See the ABC of It!

| February 11, 2014

Through March 23, the NYPL’s Schwarzman Building is host to an illuminating exhibition on children’s books: The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter. Although it’s safe to say that most people in the TC community are already convinced that children’s books matter, a peek at this show reveals the hidden historical context of many of your favorite classics while also introducing some less well-known titles.

The exhibition opens with the oldest-known copy of The New England Primer, a book first published in 1690 in Boston to teach the alphabet to Puritan children.

A conscious effort is made throughout the show to juxtapose different philosophies: for example, the New England Primer is displayed next to a sumptuously illustrated volume by William Blake, representing contrasting emphases on realism vs. fantasy. Theories of the role and design of children’s books are also explored. I was excited to see one of my favorite childhood books, Goodnight Moon, presented as a product of Margaret Wise Brown’s studies at Bank Street:

And just below Goodnight Moon I learned about a book I’d never seen before: The First Picture Book, illustrated by the photographer Edward Steichen and written by his daughter, Mary Steichen Calderone. It grew out of the Bank Street/Lucy Sprague Mitchell theory of babies as “little empiricists” who would benefit from seeing things from their real lives in the books they read. It features stark photographs of wooden shapes:

Other sections in the exhibition include (among many others) patriotism and nationalism, “assembly line” books (like the Nancy Drew series), banned books, and stories about New York City. In addition to explaining the training and motivations of authors of children’s books, at many points in the exhibition the viewer is treated to original illustrations and archival documents–like this letter from Louis Carroll to Alice Liddell (for whom he wrote Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass):

One of my other favorite displays was about Eric Carle. It shows original samples of the paper he used in his distinctive collage illustrations:

Whether to discover new titles to use in your own teaching or just to uncover some of the history of your favorite children’s books, the exhibition is worth a trip to the NYPL’s Schwarzman building (located at 5th Ave at 42nd St). But hurry! The show closes March 23.

And, if you’re feeling inspired and want to check out some of the historic children’s books in the TC collection, here’s how to search for them in our catalog.

From Educat, search for “Children’s stories” using the subject search:

Then, from the results page, sort by year:

If you’d like to take a look at one of these older volumes, just click to request it from the closed stacks. Happy searching!