current uses for and reactions to this edition in this light. Meanwhile, the accompanying text, ‘complete and unabridged’, offers the opportunity for this self-referential edition to serve as the defining experience of The Wizard of Oz for a new generation.

The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum

Illustrated by Graham Rawle

London: Atlantic Books, 2008

Hardcover, 352 pages

ISBN: 978-1582434551