A Report from the Rabbit Hole

I went down a rabbit hole recently, and this is what I saw: a larger-than-life girl dressed in yellow striding down a railing toward me; an old Italian lady reaching for a book; a bear wearing a red, pointy hat; a man sitting under a tree with a stack of caps balanced on his head; a ring of tigers; and a dragon circling the sky above.

This was the Rabbit hOle, a new children’s literature museum in Kansas City, Missouri, and my new acquaintances were heroes of classic children’s books: Madeline, Strega Nona, the bear from Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, the peddler from Esphyr Slobodkina’s Caps for Sale, tigers from Sam and the Tigers by Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney, and the dragon from My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett. They were a few of my favorites from the forty or more lively and colorful dioramas devoted to children’s literature. It’s billed as an immersive museum, but it’s not like some immersive shows I’ve seen recently with barrages of multimedia projections; this is a 30,000 square foot space where you wander at your leisure.

Created in an old tin can factory over the last ten years by the former owners of the Reading Reptile bookstore, Pete Cowdin and Deb Pettid, the museum offers dioramas that invite guests in. These are not scenes behind glass, but mini-worlds to enter: Sal's kitchen from Blueberries for Sal, Anatole's mouse village near Paris, Frog and Toad's world. It's a bright and varied placed, and the best thing of all was what a good time all of the kids were having.

I guess it was loud, but loud like a playground, with a diverse crowd of children calling excitedly to each other or to parents. Kids, not needing too-close supervision, were crawling through tunnels, emerging from floor-level doors, sliding down a tube inside a boa constrictor (from Where the Sidewalk Ends), sliding down a fire pole, and talking on an old-fashioned phone. There was Good Dog, Carl and Harry the Dirty Dog.

And there were books everywhere: a mother reading Caps for Sale to her son under the tree with the peddler wearing his stack of caps, kids reading Anatole books and feeling as if they were in Paris with him, and there I was, standing in the Pérez and Martina house, reading Pura Belpré’s picture book with its gorgeous illustrations by Carlos Sánchez. And what book is Strega Nona reaching for? Strega Nona, of course!

After emerging from the rabbit hole, children and their parents were active in the excellent bookstore, too. Spaciously laid out, it contains all the titles from the dioramas, representing the diversity of children’s literature that Cowdin and Pettid were careful to include. I was thrilled to spot Ashley Bryan books, for example, as he was my friend and hero for many years. And books by Jerry Craft, who visited my school last September. I bought Rabbit hOle t-shirts for a friend and her four-year-old niece, along with a plush toy Madeline and a chubby Frederick from the Leo Lionni story. I bought myself a bumper sticker. (What a sport.)

My recent article for The Horn Book Magazine (March/April 2023) was titled “I Gave My Life to Books: A Journey Through the World of Children's Literature.” Though I have never met them, I felt a kindred spirit with Pete Cowdin and Deb Pettid, who clearly have spent their lives on a journey parallel to mine, a journey made tangible and beautiful in the Rabbit hOle.

Dean Schneider

Dean Schneider teaches eighth grade English at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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