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The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter

Thursday, March 13, 2014 | Permalink

by Michal Hoschander Malen

The New York Public Library has curated an outstanding new exhibit titled The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter. On display is a fascinating collection of resources spanning hun­dreds of years sure to make your eyes glow and your heart swell with memories if you were ever a book-loving child. From the earliest of primers to twenty-first century graphic novels, it’s a trip through Wonderland chock full of fact, philosophy, whimsy and art.

One section is devoted to the musings of philosophers as they debated whether children’s literature was helpful or harmful to young minds. Locke believed fantasy was wholesome and healthy; Rousseau that only unadulterated nature was a fit tool for educating the young. Later, debates between schools of education raged furiously and bitterly as to what kinds of books were damaging and which would elevate and educate—and, of course, which books should be eliminated altogether and hidden from the light of day. Censorship still rears its head in our day. The vigorous debates about who should be the gatekeepers and how the parameters should be chosen have changed with the years but they still exist and probably always will.

Wandering the paths of the exhibit is a trip through the history of reading for education and fun. We find Dick and Jane, Dr. Seuss, and the ogres and monsters of Arthur Rackham. We follow the line of Harold’s purple crayon into a Goodnight Moon corner and feel right at home (and maybe a bit sleepy) in the green room with the old lady and her bowl of mush. There’s a hole in the wall to crawl through if you want to follow the white rabbit into an area with sketches of Alice by Tenniel and a large model of Alice which grows and shrinks as a rapt audience watches. They haven’t forgotten Maurice Sendak, or Hans Christian Andersen, or E.B. White (there’s a hand-held speaker so you can hear White read aloud sections from Charlotte’s Web in his very own laid-back syrup of a voice.) We are reminded that Oz did not originate in the MGM version and that Mary Poppins did not originate with Disney. For a blast of color, we can turn to Eric Carle or Leo Lionni. For a three-dimensional representation of the world, elaborate pop-ups are impressively displayed. In addition to books displayed in cases, there are plenty of books to touch. There are covers to open, pages to turn and yes, lots and lots of electronic buttons to push.

Treasures include: poetry, limericks heard through a gramophone-style horn, Little Golden Books, Beatrix Potter, folklore, series upon series, a hand painted watercolor illus­trating a poem by Blake, educational material about author John Newbery and illustrator Randolph Caldecott, who are remembered in the names of the two most prestigious chil­dren’s literature awards of today, classic comics and the superhero figurines they spawned, and many, many more.

The development of the children’s room in public libraries is addressed and we see how it became a welcoming place for all children and an especially important ingredient in the edu­cation of the poor who lacked other, private resources and in the socialization and absorp­tion of new immigrants, especially in a gateway city like New York. Quotes by well-known authors are featured highlighting the impor­tance of libraries in the early years of their lives. Children from all parts of the world and from all backgrounds were able to feel at home in the library. Included in the display of foreign language books is a beautifully illustrated alef-bet poetry book by well-known Israeli author Levin Kipnis and included in the display of books about children from all backgrounds is the first volume of Sydney Taylor’s All-Of-A-Kind Family series, the classic story of a Jewish family growing up on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s. The author’s name has now been given to a prestigious award for outstanding Jewish children’s literature.

The exhibit is a joy to visit! It is both informa­tive and entertaining and, if in New York and logistics permit, should not be missed.

Michal Hoschander Malen is a librarian and editor of reference books. She is the editor of the children's and young adult section of Jewish Book World.

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