Later this week, kid lit fans in New York will finally be able to view “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter,” a fascinating new exhibit at the New York Public Library curated by children’s book historian Leonard S. Marcus. Marcus was given access to the library’s vast collection of artifacts, from which he culled 250 items—including the copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that belonged to Alice Liddell, the girl for whom Lewis Carroll wrote the book; the original parrot-head umbrella owned by P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1934) and James Daugherty’s original art for Andy and the Lion (Viking, 1938), a story inspired by the lion statues that guard the library’s entrance.
The exhibit spans five centuries with one of the earliest items being a rare copy of Aesop’s Fables with His Life: In English, French & Latin illustrated by Francis Barlow dating from 1666. Visitors are taken through the history of children’s books as it relates to history, the arts, popular culture, and technological change. A children’s book is a “message in a bottle” that shows the “hopes and dreams of each generation,” Leonard Marcus told a group of reporters who previewed the exhibit recently.
Both children and adults can step into the Great Green Room of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (Harper & Row, 1947) or answer questions relating to children’s books that appear on a monitor. Children can also slip through Alice’s Rabbit Hole or pet a fur wall devoted to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (Harper & Row, 1963).
While researching objects for the exhibit, Marcus solved a mystery. He had come across an ivory carving of Tweedledee and Tweedledum (characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) without any documentation. Photos of the objects were sent to other children’s literature collections to solicit information. A letter from Carroll in the collection of Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library explained that it might be from a parasol handle originally given to the “real” Alice by Carroll. Marcus turned the carving over to find the hole for the umbrella handle.
The familiar names of Garth Williams, Madeleine L’Engle, Maurice Sendak, and Judy Blume are featured in the section entitled “Raising a Ruckus,” which focuses on books that caused controversy in their day. Superman, the Avengers, and the Justice League make an appearance in the “Lights Out: Reading Under the Covers” area, which is devoted to kids and comics.
At the turn of the last century it was common for libraries to have signs stating “No Dogs or Children Allowed.” Some of the librarians who helped change that custom are featured in the exhibit. Anne Carroll Moore, a New York Public Library’s children’s librarian, is featured; she began the library’s Best Books List, co-founded Children’s Book Week, and helped launch the Newbery and Caldecott Medals. Also included is Pura Belpré, the New York Public Library’s first Puerto Rican librarian. She began bilingual story hours and, in 1996, the American Library Association and its affiliate REFORMA began an annual award named in Belpré’s honor to recognize outstanding Latino writers and illustrators.
The exhibit, which is free to attend, opens June 21, 2013, and will run through March 23, 2014.