Children’s Literature: The Joy in the “ABCs of It”

October 1, 2013 — 1 Comment

Banned Book Week is held annually during the last week of September in order to bring attention to the controversial practice of banning books, but an exhibit at the New York Public Library is proclaiming the same message through March 24, 2014. The exhibit “The ABCs of It: Why Children’s Books Matter”  celebrates the development of children’s literature in picture books, in chapter books, and in young adult literature.

The exhibit which opened on June 24th, is curated by Leonard S. Marcus who has also curated exhibitions at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Massachusetts, where he is also a founding trustee. This comprehensive exhibit is a must see and does not shy away from controversies in providing…

an examination of why children’s books are important: what and how they teach children, and what they reveal about the societies that produced them. Through a dynamic array of objects and activities, the exhibition celebrates the extraordinary richness, artistry, and diversity of children’s literature across cultures and time.

The differences in opinion on the role of children’s literature are raised at the exhibit’s entrance. Should children’s literature be foremost a means to deliver lessons of morality? (as Cotton Mather urged the Bible on young Puritans) Should children’s literature “delight and entertain”? (as John Locke believed with Aesop’s fables) Or should children’s literature tell the bare truth, not tales that “cover truth with a veil”? (Jean-Jacques Rousseau). From fairy tales to the Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games Trilogy, the controversy rages on, and the exhibit presents them all.

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A life-size set of “Goodnight, Moon” at the New York Public Library

There are tributes to William Blake’s poetry, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and a original copy of Janette Sebring Lowrey’s The Pokey Little Puppy. One large panel features the rhyming words (Sam I am & green eggs and ham) of Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss). Along another long wall are the serial contributions of publisher Edward Stratemeyer: Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Nancy Drew. There is a tribute to comic books complete with silhouettes of Marvel and DC heroes, and tribute to books successfully made into films. A glass case holds the original Pooh, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, and Tigger from A.A Milne’s 100 Acre Woods; Eric Carle’s colorful panels (Brown Bear, Brown Bear and others) glow brightly in the cases. Pictures of the exhibit are on the New York Public Library’s Facebook Page and the NYTimes slide show review.

There is a wall that bears the distinctive outline of one of Maurice Sendak’s “Wild Things” around the corner from a life-size set of Margaret Wise Brown’s Good Night, Moon, waiting for the quiet old lady to whisper “hush”. You can listen to E.B. White read the last chapter of Charlotte’s Web, and try not to sob when hearing him say the line, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

The exhibit also points out the role of children’s literature in politics or in nation building.  On one wall of the exhibit, there is a sculpted relief of the world surrounded by three quotes; each quote makes an important point about the significance of children’s literature. The first quote is by Noah Webster from an essay titled “On the Education of Youth in America,” American Magazine, New York, December 1787:

“The Education of youth is, in all governments, an object of the first consequence. The impressions received in early life usually form the character of individuals, a union of which forms the general character of a nation.”

Political writer, author, and developer of the dictionary, Webster was an early advocate for education as key to America’s growth and development.  The next quote, however, gives the viewer pause…and a few chills:

“Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.”
Interview with H. G. Wells -September 1937- said by Joseph Stalin

Similarly, the last quote does demonstrate how in astute political hands, children’s literature can be a powerful propaganda tool:

“Rise up children and learn to be free independent children of China, learn how to wrest this freedom from the yoke of Japanese imperialism, and transform yourself into masters of a new era.”
Mao Zedong from the Journal Children of the Border Areas- 1938

These voices provide a serious reminder that children’s literature is more than board books, rhymes, and fairy tales. There are powerful messages in these stories; some so powerful that they have banned. For example, there is Munro Leaf’s story of the peace loving Ferdinand, the Bull which “caused an international controversy” when it was first published; banned in Spain the book was burned in Nazi Germany. Exposing those horrors of the Holocaust is a copy of Art Spiegelman’s breakthrough graphic novel Maus.

Marcus’s exhibit presents the questions and controversies about children’s literature, but does not provide answers. The exhibit has examples of how this genre of literature can contain both powerful political tools and playful trivial entertainment. There is no answer to the exhibit’s opening questions as to whether children’s literature is a means to educate, a means to enforce a moral code, or a source of joy. On seeing the stories of childhood so beautifully arranged, I opt for joy.

At the end, a large screen posts a continuing stream of Jeopardy-styled quiz questions in an interactive, and serious time-killing, activity.
I stood answering questions (“curiouser and curiouser= Cheshire Cat” or “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile= The House on 88th Street“) for some time before a young boy noted, “Hey, you’re pretty good at this..”

“Thanks,” I said, “I really like these books.”

“So do I,” he responded before leaving.

Thanks for making that moment possible, New York Public Library.

Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Gottesman Exhibition Hall (Map and directions)

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Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Illustrator Leonard Weisgard Triangulated with Geography, Technology, and Text Complexity « Used Books in Class - May 24, 2015

    […] Marcus is an author himself including: Show Me a Story!; Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children’s Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became an American Icon Along the Way). He was the curator of the New York Public Library 2014 exhibit, “The A,B,C of It: Why Children’s Books Matter” (which I wrote about in a post here). […]

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