In reviewing my pictures and thoughts, I realized: this is going to be by far my longest & most photo-heavy blog post ever!
Feel free to exit now if you intend to go see this show—as I’m about to spoil it all for you. If you live faraway or are just plain busy, I hope you’ll enjoy this virtual experience.
I loved every moment at this exhibit, and am just not sure of where to edit…
So, for the record, I knowwww this is too long. I’m sorry. I just couldn’t help myself!
Last night I trained up to the New York Public Library to learn my ABC’S. (Or, rather, more about why children’s books matter.)
Quickly: for those of you who have not yet had the good fortune of visiting the NYPL, here it is from the outside. Awesome, right?
And here is the entrance signage for the exhibition:
Exhibition curator (and historian) Leonard Marcus has drawn masterfully from collections library-wide, inviting visitors to look twice at the complexity of children’s literature—an industry that is all too often overlooked as simple or elementary.
The first thing I encountered upon entry was The New-England Primer—which was (for a hundred years) the most widely known juvenile book in North America, and which asserted that children were sinful at birth.
Mere steps away was another centuries-old title, William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, with an entirely opposing viewpoint: children were not sinful, but rather wonderstruck.
Immediately, I could see that Marcus intended to present juxtaposed opinions and an entirely dimensional representation of kidlit in this exhibit. Marcus’s illustrative debate had begun.
Many of the books on display reflected cultural self-exploration, self-representation, and consequence of intercultural relations.
- Antonio Frasconi’s See and Say: A Picture Book in Four Languages neatly illustrates the sentiments of a son of bridged cultures. Born to Italian immigrant parents, raised in Uruguay, and then ultimately settling in New York City, it’s no wonder Frasconi felt the need to show the many ways there are within one world to say the very same thing.
- Occupation-era Japanese school children were introduced to Western cultural ideals through paperback comics like these.
- Native Americans gained cultural understanding and appreciation courtesy of educator Ann Nolan Clark’s children’s stories, such as In My Mother’s House, in which she shed light on Native American symbolism and cultural priorities, including Corn Dancers, life-giving rain, and flourishing crops.
Some of the titles showed children’s books as a means by which cultures encouraged their youth, arguably prematurely, into political loyalty.
- T’sirt, written by Samuil Marshak and illustrated by Vladimir Lebedev, promoted power and aimed overtly to nurture revolutionary sentiments in young readers.
- Vladmiri Mayakovsky’s Detiam (For Children) delved even deeper with its revolutionary nudging, encouraging ‘Young Pioneers’ to dig within themselves in an effort to ultimately do what was expected of them as members of a nation.
Some books were born out of a need to establish new culture.
- During the civil war, America’s Confederate States aggressively originated an entirely new world of children’s literature for their young, publishing more than 150 juvenile texts with messages specifically designed to bolster the Confederate cause.
Still other cultures made manifestos for proper manners out of their children’s books.
- Chao yang hua duo (Morning Sunflower), written by Zhang Shipei and illustrated by Ling Jingqing, depicts a young girl who successfully demonstrates “good citizenship,” and whose exemplary behavior at school makes her a role model for her peers.
I could see how kidlit titles showcased changes in technology and transportation.
- Le taxi-brousse de Pape Diap (Papa Dio’s Taxi) by Christian Epanya illustrates the impact of taxis (a mode of transport previously restricted to the “developed world”) on places more remote, such as Senegal.
There were books born from educational missions.
- Who knew ‘early readers’ such as Dick and Jane were read by 85% of American public school-children!
And I also learned that not everyone agreed with the Dick and Jane approach as the ideal path to literacy.
- Author/illustrator Dr Seuss reacted negatively to rote learning readers such as Dick and Jane, putting out instead supplementary readers he hoped would be such fun that first graders simply wouldn’t be able to put them down.
20th century philosophers and child psychologists were up next, proving influential in kidlit with their strong child development-centered opinions and ideologies.
- Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon was born out of a desire to create confident, “self-starting” children, as opposed to mere creatures of conformism.
- Edward Steichen believed that children were “little empiricists,” and his boldly-titled The First Picture Book was inspired by a visit to the classroom of his two-year-old daughter (Mary; actually credited on the book as his co-author). Steichen maintained that young children lived primarily “in the world of their immediate surroundings” and that their books should reflect such worlds.
- Margaret Wise Brown, a child-development student at Bank Street, sought to evoke “safe places” in her work, being mindful of a child’s need for comfort. (Here I am inside her Goodnight Moon. Feeling very comfy I might add!)
I saw books that paved the way for today’s more playful authors and illustrators (such as Mo Willems and Herve Tullet), with stories designed to encourage interactivity between pages and readers.
- Margaret Wise Brown’s game-like narrative style in The Noisy Book invited call-and-response fun—reflecting her belief that children should be fully involved in their own learning and play.
It must be said, Marcus outdid himself with the architectural and technological designs he so playfully orchestrated throughout the exhibit.
- In the Alice in Wonderland room, there’s a tiny doorway through which I spied full-sized adults crawling with delight. And an Alice whose head independently and repeatedly cranked up to the ceiling before retracting back down to its original position.
- There’s a Where the Wild Things Are-inspired, fur-lined wall, to be felt and/or passed through.
- A tablet secured to a wall offers the chance to create one’s own fairytale, Mad Libs-style.
- A copy of Charlotte’s Web is actually trapped within a web on another wall.
- Gift books, such as this original Little Golden Book, are encased in giant, ribboned boxes.
- Inside another case you can see up close and personal the original Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals, and a photograph of an intimate moment between author A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin, for whom the WtP stories were written.
- In a section devoted entirely to the kinds of books kids read on their own volition (and often in privacy), a display case has been fashioned out of a bed turned on its side, beneath which lights turn hurriedly on and off—suggesting secrecy during dark, nighttime reading.
Towards the end of the exhibit is a tiny, dark room devoted to historically-censored kidlit titles—the kinds of books which affronted society at the time of their releases—all accompanied by examples of the critical outrage with which they were met.
- Of Pippi Longstocking, in 1946, educator John Landquist actually asserted “No normal child will eat an entire cake at a tea party or go barefoot on granulated sugar…The two actions suggest a deranged fantasy or a delusional personality. If these thick-headed antics have any influence over young readers, it would be to coax into consciousness these tendencies to embrace crazy ideas and the misdirected obsessions which lie dormant in most.”
- Huckleberry Finn was described as “the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written” in Virginia in 1985!
- Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was claimed to have been “built around two themes: sex and anti-Christian behavior.” To get their hands on this book, most kids had to buy it with their own money. Which, as evidenced in its best-selling status, they clearly did. (I also learned that Judy Blume actually had more of her books banned than any other American author.)
It makes sense that just around the corner from the censored room is a section devoted to comic books (and accompanying action figures)—more of the kind of reading kids have historically paid out of their own pockets in order to experience, and which might not have not been as easily facilitated by parents as other genres.
The last few rooms of the exhibit explore still a few more ways in which children’s books have shaped our world (or been shaped by our world).
Wildly successful children’s books such as Mary Poppins, which went on to become both a movie and broadway hit, and Harry Potter, have their own special alcove.
In this area, one can listen to the scene in which Mary sings ‘Just a Spoonful of Sugar’ on audio, as well as delight in an original Mary Poppins doll and umbrella.
Another audio station offers the chance to listen to kidlit master Eric Carle, long championed for the artistry of his work.
Which segues beautifully into the final area of the exhibit. Here, Marcus contends that the future of kidlit lies in its maturation. “Experimentation with media, formatting, typography, paper, and a highly-distilled approach to writing” (such as evidenced in the works of Carle, as well as other featured, innovative masters including Bruno Munari, Randolph Caldecott, David Eisen, and Dieter Roth) will give birth to the kinds of books able to hold their own against the advancement of digital reading.
One of the last books I laid my eyes on was Shaun Tan’s The Arrival—a book that took four years to create and whose sophisticated aesthetic is a perfect reflection of kidlit taste today.
Back on the subway, it wasn’t lost on me how appropriate it was that the guy standing right next to me was reading a graphic novel himself.
So why do children’s books matter? Because they reflect our world. Then, now, and later. Because we still need them. Not just children. But adults. And because, fortunately, they’re all around us.
And that’s my XYZ.