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.

Relat­ed Content:

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.