“It was like something out of a storybook.”
The phrase is commonly used to describe something quaint or charming, but the New York Public Library is taking it seriously.
The library’s new exhibit, called “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter” and put together by curator Leonard S. Marcus, explores children’s literature throughout history through a collection of nearly 250 books and artifacts. It’s also an argument for why the genre is valuable—and not just for its younger audience.
“For three centuries and more, books made especially with the young in mind have served as indispensible gateways to literature, art, and knowledge of the world,” writes Marcus in an introduction to the exhibit. “And if, as adults, we find that our own childhood favorites remain as thrilling or funny or heart-stoppingly beautiful as ever, we should not be surprised. As W. H. Auden wisely observed: ‘There are no good books which are only for children.’”
Notable artifacts in the exhibit include art from The Very Hungry Caterpillar and drawings by Maurice Sendak. One section features quotations from famous authors on going to the library when they were children. Another re-creates the entire green room from Goodnight Moon.
And then, of course, there are the books themselves.
Rothstein also explains how the exhibit uses children’s literature to examine childhood itself, and to compare different ideas throughout history as to how it should be defined.
For instance, not until the Romantic period was childhood seen as a time of simple happiness and intricate fantasies, in which children possessed a fundamental innocence that adults lacked. Rothstein cites poems from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, where “innocence is more valued than learning and offers far more joy.” One of these poems, titled “Infant Joy,” describes the delight of a two-day-old child.
Another part of the exhibit displays books that promote the “progressive” idea of childhood, which was prominent in the decades after 1900. For example, a book called Here and Now Stories argued that “instead of fairy tales, children should read about the ‘here and now'—the real world in which they are collaborators,” Rothstein explains.
And by the end of the exhibit, “you don’t wonder why children’s books matter but how other books can even come close.”
“The ABC of It” opened on June 21 and runs through March 23, 2014.
A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.