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Vol. LXIII, No. 24
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
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Early How-To’s Charm and Inform in “Kites: Fireworks, Physics and Fancy”

Dilshanie Perera

For those who may have been delighted by the antiquated typefaces and illustrations that graced last year’s crop of how-to children’s books initially inspired by the success of The Dangerous Book for Boys, the Cotsen Children’s Library is offering the real thing in its current exhibit, “Kites, Fireworks, Physics, and Fancy,” and there’s no comparison. How could anything compete with seeing John Bate’s 1635 publication, Mysteries of Nature and Art, the book that taught the young Isaac Newton how to make a kite that could be set on fire for flying at night?

Richard Johnson, the 18th-century author of The Blossoms of Morality, didn’t need Piaget, Skinner, Spock, et al. to tell him that raising young Ernestus and Fragilis in two radically different ways from the cradle on would result in profound differences in their character and strength. For the purposes of this exhibit, the evidence is borne out by their respective kite-making abilities: “Indeed, the kites made by Fragilis were always too heavy, and not equally balanced on both sides… whereas those made by Ernestus were light and elegant.”

If the small, simpler illustrations from some of the early volumes in the exhibit seem modest, the titles of the books they come from, and their would-be authors are anything but: none other than “Master Michael Angelo,” for example, produced The Drawing School for Little Masters and Misses Containing The Most Easy and Concise Rules for Learning to Draw Without the Assistance of a Teacher… To Which Are Added the Whole Art of Kitemaking.

Among the more prominent illustrations is the frontispiece of a 1618 Dutch emblem book showing boys and girls playing in the courtyard of the Abbey of Middleburg. It is a colorful exception to the small illustrations of the time, and its “catalog of children’s sports and games” is evidence of the growing perception at that time of childhood as a separate developmental stage in human life.

Precursor by over 100 years to The Dangerous Book for Boys, the charmingly illustrated Games and Sports for Young Boys, published in London in 1859, features two comical figures, apparently popular in Victorian England, whose corner tassels double for hands and epaulettes. The book includes kites in the shape of Napeoleon, a sailor, a fish, and an air balloon.

A Riddle

Riddle XI in The Puzzling Cap, A Choice Collection of Riddles in Familiar Verse with a Curious Cut to Each, printed in London for E. Newbury (inspiration for the children’s book award) in 1785, asks the following:

“My body is thin,
Tho’ no bowels within.
Have neither a head, face or eye;
Yet a tail I possess,
Forty feet and no less,
And without any wings I can fly.”

A “curious cut” of a kite appears on the opposite page, rendering this not much of a riddle. Like this small but dear exhibit, however, it’s lovely to contemplate.

“Kites, Fireworks and Fancy” runs through July. The Cotsen Children’s Library is located on the ground floor of Firestone Library on the Princeton University Campus.

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