It is a truth universally acknowledged that when you have easy access to amazing things the relative value you place upon those things diminishes significantly after a surprisingly short amount of time. Case in Point: When I worked across the street from the MOMA for several years it was apparently too difficult for me, even with a discounted pass, to actually cross the street to see what people were flying in from around the world to experience. Another very similar case would be when I worked in the main branch of New York Public Library (a.k.a. big ole stoney lions out front). While my current office is no longer in that location, when I worked there it was surprising how often I might fail to be impressed by the sheer scale of the place. The marble. The gilt. The stonework. The exhibits too, to a certain extent.
Nonetheless, even in my jaded state I always made a point to look at every exhibit NYPL put on. Some were about maps. Some were about food. And while I might not have a real interest in cartography or anything but a sustenance-based approach to edibles, I appreciated the exhibits. So maybe it’s the topic itself that makes me say this, but having come from seeing NYPL’s latest exhibit The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter as curated by Leonard Marcus, there is no doubt in my mind that this is the best presentation I have ever seen NYPL commit to. Bar none.
You may have already read the Publishers Weekly encapsulation of the exhibit or even the New York Times and their take. Even Flavorwire has gotten in on the act. For my part, I attended the exhibit on the first day in tandem with a nice little group of children’s literary enthusiasts. Monica Edinger, in fact, has already written up her take from that day in After Seeing The ABC of It where you can see a photograph of me looking jaunty/smirky (it could go either way).
But let’s give you a sense of the space. I’ll use my foggy camera phone pictures when possible. Maybe it’s best that they don’t do the thing justice. These will just have to act as a lure more than anything else.
You walk in and Leonard begins with the earliest history of American children’s literature. To help highlight this process you are confronted with a replica of pages from various books of the time period.
Within the cut-outs you can see the earliest books and read them yourself. In fact the whole exhibit places various treasures of the collection against fantastic backdrops and well-designed spaces. It’s a thrill to walk through since no two rooms ever feel quite the same, and yet there’s something thematic that ties the whole exhibit together.
But wait, you say. That sounds like something an adult might enjoy, but if this is a whole exhibit about children’s literature, where are the kid-friendly elements? Well, let me try to rack ‘em up for you. First off, NYPL went and bought a load of new children’s books (I’d love to know why they chose what they did but that’s neither here nor there) for a room where kids can just sit down and read them. The room itself may look a bit familiar to you…
There are copious videos to watch throughout the exhibit, including some talks by Eric Carle. Some are of the Disney version of Mary Poppins and compare it to the book. But there are also chances to hear nursery rhymes or books read aloud, sometimes by the authors themselves. Care to hear E.B. White read the first chapter of Charlotte’s Web? It’s an option.
Or you might like to ride in a replica of Milo’s car from Phantom Tollbooth. Or pet the furry Wild Things doorway that looks like a monster burst through. That’s fun.
Then there are the hidden details that only a kid might notice. The topiary that makes up The Secret Garden section has little hard to see pockets where copies of the original book are secreted away for readers. Then there are the comic books found on shelves beneath the comics on display. Keep your eyes at kid-level as well. Otherwise you might miss this tribute at the base of The Wizard of Oz wall.
For the adults there’s plenty to amuse as well. The Banned Books room is sufficiently terrifying. Imagine this stack of books reaching from the floor to a ceiling that’s easily at least 12 feet tall. It’s an alcove that’s easy to miss but necessary if you’re gonna do this exhibit right.
Michael Patrick Hearn was in attendance with my crew and more than once you could hear him say “Anne Carroll Moore would have hated this. Anne Carroll Moore would have hated that.” He was referring to the Goodnight Moon room, the Little Golden Books display, and the Stratemeyer Syndicate wall, which is a lot of fun if you’re a Nancy Drew fan.
As for the man of the hour, Leonard Marcus himself, the exhibit does him proud. Both he and the NYPL designers have done a stand up and cheer job. Something that everyone everywhere can enjoy on some level. The exhibit is free and running until March 23rd, so there is plenty of time for you to stop on by and check it out.