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The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter

During a recent weekend in New York City I had some time between brunch and a Broadway show. I was able to spend a leisurely few hours exploring The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter (curated by kidlit historian and frequent Horn Book contributor Leonard Marcus), an engaging exhibit at the New York Public Library.

The exhibit is a winding journey of children’s literature that follows its history from early readers such as Dick and Jane to the phenomenon of Harry Potter. As I wandered through the exhibit, the books on display led me down the memory lane of my childhood favorites. On one wall was Charlotte’s spider web, complete with her written words aptly describing Wilbur. An interactive component consisted of the author E.B. White reading aloud chapters from his classic novel, Charlotte’s Web. As I listened I was instantly transported back to my youth. Around the corner I found the original stuffed animals of A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the Pooh looking very worn and loved in a glass case.

winnie-the-pooh characters

from left: the original Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga, Piglet, and Pooh stuffed animals

Each turn I took throughout the exhibit brought me to another special book that had been meaningful in my childhood. I next encountered my all-time favorite character, Mary Poppins. It is well known that P.L. Travers was very protective of her beloved Mary Poppins and was less than thrilled with Disney’s musical version. While the magical nanny in the book is somewhat more bitter than in the “spoonful of sugar” movie, Julie Andrews will always be my vision of the character. P.L Travers’ own parrot head umbrella is on display next to a Mary Poppins doll. The interactive exhibit also includes video of a musical number from the movie.

A theme found throughout the exhibit is how the history of children’s books parallels the evolution of thinking on child development. As you go through the exhibit you find the works of such children’s literature icons as Margaret Wise Brown, Eric Carle, and Maurice Sendak.

great green room

the great green room of Goodnight, Moon

The books of these authors/illustrators speak to various aspects of children’s development. Society’s understanding of how children grow and learn is reflected in the stories created for them. “Behind every children’s book,” we read on the exhibit wall, “is a vision of childhood: a shared understanding of what growing up is all about.”

songs of innocence

illustrations from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence

The books in the exhibit reflect not only childhood, but also the times in which the books were written. One fascinating fact that I was not aware of: the book The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf was considered by some as political propaganda when it was published in 1936. I have always thought of it as a sweet story of a bull that didn’t want to fight — I had no knowledge of the controversy that originally surrounded it. Of particular interest to me was the section of the exhibit dedicated to censored books throughout the years, ranging from such popular titles as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to Judy Blume’s Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. The topic of censorship remains crucial as current books such as Harry Potter as well as perennial titles continue to be questioned and censored.

The exhibit, which closed on September 7th, offered a thoughtful tour of both children’s literature and societal conceptions of childhood.

About Jill Leibowitz

Jill Leibowitz is an editorial intern at The Horn Book.

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Comments

  1. Katie Bircher Katie Bircher says:

    When I went, I saw a middle-aged woman in tears. She said she had just listened to E.B. White reading the end of Charlotte’s Web and it “still makes [her] cry after all these years.”

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