November 20, 2017

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Living with Legends: Up Close with Kid Lit Historian Leonard Marcus

Photo by Elena Seibert.

Leonard Marcus might just be the busiest man in the world of kid lit. In June, the children’s literature historian and scholar launched a critically acclaimed exhibition at the New York Public Library (which he curated) and had a book published that celebrates the life and work of Maurice Sendak (which he edited). This summer, he will also publish his latest biography, a book on Randolph Caldecott, while his introduction for the 75th anniversary edition of Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon (Holiday, 1938) comes to print. Does he ever sleep? Says Marcus, “I just love what I’m doing so I kind of can’t wait to get started in the morning.”

Over coffee in a café in New York City’s West Village, Marcus—who is as soft spoken as a kindergarten teacher trying to soothe a rowdy classroom—shared with School Library Journal some of the details of his many recent projects, some insider knowledge of children’s literature history and icons and his belief that picture books might be the solution to saving all physical books.

Marcus has curated many exhibits, but “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter,” an exhibition at the main branch of the New York Public Library featuring nearly 250 books and artifacts, is his most ambitious undertaking to date. The New York Times calls the show, “remarkably rich,” and Monica Edinger, children’s book author, teacher, and blogger, describes it as, “wonderful—witty in design and delightful in the actual objects on display on her blog, Educating Alice.

Working with a full-time assistant and a design team, Marcus spent a year meeting with library special collection curators, researching and selecting objects for the exhibit. He specifically wanted to avoid showing the “greatest hits of [the] New York Public Library” or a “march through history,” he explained. “Those are the two traditional ways of exhibiting children’s books,” Marcus said. “And they don’t really let people into the story. They tell people that you’ve got to follow along. I wanted this to be much more immersive and to allow people to start with what they knew, the familiar books that were their favorites for personal reasons, and then to be surprised by finding that those books belong to a much bigger story that can be sorted out and told.”

Listening to Marcus speak about the objects, elements, and scenes in the show—which include an 1826 edition of the Grimm’s fairy tales, a recording of E.B. White reading Charlotte’s Web (Harper, 1952), and a gallery that focuses on challenged books—his enthusiasm for his life’s work is palpable. He said that the invitation to curate the show was, “basically being given the keys to the kingdom of all these great collections of art, manuscripts, photographs, prints, and, of course, the children’s books.”

Marcus has a history degree from Yale and a degree in poetry from the University of Iowa Graduate Writers’ Workshop. He is as comfortable talking about Tocqueville and Whitman as he is about Margaret Wise Brown, about whom he wrote a landmark biography, Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon (Beacon Pr, 1992). And when it came to discussing the late children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, Marcus was able to draw on his friendship with the famously guarded man to inform his scholarship—a source of knowledge that guided him as he edited the catalogue, Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work (Abrams, 2013), for a current exhibition of Sendak’s art for the Society of Illustrators in New York City.

Author Paul O. Zelinsky, who contributed an essay to the catalogue, told SLJ, “Leonard has always impressed me with his knack for seeing how things fit together. And with the way he follows through on his curiosity, with these fascinating books and shows as the result.” Other authors and contributors include Sendak authorities Justin G. Schiller and Dennis M. V. David, whose collection is also showcased in the exhibit and catalogue.

Marcus’s enthusiasm for research is evident in his many books and, most recently, in his introduction for The Reluctant Dragon: 75th Anniversary Edition (Holiday, 2013). The vice president and editor-in-chief of Holiday House, Mary Cash, says that Leonard’s requests for catalogues, advertisements, and other related materials lead several of us on a delightful scavenger hunt around the office….We copied a hefty pile of letters and documents for Leonard, which he packed up and took home. Several months later we received a witty and eloquent introduction that put the book in the context of its time while making a persuasive case for its continued relevance.”

To research his biography of Randolph Caldecott, Randolph Caldecott: The Man Who Could Not Stop Drawing (Farrar, Aug. 2013), Marcus traveled to England and dug through the archives at Harvard University’s Houghton Library.

When asked about the future of picture books, Marcus drew on his many years of knowledge as well as his experience curating the “The ABC of It” to provide a ready answer about the future of print books as a whole. “I describe in the text for the show [how] the picture book and the artist book are really the laboratory in which the future of the book will be decided because these are the most experimental formats within the realm of the physical book,” he said. “And so there plenty of great ideas there to be had, from which everyone can learn.”

Picture books are always pushing limits and exploring new possibilities that are only possible with print, he says; therefore, they make a case for print books to continue to exist alongside digital.

In the immediate future, Marcus, whose research and lecture invitations have taken him to locals as far flung as Singapore, is excited to be staying put in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, the picture-book artist Amy Schwartz. But he’s already working on his next projects: an exhibition for the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art of the late Bernard Waber’s art and a book of interviews with graphic novel creators for Candlewick Press.

And after that? He’d like to do more exhibitions and keep staying busy doing the work he loves.

Chelsey Philpot About Chelsey Philpot

Chelsey Philpot was associate book reviews editor and editor of Series Made Simple. She’s on Twitter @chelseyphilpot, and blogs at