Leonard MArcus

So many ANIMALS!

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The animal-filled nest of the 8 year-old Homo sapiens.

I am prone to bouts of eco-depression, and shortly after buying Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, I decided — as a writing exorcism of sorts — to have a go at developing a story about endangered animals. Extinction — upbeat stuff, right? Not exactly ideal picture book fodder…

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As I saw it, my first challenge was to figure out a way to deal with extinction that wouldn’t be a complete downer but instead felt light — even funny.

At The Rare Animal Conservation Center of the Philadelphia Zoo I stumbled on an unlikely trio of endangered species sharing a single enclosure — despite their hailing from different continents in ‘real’ life: a three-toed sloth, a pair of Bolivian titi monkeys, and a cache of elephant shrews.

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I am equally as inclined to write about humans as about animals, but when I do opt for animals as characters, it is usually because I am drawn to some unique, compelling aspect/s of a species’ habits or traits — and generally because I relate to those traits in a pretty anthropomorphic and anthropocentric way. I always do a lot of geeky research and end up building on those aspects as I work up the character.

The shrew/sloth/monkey combo provided, and while the resulting manuscript, The Mango Incident (current status: 555-word, back-burnered WIP), didn’t end up addressing extinction head-on, it’s grumpy sloth-narrator does manage some sharp commentary, and the story peaks in a nice (if unfortunately hard to illustrate) moment of hilarity.

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Animals are the stuff of children’s literature — and of childhood — right? The Cat and his hat, Sylvester and his pebble, Charlotte and her web — the list goes on and on and on and on. Animals are ubiquitous: in books, as stuffies, as pets, and in the places we take our children on outings (zoos, natural history museums, theme parks etc.).

But why? I had always assumed that their being not-human worked as a sort of convenient and comfortable distancing-method: they’re enough like us that kids identify with them but not so much like us as to be complete (and terrifying) mirrors. “The same only different,” as a witty friend used to say about all kinds of things.

Reading November 23’s New York Times Magazine, I came across not one but two references to an essay about zoos and animals by cultural critic John Berger. (Both Charles Seibert’s piece about the remaking Denmark’s Givskud Zoo, and Alex Witchel’s profile of playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins bring it up.) I bit.

If I had ever before read Berger’s essay, “Why Look At Animals?” (from About Looking, 1977), it hadn’t stuck. In it, Berger argues that with the one-two punch of the enlightenment and industrialization, humans’ relationship to animals shifted away from that of hunting, farming and daily contact with animals who were made or understood to serve various human purposes.  And so, too, away from an attitude of both valuing/worshipping and subjecting/sacrificing them (two stances that, today, we are more likely to understand oppositionally as”either/or”s).

As most of us have moved away from that sort of immediate reliance on animals, animals have been marginalized both culturally and physically. They have been relegated to the role of raw material and of spectacle: in the human food chain, animal flesh and product is just one more ingredient on the assembly line, and elsewhere animals are simply meant to be viewed.

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Not surprisingly zoos came into existence just as productive animals were disappearing from everyday life. As opposed to living in their native environments, zoo animals are “utterly dependent on their keepers”; “nothing surrounds them except their own lethargy or hyperactivity”. They reside there specifically and exclusively to be looked at. Berger emphasizes: “you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal.”

Around the same time pet-ownership mushroomed too.

In the past, families of all classes kept domestic animals because they served a useful purpose — guard dogs, hunting dogs, mice-killing cats, and so on. The practice of keeping animals regardless of their usefulness, the keeping exactly of pets (in the 16th century the word usually referred to a lamb raised by hand) is a modern innovation… It is part of the universal but personal withdrawal into the private small family unit, decorated or furnished with mementoes from the outside world, which is such a distinguishing feature of consumer societies.

(It follows that dogs, now, are now bred not for the work that they do but, instead, for their innocuous (or aggressive) temperaments, their lack of allergens, or their ability to not shed.)

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As for the modern world of childhood, to Berger the preponderance of animal imagery and representation in picture books and toys mirrors the fading of real animals into the background of life experience.

As it turns out, children’s literature historian and critic Leonard Marcus wrote a follow-up essay in 1984, “Picture Book Animals: How Natural A History?“, applying Berger’s thinking and defining the roles of animals in contemporary children’s literature. Surveying the field, Marcus spelled out seven distinct ways that he saw animal characters operating in children’s books, positing one or more examples for each:

1. animal as the embodiment of wildness (wild impulses, unruliness, etc.) — and therefore as needing to be tamed or contained (Curious George, H.A. Rey)

2. “animal as spectacle or performer” (The Happy Lion, Louis Fatio)

3. “animal as misfit or outsider” (The Story of Ferdinand, Munro Leaf)

4. “animal as doll” (which assumes a special, kindred relationship between animal and child) (Corduroy, Don Freeman)

5. “animals as nonsense beings” (The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss)

6. “animals as symbols of unconscious states and private obsessions” (Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak)

7. “animals-in-themselves” (Blueberries for Sal, Robert McCloskey)

Marcus’s categories aren’t all-encompassing, but they offer an interesting framework. And discussion of the examples underscores the complexity of his definitions.

He does leave off one use — perhaps because it is too obvious — which involves using animals as simple, straightforward stand-ins for humans — their “animal natures” being less important than the fact that they are animals-and-not-humans (author Kevin Henkes immediately comes to mind). And in fact, in most of Marcus’s examples I can imagine a human character replacing the animal to tell a fairly similar story to the one told: Ferdinand could’ve been a boy under that tree who didn’t like rough play of other boys; the Cat in the Hat could’ve been a crazy uncle who popped in for the day. Even Corduroy could have been a doll (human toy) instead of a bear (animal toy).

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from BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL

Only in the 7th category does such substitution seem downright impossible: the whole Sal story hinges on the parallel childhoods, motherhoods and blueberry hunting activities of bears and humans. It really is about the animals in a way the others are not. Though of course, in the manner of all good wildlife narratives, it is the anthropomorphic aspects of the bears that we connect to — the ways in which they are like us.

To go back to Berger’s argument for a minute though: the lore and stories of all sorts of native cultures predating the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution are actually loaded with animals. Really — think about Native American tales. Storytelling was oral, as opposed to written and illustrated, but no matter: traditional origin stories and moral tales were always populated with the myriad animals — wild and domesticated — that filled people’s lives. That stories told or read to children contain animals is nothing new. Our relationship to animals has changed, true. But so have our notions of childhood, and I’d warrant that changing ideas of childhood in our modern, consumer world play as large a role in the preponderance of animal imagery in modern western children’s lives as the fact of our changed relationship to animals.

All these interesting historical arguments and structural analyses notwithstanding, I keep coming back to this same basic point: animals are both like us and not like us. The same only different — just like each of the human characters we meet in books. We enter in to stories in places where we connect and relate— sometimes through geography and place, sometimes through situation, and often through characters. If you opt for an evolutionary take on the whole thing: animals are our cousins, albeit distant ones, no? So of course we include them in our stories.

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Still, Berger was spot on about animals in our lives, and when I reflect on my own children’s contact with animals, I see zoos, and books, and stuffies, and a wished-for pet. Even when they do have contact with real, working animals the experience is heavily mediated. We do not — like our friends who farm — rise at dawn to collect eggs or get up in the middle of the night to nurse invalid pigs. The rhythms of our daily lives are not at all dependant on those of other creatures. The birds that wake us up in the spring when we leave our windows open and the kitchen mice we battle are mere annoyances.

I wonder whether with Childhood.2000 — in an increasingly digital age of once/twice/thrice-removed experiencing and consuming of the world — we will eventually look back at the dull act of watching sleeping polar bears and bounce-less kangaroos through scratched plexiglass with nostalgia and say “There used to be these place called Zoos where you could go see REAL animals…”? And so the eco-depression sneaks up again…

Beyond Expectations: when a writer and an illustrator collaborate

“There are no wrong roads to anywhere.”

-Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

 

Norton Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth, 1961) is really an Architect. As the story goes, Juster won a Ford Foundation grant to write a grown-up, architecture book about urban perception, but ended up penning The Tollbooth instead. He shared drafts with his upstairs neighbor, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and the two ended up partnering on the book.

Last weekend was homecoming weekend at the University of Pennsylvania, where I got my Masters in Landscape Architecture, and where Juster completed his architecture studies in 1953. In honor of the weekend Penn’s School of Design invited alumni to a screening of the documentary film The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations.

Part animation, part comedy and part buddy film, Beyond Expectations is filled with the two men’s smart conversation, as well as interview chat with historian and critic Leonard Marcus, author/illustrator Eric Carle (who’s Museum of Picture Book Art Juster designed), New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (read him on the Toolbooth here), actor David Hyde Pierce (the inimitable reader of the audio book version), and a trip of un-named kids. Throughout, Juster and Feiffer’s conversation flows with the push and pull of an old married couple’s: their stories and quips unfold with hilarity and impeccable timing — and a beautifully rich sense of shared history.

Post-screening, Juster was joined on a panel by the film’s director, Hannah Jayanti and (at Penn for the second time in as many weeks) Leonard Marcus, who’s The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth was released in 2011 in honor of the book’s 50th Anniversary. At some point in the discussion, Juster responded to a question about how his architectural education influenced his approach to writing by describing how, in design school, you learn a method of breaking down and working through a design problem from many angles — as opposed to simply looking for an answer. His response shared a thread with one common read of The Phantom Tollbooth as a paean to the virtues of a liberal arts education. The book is very much about the journey, not the destination, and Juster is clear about his distaste for educational approaches that assume there is one right way of doing things.

The film and subsequent conversation also conveyed a powerful sense of both the idea and the fact of an intense, working relationship between author and illustrator. The physicality of the illustrations’ relations to the text, as well as the import of the geographic proximity of the two neighbors as they worked — are all captured sweetly in the film’s affecting animated sequences.

Juster and Feiffer clearly have tremendous respect for one another, and at the same time harbor no delusions about each other’s imperfections — instead finding real joy and humor in them.

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Feiffer’s illustration of The Whether Man — based on Juster

In an interview with Alex Stadler at the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2011 that I since came across, Juster describes his and Feiffer’s dynamic as they worked on the book saying,

It developed into a kind of a game where he would try to subvert the illustrations and I would try to make things he couldn’t draw. Near the end there’s one group of demons called the ‘Triple Demons of Compromise’, which I invented just for him. One is short and fat, one is tall and thin, and the third is exactly like the other two.

That most illustrators and authors don’t collaborate directly is something of a surprise to most people outside the industry. (At some point during the film, one of the interviewees — I forget who — quips that editors nowadays don’t let the illustrators and authors of picture books work together because they need to make sure that they (the editors) still have something to do.)

It’s hard to talk about it from the position of never having published a picture book. But seeing a dynamic like Juster and Feiffer’s, I wonder about the opportunities missed by the full separation of the jobs — and the personalities. At the 2014 Winter SCBWI conference in New York during a picture book panel discussion, either Peter Brown or Oliver Jeffers — again, I can’t remember which — lobbied gently for more openings in this relationship. I remember being struck that the comment was a real push against the tide. (In my notes from that panel discussion I did find the words of editor and moderator Arthur Levine, who, on the subject of author-illustrator collaboration, declared “Fits are entitled to be thrown,”  implying that the potential for creative conflict and drama might be a deterrent for editors.)

There are contemporary pairings that seem possibly to defy the preferred order — like Lane Smith and Jon Scieszka, or Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett. (Anyone have any good links or references that talk non-PR-ish-ly about the nature of those partnerships?) And Ursula Nordstrom’s letters, compiled and edited by Marcus in Dear Genius, offer plenty of reminders that separation wasn’t always the norm, feeding — like the Sendak in the Sixties show — nostalgia for that great, bygone era in children’s book publishing.

 

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One last, wonderful quote from The Phantom Tollbooth — which I can’t resist sharing:

 “Why, did you know that there are almost as many kinds of stillness as there are sounds? But sadly enough, no one pays attention to them these days. Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.”

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Despite silence, there is still so much for the senses to take in in the moments described and, yet, words fail to really capture them. That Juster is both a synesthete and a great lover of language and word play gives special poignancy to this particular passage. And, too, it speaks aptly to our era of relentless sensory onslaught.

Ways In

There are so many ways for young children to enter in to the picture books that we share with and write for them

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Children’s literature historian Leonard Marcus played with this idea of ‘ways in’ last Friday at Creating Children’s Books: Collaboration and Change (A Symposium in Honor of William Steig and Atha Tehon) at the U.Penn Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, using some classics to talk about different ways books offer them. He began with perhaps the most obvious (to adult eyes) entry point: a character — animal, child, or even adult — who grabs hold of a child’s heart or imagination through voice, spirit, or predicament. We can think of so many: Max in Where the Wild Things Are, with his defiant push-back against grown up authority and limits; Sylvester in Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, who suffers such existential terror and isolation; the Peddlar in Caps for Sale, who’s frustration at the curveball that life — and a batch of monkeys — throws at him is only too familiar to the preschool set.

There are lots of other ways in too, besides character — ways that tap into the particular developmental tendencies of the youngest readers and listeners. As Marcus pointed out The Very Hungry Caterpillar is, frankly, hungry and not much else: what young kids love about this book is less anything about this particular caterpillar than the unique structural aspects of the book and its narrative: the rough and sloppy-seeming collaged illustration that resemble work that young kids themselves might have created; heavy pages with holes for little fingers to probe; favorite food stuffs to identify and “read”, and a predictable, cumulative text, page structure and rhythm. The caterpillar’s transformation is magical, but the journey Eric Carle constructs far surpasses the destination in terms of fun and engagement.

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Likewise, Margaret Wise Brown’s classic Goodnight Moon lacks a compelling hero. The text and illustrations first set up the space — with all its sweet and relatable detail — and then insert the “Goodnight” ritual: simple and powerful stuff, with seamless, spot on text and illustrations. The book is really more a ritual than a story — about a safe, ordered world and a child’s place in it.

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After offering up some of these examples in a pre-symposium panel Marcus, in his keynote, credited the overall idea of  ‘children’s books needing to engage children and leave openings for them to enter in’ to Bank Street College founder Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s mid-20th century Bank Street Writers Lab. I first tried my hand at writing a children’s book in the 1990’s as my master’s thesis at Bank Street. I had been teaching at The City & Country School — a school founded by Mitchell contemporary and colleague, Caroline Pratt — which was very much steeped in Mitchell’s ‘Here and Now’ argument that children’s books (and study) ought to revolve around and mirror the experiences of the children’s day to day lives and worlds. Mitchell and Pratt’s (and Bank Street’s) philosophies also involved watching children, studying them and learning from them as keys to teaching. While I loved their Progressive ideas about education and schools, though, some of these women’s ideas about children’s literature never quite resonated for me: I struggled, back then, to reconcile my love of books like Sendak’s, Steig’s and Maira Kalman’s, which did not adhere to the here-and-now model.

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As I’ve aged (and matured, I hope) I’ve developed an understanding of Mitchell’s ideas as a product of a certain moment in the development of Progressive approaches to education. I remain amazed at how much truth she captured in so many areas, and I’ve retained this great respect for the work and thinking of Bank Street as a whole. Too, I’ve maintained incredible respect for one Writers Lab participant in particular — Claudia Lewis — a poet, writer and teacher who, also in the tradition of Mitchell, writes about the poetry of children’s own language and the ways that we can respond to and incorporate that poetry in our own work for them. Lewis’s ideas were very much in keeping with Mitchell’s ideas about observing and learning from children.

As such a Progressive groupie, though, I still felt this disconnect and disappointment in what seemed, to me, like a rigidity (and lack of playfulness and emotional understanding) in Mitchell’s approach to literature for kids, inasmuch as I understood it. There didn’t seem to be room for the pain and angst of some of my favorite books, nor for the goofiness and fun of others. Marcus’s attribution of this overarching idea of ‘ways in’ to Mitchell had the remarkable effect of quelling the dissonance I’d felt for years: behind her arguments for the ‘here and now’ and for observing children’s behavior and language was this one, unifying notion of the importance of leaving ‘ways in’ in children’s books. I love it — and the room that it leaves for so many other ‘ways in’ that Mitchell didn’t consider or perhaps wasn’t ready for.

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There are more ‘ways in’ too, of course: page turns that breed anticipation and prediction; playful and poetic language and rhythm  that grab kids by their senses; books that stretch their form and demand physical engagement — via textures (Pat The Bunny), or three dimensionality (Jan Pienkowski’s Dinner Time — which is woefully out of print!), or directives that push the envelope of what a book can “do” (like Herve Tullet’s Press Here ). There are illustrations that make us hunt and search and pore over detail (Anno’s various hidden picture books and those of Graeme Base, the Waldo books, Richard Scarry), and illustrations that stretch a story’s text in new and unexpected ways (Sendak’s Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water: Two Nursery Rhymes).

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Best of all: if you take this idea of leaving ‘ways in’ to heart and — in the manner of of Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Claudia Lewis and their cohort — watch yourself and your children closely as you read, you keep finding more too. Which is a great education in its own right.

KidLit Goings-On in The City of Brotherly Love

My kids return to school next week, and so we head back to the city this weekend after a month away. The bittersweet that is the end of summer is fully upon me. As I gear up for more time for focus and work, I’ve discovered, happily, that a bounty of kidlit-related shows awaits in Philly to distract and, with luck, inspire.

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First, at the University of Pennsylvania, As the Ink Flows: Works from the Pen of William Steig opened August 22 and runs until December 19, 2014. In conjunction, a second show will be up from September 8 2014 to March 27 2015:  The School of Atha: Collaboration in the Making of Children’s Books.

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Steig is Steig, and seeing more of his sketches and work can only delight. Book designer and art director Atha Tehon (1926-2012) is new to me, and the exhibit promises to cover new territory as it explores her role in the creation of picture books by greats like Sendak, Steig and others.

Both shows revolve around bequests to the University’s libraries. Tehon’s papers, donated by her niece, landed at Penn likely because she was an alum, having studied Fine Arts at Penn/PAFA. Similarly, a cache of Steig’s drawings, sketches, papers etc. was gifted to Penn by his widow, Jeanne Steig. The exhibits draw from these donated works, as well as items loaned by the subjects’ families.

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In addition to the two gallery shows, an accompanying symposium on October 17 and 18 at Penn, Creating Children’s Books: Collaboration and Change (October 17 & 18), will feature kidlit historian Leonard Marcus, among others.

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Sendak’s opening illusrtation in Randall Jarrell’s THE BAT POET (NY: MacMillan, 1963)

Two more exhibtis are simultaneously up across the Schuylkill at the Rosenbach Museum and Library: Sendak in the 60’s and Bescribbled, Nibbled and Dog-Eared: Early American Children’s Books. I’ve seen the former, which runs through November 2 and provides a well-constructed look at Sendak’s most fertile period, kidlit-wise. The latter, which surveys early American picture books, is up until January 18 2015.

Why the focus on children’s books at the Rosenbach — and particularly on Sendak?

The Rosenbach is one of a special breed of quirky, unique-to-Philly, historic institutions (like The Wagner Free Science Institute, The Mutter Museum, Smith Playhouse, etc.). Housed in the former townhome of two brothers, Philip and Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, the base of its holdings come from the two men’s private collections of art and books. Both men dealt and traded in books, documents and art, from the late 1800’s until their deaths in the mid 1950’s, and were instrumental in helping to assemble various private and historic libraries around the country. Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach was one of the first great collector’s of children’s books, specifically, and his bibliography of Early American children’s literature was a standard reference in its time.

The Rosenbach/Sendak relationship was based on mutual interests: Sendak, for his part, loved many of the same writers and artists as the Rosenbachs, particularly Herman Melville (back to marine mammals again…). The Rosenbachs and Sendak developed a relationship around these shared passions, and ultimately Sendak bequeathed his documents to the museum. Perhaps as part of the arrangement, the Rosenbach maintains a committment to the continued study and display of Sendak’s work.

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Philadelphia’s LOVE PARK (from wikipedia).

The Penn and Rosenbach shows extend what has been a great run of attention to kidlit — especially picture books — in Philly over the course of the last year and a half. In the summer of 2013, exhibits on native son Jerry Pinkney hung at the PMA and the Free Library, and another on Ezra Jack Keats at the American Museum of Jewish History. Sendak was at the Rosenbach at that point, too, in a show called The Night Max Wore His Wolf Suit: 50 Years of Wild Things. Then in January, the Caldecott & Newbery Awards were announced right here in the City of Brotherly Love, with one of our favorite FLP librarians, Rahel Fryd, weighing in on the Caldecott decision.

Philly, a city of firsts (with this summer’s “firsts” revolving around the awesome Taney Dragons (google them if you don’t know their story!)), is no longer a center of publishing. And — though it can claim that David Wiesner lives here, that Kate di Camillo was born here, and that Jean Craighead George wrote at a desk that sits just 2 hours west — if there is a coordinated, organized community of writers-for-children, I have yet to find it.

So these shows feel like real, unexpected gifts. I cross my fingers that, moving forward, other venues will continue to join the Rosenbach (now operating under the umbrella of the Free Library of Philadelphia) in continuing to share the brotherly love.

Libraries, Library Cards and Kids Books

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As the youngest of four children I had a couple years one-on-one with my mom before hitting kindergarten. We spent lots of time with books, and afternoons in the Clayton branch of the St. Louis County Library involved me, cross-legged on a thickly varnished wood floor, working my way down a seemingly endless bottom-shelf of picture books. My mom handed down a love of libraries and of literature, and pretty much everywhere I’ve lived since then — even briefly — I’ve gotten a library card.

During the SCBWI 2014 Annual Winter Conference in February I wandered over to the New York Public Library to check out the exhibit, The ABC’s of it: Why Children’s Books Matter (curated by Leonard Marcus and up just until this Sunday, March 23, 2014).

This survey exhibit, drawing on the NYPL’s collections, touches briefly on the relationship between the creation of Children’s Rooms in libraries and the growth of the children’s book publishing industry in the United States in the early twentieth century. Despite my repeat affairs with libraries and my parallel love of children’s literature, it is not a piece of history that I know much about.

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Trolling for more information, I found an article by Jill Lepore — lately in the public eye because of her new Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin — which offers a glimpse into the period at the turn of the lst century when Children’s Libraries came to be in the United States. Published in the July 21, 2008 issue of The New Yorker and titled “The Lion and the Mouse“, the piece examines the stir between Anne Carroll Moore, the first Superintendent of the NYPL’s Department of Work with Children, and writer E.B. White — around the publication of White’s first book for children, Stuart Little.

(Though the NYPL show mentioned White’s ever-popular Charlotte’s Web, and also Anne Carroll Moore, I didn’t notice anything on Stuart Little or the scuffle between the two.

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The conflict and the book — which Lapore’s read as “an indictment both of the childishness of children’s literature and the juvenalization of American culture” — would have been a complicated addition to the exhibit in any case!)

“The Lion and the Mouse” provided a nice introduction to this piece of history.

Curator Leonard Marcus is also author/biographer/historian Leonard Marcus. I loved his biography of Margaret Wise Brown, Awakened by the Moon. And I have lately been meandering through another book he edited: Dear Genius, a collection of the letters of Ursula Norstrom, the legendary director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to the mid 1970’s. Nordstrom’s epistles — full of force and character — are a great window onto of an exciting era in children’s book publishing.

On my quest I came across another of Marcus’s books which I haven’t read: Minders of Make Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature. This one is a historical survey of Children’s Literature on these soils from colonial times forward. I’m hoping that Minders of Make Believe gives a fuller picture of the co-development of children’s libraries and the beginnings of the modern children’s book publishing industry; a quick review of the contents suggests it will. In any case, I’ve now got a HOLD on it at The Free Library of Philadelphia.