Field Trippin’ at the New York Public Library

8 Aug

Like a lot of New Yorkers, I don’t take enough advantage of its numerous museums and cultural amenities, and I lay plenty of guilt trips on myself about it.  Confession, I work two minutes away from the Brooklyn Museum, and I haven’t been through its doors in two years.  Now that I have me this little blog, however, I can begin to rectify the situation by visiting exhibits about libraries and children’s books, and sharing what I see via these inter-whatsits.

I had the day off on Monday, so I hopped on the B Train and went here…

I'm not sure if that's Patience or Fortitude.

I don’t know if that’s Patience or Fortitude.

The Stephen A. Schwartzman Building of the New York Public Library (a.k.a. the one with the lions) is the site of a first-rate exhibit called, The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter, curated by children’s literature historian, Leonard S. Marcus.  Marcus has combed through the NYPL’s vast collection of artifacts and manuscripts, choosing 250 of them to depict the rich history of children’s books and their place in society, art, and ideas, both in the Western world and globally.  It is a visual treat– colorful, playful, and unconventional.  Moreover, there is loads to learn.  You’ll pick up interesting factual tidbits for sure, but you also get a wide-ranging appreciation of themes and beliefs on writing and illustrating for children, and how through their literature, the ways children have been perceived throughout history.  The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter runs through March, 2014.  If you plan to pass through NYC in the coming months, hail a cab or hoof it to 42nd St.  It will be time very well spent.

My recap below is somewhat jumbled-up and random.  For a more comprehensive overview of the exhibit, you may want to take a gander at these articles in The New York Times (includes a great slideshow), The Atlantic (which interviews Leonard S. Marcus), and School Library Journal.

First, the entrances to various parts of the exhibit are quite inventive:

There is a rabbit hole, which is about three feet high.

There is a rabbit hole, which is about three feet high.

Enter the great green room.  Telephone, check.  Red balloon, check.  Picture of cow jumping over the moon, check.

Enter the great green room. Telephone, check. Red balloon, check. Picture of cow jumping over the moon, check.

Wild Thing from the front.

Wild Thing from the front.

Wild Thing from the back.  That's groovy fake fur covering the wall.

Wild Thing from the back. That’s groovy fake fur covering the wall.

That’s as organized as this post gets.  What follows from this point on is a scattered collection of items and factoids that caught my eye:


  • This guy looks like a rollerblading robot, doesn’t he?  Or possibly an illustration by someone like Bob Staake or Dan Yaccarino?  He’s actually from a Russian picture book published in 1926 called, Topotun i knizhka (Topotun and the Book), by Il’ia Ionov and illustrated by M Tsekhanoveskii.


  • Fun Fact #1:  Noah Webster, of Webster’s Dictionary fame, is responsible for undoing the British spelling of words like favour and honour here in the United States.  His primers and educational readers for children pushed for an American vernacular, which he thought should include a more efficient, less fussy spelling.  Webster’s works were so widely used in schools throughout the growing U.S.A., that the new spellings eventually stuck.  Well, not all of them.  One of his ideas was to replace the spelling of ‘neighbour’ with ‘nabor’.
  • Below is a copy of a book called Nursery Rhymes of England that belonged to the family of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Mrs. Nat writes above a rhyme that starts ‘Come all ye brisk young bachelors’, an injunction, “Not to be read to Una [the Hawthornes’ daughter]”.  Having read the rhyme myself in Google Books, I like to think that she kept it from her daughter’s eyes, not because it was PG-13, but because she was insulted at its depiction of wives and women.
  • HawthorneFun Disturbing Fact #2:  Heinrich Hoffman wrote Struwwelpeter in 1845 for his three year old son because he couldn’t find anything in the bookstores he felt was entertaining enough for children.  Three years old!  Now I can appreciate a wry sense of humor as much as anyone, but this is nightmare-inducing stuff, even for the toughest and most stalwart of three-year-olds.  Witness the carnage for yourself in Project Gutenberg.   And envelope, consider yourself pushed.


  • The layout for the cover of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are seems to owe a lot to this piece, The Battle of the Birds, by early 20th-century illustrator Arthur Rackham.  Uncanny!
Exhibit A  Rackham.

Exhibit A: Rackham.

Exhibit B: Sendak

Exhibit B: Sendak

  • Fun Fact #3:   Edward Lear was number 20 of 22 children!  The hand-drawn copy of his Book of Nonsense in the exhibit is one of eight copies Lear made to give as gifts to his friends.  The page shown here is for this limerick:

There was a Young Lady whose nose,
Was so long that it reached to her toes;
So she hired an Old Lady,
Whose conduct was steady,
To carry that wonderful nose.

Edward Lear

Her nose IS wonderful.

  • Fun Fact #4:  It only took Munro Leaf one hour to write The Story of Ferdinand.  He joked that he was spending the rest of his life explaining what it meant.
  • Finally, a couple pictures of an umbrella owned by Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers.   The curatorial comment card next to it recounts how when Travers was growing up in Australia, she admired an umbrella owned by her family’s maid, and that her parents admonished her for it because they found umbrellas ‘common’.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Travers outfitted her stern, haughty, glorious heroine (who is household help, by the way), not just with any old umbrella, but one with magic and that can fly.

PL Travers

Look, the umbrella has a parrot head!

Look, Travers’ umbrella has a parrot head handle!

I probably could have included much, much more in this rundown, but these are the items that struck this exhibit-goer as particularly intriguing.  If you have visited The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter, what caught your eye?

Thanks for a great exhibit, NYPL!

~Catherine (reporting from the other side of the East River)


3 Responses to “Field Trippin’ at the New York Public Library”

  1. magpielibrarian August 8, 2013 at 11:02 pm #

    I’m sure you know that Struwwelpeter, aka Shockheaded Peter, was turned into a musical, which I adore.

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