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Wednesday, October 31, 2012


I was scanning through our reference books the other day when I ran across a book called The Encyclopedia of Toys by Constance Eileen King. This book was a true delight to look through as it spanned 18th, 19th, and early 20th century toys in the United States and abroad. One particular chapter that caught my eye was a chapter on automata. A very popular, award-winning work of fiction (and subsequent movie) that gave readers a fantastical glimpse into the mystery of one particular automaton was The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Here are a few fun facts about automata:

v  The New Oxford American Dictionary defines an automaton as “a moving mechanical device made in imitation of a human being” (110).

v  Automatons were particularly made for adult enjoyment because the lavish backgrounds, costumes, and construction made them quite expensive. They served as status symbols in the homes of those who could afford them. They were mostly used to amuse friends and visitors.

v  Automatons that were simply made, or had one or two movements were usually for children.

v  The most popular subjects for automata were animals (monkeys in particular), magicians, and illusionists.

Digesting Duck - Jacques de Vaucanson

v  Vaucanson, described as the greatest maker of automata, created an artificial duck made of gilded copper and realistically feathered. His creation mimicked a live duck by eating food, digesting it, and expelling the “excrement” from its body. “The duck was still exhibited as late as 1847, when a reporter complained that the smell given by the figure was almost unbearable” (92).

The Musician - Pierre Jaquet Droz (King 94)

v  Pierre Jaquet Droz, who was an inspiration to Vaucanson, created a sophisticated automaton known as the Musician. The Musician was a young woman seated in front of a clavecin. Her fingers, head, and eyes moved as she played, and her bosom would rise and fall to simulate breathing. This automaton was first shown to the public in 1774.

v  Some automatons were made to be a part of a group, such as a musical ensemble. One in particular involved a group of monkeys sitting around a card table. “One holds a cigar that is lifted to his mouth while another holds a box containing dice which it throws on to the table” (95).

Reconstruction of the Mechanical Turk
v  Baron Wolfgang Von Kempelen, created the most famous automaton made in the 18th century – the Mechanical Turk. The Mechanical Turk, which was supposedly built in six months, was a Turkish automaton chess player. This automaton turned out to be an elaborate hoax. A dwarf hid inside a compartment and operated the machine. (Vitaliev, 87)

The Draughstman, The Musician, The Writer

v  Two well-known automatons were created by Pierre Jaquet Droz, and his son Henri Louis Droz. Pierre Jacquet Droz created The Writer, an automaton that inscribed phrases on a piece of paper. It would dip its quill in ink, shake it twice, and begin writing starting at the top of the page while lifting the quill between words. Henri Louis Droz created The Draughtsman, an automaton that could draw four different images.

Check out The Franklin Institute for information on the Maillardet  Automaton that inspired Brian Selznick’s book!

Image of The Writer, The Draughtsman, and The Musician together:
King, Constance Eileen. The Encyclopedia of Toys. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1978. Print.
Stevenson, Angus, and Christine A. Lindberg, eds. The New Oxford American Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
Vitaliev, V. "Spontaneous Toys." Engineering & Technology (17509637) 4.15 (2009): 86-87. Academic Search Premier. Web. 31 Oct. 2012.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Whole Kit and Caboodle

Every morning on Facebook, we post a quote from a Mississippian, usually an author. This morning, we quoted Beth Henley, the Pulitzer-winning playwright from Jackson:

There weren't all that many poem books you could get off a the traveling book mobil. Most books I got was about animals. Farm animals, jungle animals, arctic animals and such. Course they was informative, I learned some things; they's called: a gaggle of geese; a pride of lions; a warren a rabbits; a host a whales. That's my personal favorite one: a host a whales!
-Beth Henley, MS playwright of "The Miss Firecracker Contest"

After this, of course, we had to find more. (Aren't collective nouns fun?) For this, we turned to the Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms. Here are some of our favorites for you to enjoy:

  • Array of Hedgehogs
  • Bloat of Hippopotami
  • Bouquet of Pheasants (They don't smell pleasant...)
  • Cloud of Grasshoppers
  • A Splother of Rabble,
    or a Rabble of Splother
  • Crash of Rhinoceros
  • Dreadful of Dragons 
  • Gang of Elk (At our next neighborhood watch meeting, we're discussing the influx of elk gangs in the area.)
  • Kindle of Elephants (Elephants--the reading animals!)
  • Parcel of Penguins
  • Pomp of Pekingese
  • Scourge of Mosquitoes
  • Troop of Bees
  • Turn of Turtles
  • Walk of Snails (Hmmm.... Still pondering this one.)
  • Consternation of Mothers
  • Horde of Young Readers
  • Macaroni of Poetry Selections (I'm trying to figure out how to work this into conversation.)
  • Posy of Literary Pieces
  • Rabble of Readers
  • Sect of Old Maids
  • A Parcel of Penguins
  • Shush of Librarians
  • Splother of Children
  • Wedge of Standing People

Monday, October 8, 2012

Letters About Literature Competition

Letters about Literature is a national reading and writing promotion program sponsored by The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. At the state level, it is sponsored by the Mississippi Center for the Book and Friends of Mississippi Libraries.

Students in grades 4-10 are encouraged to write personal letters to the authors of their favorite books, explaining what the book meant to them. The books can be fiction or non-fiction, and can even be a short story, poem, essay, or speech (but no song lyrics). A letter is less formal than a book report or a research paper and students are encouraged to write in their own voices, as if they were having a personal conversation with the author.

There are three Levels of Competition:

Level I: Grades 4-6
Level II: Grades 7-8
Level III: Grades 9-10

Judges for the Mississippi Center for the Book will choose first-, second-, and third-place winners in each of the three categories; these winners will receive cash prizes of $100, $75, and $50, respectively. First-place winners in each of the three categories will also advance to the National Level Judging.

Judges for The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress will select three first place winners to receive a $1,000 cash prize and three second place winners to receive a $150 cash prize.

Letters must be postmarked by January 11, 2013 and be accompanied by an entry coupon, available at For more information, email Mississippi Center for the Book Coordinator Tracy Carr at
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