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Vol. LXIV, No. 19
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
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Inspired by Andre Hellé’s Toy Theater, Picture Books Come to Life at Cotsen

Ellen Gilbert

Andre Hellé’s La Boîte à Joujoux (1913), or “The Toy Box,” is the centerpiece of the Cotsen Children’s Library’s enchanting new exhibit.

Adapted as a ballet by Claude Debussy, La Boîte à Joujoux debuted in 1919 with sets and costumes designed by Hellé. This small exhibition includes a 1913 edition of the picture book (inscribed “for dear little Jimmy lamb”), other works by Hellé, and similar images of children’s toys dating from the 1920s. The exhibit began in April to coincide with student performances of the Debussy ballet and John Alden Carpenter’s Krazy Kat, coordinated by Princeton University Music Department Professor Simon Morrison.

The story of La Boîte à Joujoux takes place in a toy box, toy boxes being, according to Hellé, “really just like towns in which toys live like people — or maybe towns are really just toy-boxes in which people live like toys …” Debussy shared some of Hellé’s life-long interest in dolls, wooden figures, stuffed animals, and automatons.

“One of the most interesting things about Hellé’s toy characters is that they are free agents,” the Cotsen exhibit explains. “Their secret lives are in no way dependent upon the dreams or directives of human beings.” Debussy similarly wrote to a friend, “The soul of a doll is more mysterious than even Maeterlinck supposes; it does not readily put up with the claptrap that so many human souls tolerate.”

Debussy composed the entire work for piano in 1913, and began an orchestration for it in the spring of 1914. With the outbreak of World War I, he abandoned it. After his death in 1918, another French composer, André Caplet, completed the score. It was produced for the first time at the Théâtre Lyrique du Vaudeville in Paris in 1919.

A double-page spread from the catalogue of a chic French toy shop, believed to have been published between 1920 and 1929, offers further evidence of that era’s interest in making characters come to life. The item for sale is a toy theater, complete with performers inspired by “le jazz-hot” musicians like the then-darlings of Paris, Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet.

The Little Tin Soldiers, an American book printed on muslin in 1910, is evidence, according to the exhibit, that “not all toy fantasies were benign … the boy has lined up his sharpshooters on the floor with their weapons trained on the bedroom. They have orders to shoot to kill any intruder, but luckily their bullets have no effect fired at the boy’s mother, who opens the door to give the boy a goodnight kiss in the dark.”

Real life politics come into play with another Hellé creation, a book of French Toys from 1915. “Children who will see the future for which are dying the sons of France, this book has been written for you,” says the text, suggesting, according to the exhibit, that the book was sold with the aforementioned catalog to raise money for French troops fighting in World War I.

Other early 20th century picture books about toys that came to life after their owners fell asleep include Fritzli’s Troum (“Little Fritz’s Dream”), and The Mysterious Toy Shop. Those interested in knowing just what was so mysterious about this particular toy shop — and who want to see this small but charming exhibit on the ground floor of Firestone Library — have until September 13.

The Princeton Public Library has a CD of Debussy’s music for La Boîte à Joujoux in its children’s music collection.

To find out more about André Hellé, visit “Les amis d’André Hellé” at

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