New York Public Library exhibit of children's literature tickles readers' hearts


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NEW YORK CITY -- Winnie-the-Pooh is enjoying a star turn at the New York Public Library.

He's one of the many remarkable touches presented in "The ABC Of It: Why Children's Books Matter" at the New York Public Library's iconic main branch on Fifth Avenue.

Here in a glass case is the "original" Winnie, his beige fur worn by years of hugs. Pooh is accompanied by Tigger, Roo and Piglet, as well as a 1926 photograph featuring the "tubby little buddy all stuffed with fluff" perched beside author A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin.

On a recent summer afternoon, the free, climate-controlled exhibit -- just walk up the stairs, through the lions and straight back to the special exhibits hall -- provided a wonderfully rich stroll through the history of the books we grew up reading and loving.

There was history: a presentation copy of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" presented to its muse, Alice Liddell, the parrot-head umbrella belonging to "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers. And there was whimsy: original artwork for "Andy and the Lion," which was inspired by the NYPL giant felines, Patience and Fortitude.

"Adults often have personal favorites among children's books," said Leonard S. Marcus, who curated the exhibit. "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."

It's designed to appeal to a variety of patrons. Bright, big visuals such as a display in which Carroll's Alice cranks her head up, up, up toward the ceiling and a big, furry wall with a cutout of one of the "Where the Wild Things Are" creatures dominate one area.

The wee ones are invited to touch and explore, and the computerized tablets mounted throughout are stationed at both kid and adult levels.

"As with the other exhibitions at NYPL, I enjoy the reactions of visitors: gasps of delight at the original stuffed animals for the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, nostalgic groans for "Fun With Dick and Jane," frowns of disapproval for censorship of "Huckleberry Finn" and other books," said Margaret Kable, a docent who led a group through a 50-minute presentation of the exhibit.

One of the first stops on the tour was a reminder that for the Puritans, children's literature was hardly fun and games.

The earliest known copy of the 1727 "New-England Primer" is on display, its text faded but neat. The assumption that children are born sinful is driven home in verse such as "In Adam's Fall, We Sinned All."

William Blake's "Songs of Innocence," a self-printed text he hand-colored with the help of his wife, Catherine, contradicts the Puritans and maintains that children are pure in spirit.

A book of nursery rhymes owned by Nathaniel Hawthorne is charmingly edited by his wife, Sophia. In the margin of one page, Sophia Hawthorne wrote "Not to be read to Una," a reference to their first-born child.

Early books were not amusements. They were often treasured gifts, or rewards. They could foster national identity -- a Civil War reader for children of the Confederate states uses "V" for victory -- and cultural pride, evidenced with an issue of "The Brownies' Book," a monthly magazine for African-American children published in the 1920s by NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois.

Pura Belpre, the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City, was an advocate for Spanish-speaking children and performed "Perez y Martina," a popular puppet show. Three of her "cast" members are part of the NYPL exhibition.

One of the most intriguing sections involves censorship. Here are copies of "The Diary of Anne Frank," "Pippi Longstocking," "Huckleberry Finn" and "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret."

There's even a cute children's book about the marriage of two little bunnies, Garth Williams' 1958 "The Rabbits' Wedding." The fact that one bunny has white fur, and other black got the book yanked from the shelves of libraries in Alabama.

The treasures of this exhibit are many, including original watercolors from "Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm" illustrator Arthur Rackham, original works and letters by Beatrix Potter, a tribute to classic comic books we all read when we believed our parents weren't looking, collages from African folklore author Ashley Bryan and books by Randolph Caldecott.

There's fascinating history as well. Who knew the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books were part of an assembly line syndicate run by a man named Edward Stratemeyer? Or that "The Pokey Little Puppy" is possibly the best-selling children's book of all time?

In fact, those "Little Golden Books" were highly influential. Launching in 1942 and costing 25 cents apiece, they were sturdily made volumes that almost anyone could afford: "One of the first cheap gift books," said Mrs. Kable, the docent.

Of course, the exhibition must include a tribute to books set in New York City, including "The House of East 88th Street" (remember Lyle, Lyle, the crocodile?) and "Eloise at the Plaza."

"The ABC Of It: Why Children's Books Matter" is scheduled to run through March 23 at the library's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street. Admission is free. For hours, see the NYPL site at www.nypl.org.

books - travel

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG. First Published September 1, 2013 4:00 AM


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