The New World Comes to England: Robert Sayer’s Harlequin Cherokee

Perhaps one of the most recognizable forms of children’s books are movable books: “pop-ups, lift-the-flaps, tab-operated mechanicals, transformation books (circular or vertical designs that, with a pull, change to reveal a hidden picture), peep shows, and a large number of unusual novelty items” (McGrath 5). These technologies were first used in adult instructional materials such as medical manuals, but the vast majority of movable books today are made for children.

Robert Sayer (1725-1794) was the first British publisher to produce “metamorphoses” books for children, in the mid-eighteenth century. His books, better-known as harlequinades, were among the first to “afford amusement” for children, “not so much through their printed contents but through their illustrations that changed and kept pace with the story” (Montanaro xiv). They were usually single sheets folded perpendicularly into four, like a pamphlet. There was a picture on each fold, cut horizontally across the centre so that the flaps could be opened to reveal another picture underneath. Hence any individual panel contained up to three possible images, depending on whether one, both, or neither of the flaps was opened.

The Osborne Collection contains a number of Sayer’s harlequinade books, and one, in particular, Harlequin Cherokee; or, The Indian Chiefs in London, published in 1772, reflects the cosmopolitanism of the age. However, rather than appropriate the East (as the Arabian Nights did), Harlequin Cherokee seems to want to appropriate the West, and so literally relocates a stereotypical New World figure to London.

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Harlequin Cherokee materially consists of text in verse with hand-coloured illustrations. There are four pages in total, each with two attached flaps with additional text and illustrations. These flaps can be raised or lowered to illustrate the twelve six-line stanzas of the poem, as the poem itself instructs:

Here Harlequin that artful thief

You see is like an Indian Chief

What can his meaning be for this

Since Europe all is known for his

Must savage Wilds become his prey

Turn up and then attend the lay

This poem is based on the story of three Cherokee chiefs that arrived in London some ten years earlier, in 1762, and managed to gain an audience with King George III. Sayer’s comic version of the story of the Native Americans’ encounter with British aristocrats literally unfolds only as the flaps are raised or lowered. Thus, Harlequin Cherokee, and indeed all of Sayer’s harlequinades, is unique in that the child reader must interact with the book in order to read the story; the story is always incomplete otherwise.

 


Works Cited:

McGrath, Leslie. This Magical Book: Movable Books for Children, 1771-2001. Toronto Public Library, 2002.

Montanaro, Ann. Pop-Up and Movable Books: A Bibliography. Scarecrow Press, 1993.

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