Tuesday, January 7, 2014

NYPL Exhibit: “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter”

If you’re a children’s literature lover, there’s something really magical about seeing the original stuffed animals that inspired “Winnie-the-Pooh” or hearing E.B. White read his masterpiece, “Charlotte’s Web,” or finding out just why the now-classic “Goodnight Moon” was so revolutionary in its day.

All of this – and much, much more – can be found in a delightfully thought-provoking exhibit now at the New York Public Library. Titled “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter,” this exhibit of 250 artifacts was curated by Leonard Marcus, a children’s book historian and author of numerous books on children’s authors and illustrators. (I detailed Leonard’s unique career in an article published several months ago – one of my last columns for the now defunct Scripps Howard News Service).

Recently, Leonard was kind enough to host a tour for me, my husband and a couple of friends through the exhibit, which is setting attendance records for the NYPL and hopefully will be extended past its original closing date of March 23. The exhibit has sparked national attention, including a review by Edward Rothstein in The New York Times; the review also included a slideshow of exhibit highlights.

As we set out through the exhibit, located in the 4,500-square-foot central gallery, Leonard talked about taking on the curator’s job, and sifting through some of the million-plus books and other artifacts owned by the NYPL.

 “It was like being in a toy shop in the best possible way – when the owner of the toy shop wants you to touch everything,” he said.

While it was a wonderfully fun task, curating the exhibit also was an intellectual challenge, as Leonard pondered what he wanted the show to accomplish. As he wrote in an essay about the exhibit for The Horn Book magazine: “A great many people form strong, even passionate personal associations with children’s books… but without seeing those books in broader cultural terms, as literature and art.

 “My goal would be to present children’s books in that larger context, to connect the dots by highlighting the place of children’s literature, broadly defined, in the arts, popular culture, and social history.”

So, exhibit goers can see the original Winnie-the-Pooh animals are here, as well as the parrot-head umbrella owned by “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers and a copy of “The Secret Garden” owned by its author Frances Hodgson Burnett. But they aren’t the main focus of the exhibit.

Instead, the show uses these artifacts, and many others, to explore several serious themes about children’s literature. The exhibit opens, for example, with a fascinating look at the way children’s books have reflected the changing ideas of childhood, from the Puritans to the Romantics to the Progressives.

Two other major themes in the exhibit delve into the artistry that lies behind the deceptively simple form of the picture book, and examine how children’s books have had an impact on the larger culture.

Once he had these themes in mind as he planned the exhibit, Leonard then began to search for books and artifacts that could bring them to life.

“The thing about curating is that it is storytelling in three dimensions,” Leonard told us on the tour. “What story does something tell?”

An example: Leonard used a 1727 edition of “The New England Primer” – which he says is the oldest known copy of the most influential American children’s book of the 18th and early 19th centuries -- to show the kind of stern, moral-laden reading that the Puritans considered appropriate for children.

Walk past the “Primer,” and there is a selection of poems from William Blake’s Song of Innocence,” illustrated in watercolor by Blake himself. The contrast between the way Blake and the Puritans each viewed childhood couldn’t be clearer, and it sets the tone for the rest of this section.

Leonard also takes exhibit-goers off on intriguing tangents, giving us a view, for example, of “Scarlet Letter” author Nathaniel Hawthorne as a “family man” who rejected the ideas behind the “Primer,” on which he was raised. In looking through the NYPL’s collection, Leonard found the Hawthorne family’s Mother Goose collection; we could see where Hawthorne’s wife marked certain rhymes “not to be read to Uma,” their young daughter, presumably because they would scare her.

Further on, there’s a look at how children’s books have been used as tools to build “national identity.” Here you’ll find a children’s book published by the Confederacy during the Civil War and another published during China’s Cultural Revolution.

Kids love playing in the model of the “Great Green Room” from Margaret Wise Brown’s iconic “Goodnight Moon.” But it serves to make a larger point for adults about the progressive view of childhood that rose to popularity in the 1940’s, and which saw children as collaborators in the construction of their world.

 As Leonard told us, the “Great Green Room” model “epitomizes what I wanted to
do in this exhibition. Everyone knows ‘Goodnight Moon’ but nobody knows where it came from.”

 In the section of the exhibit about the artistry of picture books, the work of Randolph Caldecott (for whom the Caldecott Medal is named) looms large. Viewers also can see the work of fine artists like Faith Ringgold, who have made picture books, and fine art by picture book creators like Wanda Gag.

In the third major section, where the exhibit looks at the cultural impact of children’s books, we track the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty” as it moves through the world in the hands of such disparate people as Lewis Carroll, James Joyce and Aretha Franklin.

Exhibit-goers also can enjoy a facsimile of Milo’s car from “The Phantom Tollbooth” (kids can actually sit in it and pretend to drive), an imposing – and depressing – tower listing the titles of children’s books that have been challenged, and a “secret readers” exhibit case highlighting the debate over the literary merits of comic books.

And all of this is just a fraction of what you’ll see in this show. The exhibit brochure offers a valuable overview, but it’s worth coming to see it for yourself, if at all possible.

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