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The New York Public Library Presents New Free Exhibition: ‘The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter’


Show features more than 200 items from the Library’s collections that help explore the history and impact of children’s literature 

JUNE 18 — 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.
In addition to rare treasures in the show, there are also copies of pivotal works that altered the history of children’s literature. For example, a copy of Little Golden Book’s The Poky Little Puppy, the best selling picture books of all time, represents Little Golden Books’ democratization of the publishing industry, creating picture books that the average person could afford (ironically, The New York Public Library originally refused to buy the books, because it considered them “cheap”). A galley copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone sent to American reviewers – complete with a letter predicting the book’s reception will be “magic” – represents children’s books that have transformed popular culture; the New York Times created a special children’s best-seller list after the success of the J. K. Rowling novels.
Books including Pippi Longstocking, Huckleberry Finn, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. are all part of a section about censorship, showing how children’s books are not always simple, innocent works, but can actually become lightning rods of controversy. A copy of A Wrinkle in Time in this section is inscribed by author Madeleine L’Engle to the Library’s central children’s room.
The exhibition was designed by renowned firm Pure+Applied, which also designed the Library’s acclaimed Lunch Hour NYC exhibition in 2012. The installation captures the imagination and creativity of children’s books, incorporating a “fur wall” in honor of Where the Wild Things Are, a “rabbit hole” that kids can walk through in honor of Alice in Wonderland, a wall of banned books, large replicas of paper cutouts that Hans Christian Andersen used to tell stories, and from The Phantom Tollbooth, the car and endpaper map depicting the journey of the book’s protagonist, Milo. Additionally, there are book nooks throughout the space to allow families to read in the gallery.
Among other items included in the exhibition are:
  • One of the original published sketchbooks of the famed Japanese graphic artist Hokusai—an important precursor of contemporary Japanese manga
  • A first edition of Enlightenment philosopher John Locke’s groundbreaking reflections on the nature of childhood, Some Thoughts Concerning Education
  • Behind-the-scenes documentation from the Stratemeyer Syndicate, whose factory-like operation produced Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and many other iconic series. A letter from Edward Stratemeyer to writer Mildred Wirt asks her to begin writing the Nancy Drew series, which she did under the pen name “Carolyn Keene.”
  • Tsunami, an exquisite, handmade 2011 picture book from India in the form of scroll that merges the contemporary picture book tradition with an ancient form of Indian folk art.
  • Original watercolors by influential artist Arthur Rackham, who illustrated Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, The Allies Fairy Book, and many other iconic works.
  • Iconic books by Randolph Caldecott, regarded as the progenitor of the picture book and namesake of the prestigious Caldecott Medal.
  • Original drawings on wood engraver’s blocks by great British caricaturist George Cruikshank, one of the first illustrators of children’s books in England.
  • An issue of The Brownies’ Book, the pioneering monthly magazine for African-American children published in the 1920s by N.A.A.C.P. founder W.E.B. Du Bois, featuring contributions by Langston Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance figures.
  • Original artwork for Andy and the Lion, inspired by NYPL’s lion statues, Patience and Fortitude.
  • Collages from Ashley Bryan, whose books have introduced generations of young readers to African folklore.
  • Original prints, photographs, and other art work by Beatrix Potter, Lewis Hine, Wanda Gág, Faith Ringgold, Eric Carle, Don Freeman, Hardie Gramatky, Hilary Knight, Ludwig Bemelmans, and others
  • Pérez, Martina, and Señor Rana puppets, three of the original cast members for Pérez y Martina performed by Pura Belpré, the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City and a pioneering writer and advocate on behalf of Spanish-speaking children.
  • Vintage comic books and contemporary graphic novels
  • Goodnight Moon and Harold and the Purple Crayon, two books that epitomize the progressive educators’ iconoclastic idea that young children prefer stories about the “here and now” world they know from experience tovague, “once upon a time” fairy tales.
  • Structurally innovative picture books embodying unique design elements impossible for e-books to emulate—and examples of digital picture books,such as Lisbeth Zwerger’s interpretation of Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, that feature subtle animation effects physical books cannot.
Adults often have personal favorites among children's books,” remarked Leonard Marcus.  “But they don't necessarily see any connection between those memorable stories and the books they were taught to prize as literature, or between the pictorial art found in children's books and the art they line up to admire at museums. This exhibition sets out to connect all those dots, and I think that for many visitors the show is going to be a revelation in this respect as well as great fun.”
Support for The New York Public Library’s Exhibitions Program has been provided by Celeste Bartos, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos and Adam Bartos Exhibitions Fund, and Jonathan Altman. Additional support for The ABC of It has been provided by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation, Inc., in memory of Ruth and Seymour Klein 
About The Curator
Leonard S. Marcus is one of the world’s leading authorities on children’s books and their illustration. He is the author of Minders of Make-Believe; Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom; Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon, The Wand in the Word; Golden Legacy; and Randolph Caldecott: The Man Who Could Not Stop Drawing. In addition, he is the editor of Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work. A frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, Mr. Marcus lectures throughout the world and is currently on the faculty of New York University and the School of Visual Arts.
About The New York Public Library
The New York Public Library is a free provider of education and information for the people of New York and beyond. With 91 locations—including research and branch libraries—throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, the Library offers free materials, computer access, classes, exhibitions, programming and more to everyone from toddlers to scholars, and has seen record numbers of attendance and circulation in recent years. The New York Public Library serves more than 18 million patrons who come through its doors annually and millions more around the globe who use its resources at To offer this wide array of free programming, The New York Public Library relies on both public and private funding. Learn more about how to support the Library at