The New York Public Library explores children’s literature and its crucial role in educating and entertaining readers of all ages, and shaping and chronicling society and culture, in its new free exhibition, The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter. The exhibition will run from June 21, 2013 until March 23, 2014 at the Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.
Curated by noted children’s book expert Leonard S. Marcus, The ABC of It features nearly 250 items from across the Library’s vast collections. Original artwork, correspondence, and recordings accompany books from significant authors from the 1600s to the modern day.
This landmark exhibition presents children’s literature in the larger context of the arts, popular culture, and social history. It highlights the distinctive visions of childhood of the Puritans, Romantics, progressive educators, and others and how each inspired a new kind of book for the young. It explores the key ways in which children historically have acquired their books: as gifts, at the public library, and, as with comic books, in secret — when grownups were not looking.
It provides a meaningful new context for many of the New York Public Library’s treasures: the copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that belonged to Alice Liddell, the child for whom Lewis Carroll wrote it; a rare 1666 illustrated children’s edition of Aesop’s fables that survived the Great Fire of London; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s family copy of Mother Goose, with annotations stating some passages were too scary to read to their children; the manuscript of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden; Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers’s parrot-head umbrella; recordings of E.B. White reading excerpts of Charlotte’s Web; and the original Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animals; among others.
“Children’s books are our gateways to a lifelong love of literature and art,” said Leonard Marcus. “They give us the heroes we need just when we need them most: at the start of our quest to discover who and what we are. Viewed historically, children's books give us the record of each generation's hopes and dreams. If you want to know what any literate society cares about, you have only to look at the books it has given its children and teens.”
“Children’s literature has long captured the minds, imagination, and hearts of young people, sparking a love of reading and books that lasts a lifetime,” said NYPL President Tony Marx. “The stories we read as children have shaped our perception of the world we live in and the Library’s new exhibition, The ABC of It, honors the significant impact of our childhood books. We’re also proud to continue the time-honored pursuit of reading and knowledge through a myriad of free programs, classes, materials and other offerings that promote a love of reading in the children and teens who visit our branches, who will go on to write the next chapter in the history of children’s literature.”
The exhibition follows a highly accessible, thematic approach aimed at stimulating visitors’ curiosity and prompting memories of their own favorite books. Major themes explored include: the centuries’-old debate about what children’s books are best; the artistry behind the first and seemingly simplest of all books — children’s picture books; and the impact of children’s books on the worlds of theater, film, and popular culture.
To illustrate the debate between competing visions of childhood, the exhibition begins by pitting the earliest known copy of the Puritans’ highly influential New-England Primer, which asserts that children are born sinful, against William Blake’s hand-colored Songs of Innocence, which celebrates children’s spiritual purity. Visitors can compare the dueling verses and illustrations to determine just how much the philosophy of a society’s adults influences the messages its children receive.
In a section focusing on children’s books as tools for building national identity, The ABC Of It offers a wide array of compelling examples from around the world: graphically adventurous avant-garde picture books from Bolshevik Russia; a Civil War-era patriotic reader published for children of the Confederate States (which uses the word “victory” as an example under the letter “v”); a Noah Webster speller aimed at teaching a uniquely American English to the schoolchildren of the newly formed United States; the manuscript of James Stephens’s Irish Fairy Tales, meant to help preserve Irish cultural tradition and lore in a time of English colonial rule; Japanese comic books meant to teach children English during the post-war Allied Occupation; a fascinating recent picture book from post-colonial Francophone Africa.
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