By Edward Rothstein – June
The great green room and the purple crayon are here; so are the wild things and the poky puppy, Charlotte’s web and Alice’s wonderland, the very hungry caterpillar and the stinky cheese man. It is a reunion of creatures, characters and creations, gathered from memories of childhood and parenthood, and celebrated in “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter,” a remarkably rich new exhibition at the New York Public Library.
But along with these familiars of bedtime rituals are also more exotic offerings, like “Chao yang hua duo” (“Morning Sunflower”), a 1973 Chinese book hailing a model child during the Cultural Revolution; and more severe offerings, like an 1826 edition of Grimms’ tales, the cruelty of which was defended by one of the Brothers Grimm: “Everything that is natural is wholesome.”
This exhibition, opening Friday, gives us high-toned tracts (a first edition of John Locke’s “Some Thoughts Concerning Education”) along with popular attractions (early issues of Superman and Mad magazine). We see the achievements of Edward Stratemeyer, who created a literary assembly line to churn out the adventures of the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Nancy Drew and a slew of others. And we see a 1921 issue of “The Brownies’ Book,” a short-lived monthly magazine started by W. E. B. Du Bois for black children in a time of exclusion.
The show’s nearly 250 books and artifacts are so intelligently woven together by the curator, Leonard S. Marcus, that you make your way through them with a mixture of eager pleasure and focused attentiveness. Even unaccompanied by a child, you can pluck books from the shelves to read in certain galleries. And when you use a mounted iPad to create a fairy tale or to sample Hans Christian Andersen, you realize that you are using a technology that may already be displacing these hallowed artifacts.
Occasionally the narrative structure is jumbled by the vibrant displays and weaving floor plan in the first-floor galleries at the library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, and sometimes sections feel too compressed, though it hardly matters. By the end you don’t wonder why children’s books matter but how other books can even come close.
What is the source of this power? Why is children’s literature worth considering as a separate genre? In some respects, distinctions are artificial. At the beginning, we read W. H. Auden’s comment, “There are no good books only for children.” The exhibition argues, though, that “books for young people have stories to tell us about ourselves.”
“Behind every children’s book,” we read, “is a vision of childhood: a shared understanding of what growing up is all about.”
The first artifact here, for example, is a 1727 edition of “The New-England Primer” — “the oldest known copy of the most influential American children’s book of the 18th and early 19th centuries.” It dispenses moral lessons as a prelude to reading the Bible. It is open to an ABC beginning with A for Adam: “In Adam’s Fall/We Sinned all.” B is for Bible: “Thy Life to Mend/This Book attend.”
That vision of childhood could not be more different from one evoked by a selection of poems from William Blake’s 1789 “Songs of Innocence,” accompanied by his exquisite watercolors; here innocence is more valued than learning and offers far more joy. Rousseau went even further in his celebration of the “natural child”: “Reading is the scourge of childhood,” he proclaimed, and should be shunned.
That Romantic vision later became dominant in children’s books (and is responsible, even today, for pastoral cribs filled with stuffed animals). Mr. Marcus sees it also in E. B. White, whose narration of “Charlotte’s Web” can be sampled here. In that book, 7-year-old Fern really is closer to the natural world than her elders. She readily comprehends farm animals while adults can only narrowly focus on the spider’s web writing.
This historical survey of children’s books is only the first part of the exhibition, but it is finely wrought, offering extraordinary examples. And along the way, detours are taken through subsidiary themes: books reflecting the development of national identity in occupied Japan after the Second World War and in Revolutionary Russia in the 1920s; other books written for particular social classes in 19th-century England.
Another important view of the child is explored in a gallery that resembles the great green room of Margaret Wise Brown’s 1947 “Goodnight Moon” — one of the most supple and evocative children’s books of the last century. One wall displays that book linked to several others with arrows, showing the influence of the “progressive” idea of the child in the decades after 1900, with a central role played by the Bank Street School in New York.
A book by the school’s founder, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, “Here and Now Stories,” proposed that instead of fairy tales, children should read about the “here and now” — the real world in which they are collaborators. Lines on the wall connect this book with Crockett Johnson’s “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” in which such a world comes into being out of a child’s playful scrawling. And Brown, a student of Mitchell’s, shows the child taking leave of that world at bedtime by addressing surrounding objects.
We are heirs both to this progressive understanding of the child and to the Romantic vision. They are not always compatible. In the first case, the child is seen as a potential adult, not playing with childish things for their own sake but growing through exploration. In some ways, the progressive view resembles the earlier Puritancial moral vision: it is meant to create citizens with particular perspectives. It is practical. Play has a purpose.
The Romantic vision, on the other hand, celebrates the purposelessness of play along with the innate gifts of the child. Fantasy allows the child to master the mundane, like Max’s taming of the monsters in Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” This view tended to be shared by many of the librarians who first specialized in children’s books at the beginning of the 20th century, notably Anne Carroll Moore at the New York Public Library, who “hosted story hours, exhibited illustrators’ artwork, purchased foreign-language children’s books, and hired a multiracial, multilingual staff,” exercising international influence, as the wall text notes.
Boundaries between the two views are not always so clear, and often shift. But the ideas that a children’s book has an obligation to train the reader in proper moral and political attitudes and that the book should begin with what the child knows in the “here and now” may be more powerful today than ever before. Those ideas might lie behind hyper-realistic fiction (and the controversies once inspired by, say, Judy Blume). They might even influence the ways in which identity politics have affected taste in children’s books.
The Romantic vision also retains its influence, as we see in the case of Mary Poppins, who is the subject of a large display here. A scene from the 1964 Disney movie “Mary Poppins” (“A Spoon Full of Sugar”) shows just how treacly a Romantic vision was being imposed on the P. L. Travers character. In the film, Mary Poppins teaches the children how to be more like children: any job can be fun if you douse it in sugar. And their parents learn that authority itself should bow to that kinder aesthetic; even bank presidents should fly kites.
The recent Broadway musical went even further in these liberatory lessons: everyone should be having fun while helping everyone else. The result was a weird combination of progressive homily and Romantic sentimentality.
But the power of the Mary Poppins books is elsewhere and suggests the value of a hybrid vision. Mary Poppins can be a stern moralist, a hectoring heir to the Puritans, a caricature of the overbearing adult with no patience for fantasy. Yet she also works almost childlike magic, bending space and time, amused by playful possibilities.
What the children learn is that these worlds coexist, that there is a way to retain some aspect of childhood in the midst of adult responsibility. The Romantic child and the progressive child join forces.
This balance, difficult to achieve, also connects to the way many children’s books attain their power: they are read aloud by parents to children. And if I can complain about one aspect of this fine exhibition, it would be that despite its plenty, this factor is omitted. The relationship between the adult and the child is part of the reading experience; in many cases, it is echoed and toyed with inside the books themselves.
Children’s books dwell on the border of two realms: They reflect both the world of authority and the world of play, with both adults and children displaying understandings, jealousies and confusions. The books present, that is, what the exhibition claimed at the very start: “a shared understanding of what growing up is all about.”