"The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter" at the New York Public Library

When I visited The New York Public Library last winter in order to learn more about their research collections, I didn’t expect the Children’s Center to make such a profound impact on me. Seeing Christopher Robin Milne’s time-worn and well-loved stuffed animals of Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga and Tigger made me nostalgic for the objects and stories that I held dear as a child.

That’s why one of the current exhibitions at the NYPL caught my eye. “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter,” which is on view until Sunday, March 23, 2014, offers more than a trip down memory lane. While many of the objects on view were created for children, the exhibition places children’s books in a larger discourse about art, history, literature, popular culture, and societal trends. It also examines a variety of views about childhood fitting into diverse frameworks, from nationalist to Romantic. The historical and cultural context serves as a counter-balance to the largely personal connections that we form with the literature we read growing up, had read to us, and read to our children.

The exhibition unites almost 250 books from across the library’s collections. It spans half a millennium and includes books from around the globe. Pop-culture favorites like Superman mingle with illustrated pages from William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence.”

Pooh and friends at the New York Public Library.  Photo courtesy of (Wally Gobetz, Flicker CC)
Pooh and friends at the New York Public Library. Photo courtesy of (Wally Gobetz, Flicker CC)

Some icons of children’s literature loom large in American consciousness. The 2009 cinematic adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and the communal sadness that surrounded Sendak’s passing in 2012, demonstrate our attachment to these figures. Nevertheless, curator Leonard S. Marcus is clearly responding to a more common tendency to hold children’s literature and illustrations outside of the bounds of fine art and writing. And he is the right person for the job: as a historian and critic of children’s books, Marcus is deeply engaged with the world of children’s literature.

Marcus challenges the viewer to rethink the dichotomy between fine and popular art. In the exhibition, fine art prints find their place alongside mass-produced illustrations. The pairing challenges the viewer to consider illustrations for children’s books within a larger artistic milieu. A section on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings for and about children serves a similar purpose for the literary accomplishments of children’s books.

The exhibition provides simultaneous experiences of immersion and critical distance. A gallery modeled after the child’s bedroom in Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, expertly embodies both modes. The imaginary space jumps off of the page and onto the wall. The two-dimensional quality of Clement Hurd’s illustrations for the book is still present in this representation, but a leg of the yellow night table juts out into real space, and the window that looks out to the nighttime sky here opens up to another gallery. Designated spaces in the exhibition allow visitors to pull books off of the shelf to read, again reinforcing the dialectical nature of partaking in and analyzing the culture of children’s literature.


My blog posts usually address some facet of the overlap between academia and the public humanities. As such, I rarely have the chance to write about children. I wanted to write about the NYPL exhibition as a corrective to that tendency, but also because I thought it might be provocative to think about this exhibition within the context of my previous posts. Most exhibitions I consider are aimed at adults. I would consider an exhibition that found a way to engage children a success. At the NYPL, Marcus found a way to reverse this paradigm. The subject matter probably appeals first and foremost to children. Nevertheless, the exhibition engages adults along the way and actually teaches them something about themselves. Marcus weaves a master narrative that is humbling. As Edward Rothstein wrote in his review of the exhibition in the NY Times, “By the end you don’t wonder why children’s books matter but how other books can even come close.”

The NYPL exhibition represents just one approach to engaging children in public humanities projects. A recent exhibition at The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University was curated by children, in collaboration with graduate students from the Public Humanities department. “Toys: Curated by Small Hands,” looks at children’s toys from around the world through the eyes of four-year-olds. In this remarkable project, children actually helped choose the objects to be exhibited, and their drawings and comments served as interpretative material for the exhibit. Other exhibitions solicit children’s work in order to come to terms with historical events. The 42st International Children’s Exhibition of Fine Arts Lidice 2014, for example, is currently soliciting artwork from children around the globe as part of an annual commemoration of children who have died in war, particularly victims of Nazi warfare from the Czech village of Lidice. Past themes have included Happiness (2006), the Universe (2010), Theatre – Puppet – Fairytale – Traditions and heritage of my country´s people (2013).

Historical inquiry often results in self-reflection, but I think there is something particularly powerful about integrating children and childhood into this pursuit. “The ABC of It” is an exciting model for ways that we can utilize collections of objects that might appeal to children in order to think critically about history and culture. In this way, we might achieve the best of both worlds.