This past week I was in New York en route to Boston and managed to get across to the incredible New York Public Library because they were having a special exhibition on children’s books: “The ABC of it: Why Children’s Books Matter” which I absolutely loved. While I am naturally interested in children’s literature (from a pedagogical, sociological and political perspective), the reason for my visit was because I am now an uncle and figured I need to get clued up on children’s literature for my (incredibly) cute nephew Lincoln William Spaull who will obviously be a reader. So here are a selection of photos of the exhibition and some of my comments…
One of the exhibits which I really loved was the discussion about the book “Goodnight Moon” which is such a sweet bedtime story about a rabbit saying goodnight to everything in his room, a wonderfully playful and beautifully coloured room.
But getting back to “Goodnight Moon”, the guide told us a fascinating story about a parent who read the story to her young son before he went to bed but then later she heard him crying and walked in to find him sitting on the bed with the book open and a foot on each page. The little boy loved the story so much that he was trying to climb into the room and was upset because he couldn’t get inside. I thought it epitomised the idea that children do not make the same distinctions as we do between fiction and reality – they are one and the same. Another story illustrating the same thing is the book “Little Fur Family” by Margaret Wise Brown. The author was so well known and established that she managed to convince the publisher to cover her book in real rabbit fur (this was 1946!). The exhibition has stories of parents writing in and telling how their children thought the book was a real-live animal – one preschooler tried to feed the book and another child gave it as a present to her cat!
Education is also completely political, with some lovely examples from China, USSR and Japan (among others) where children’s literature was used as an instrument of indoctrination and nation-building.
There was also a section on books that had been banned over the years because they were controversial, usually for political, religious or moral reasons. One classic one is “The Rabbit’s Wedding” (1958), where a black rabbit and a white rabbit get married:
This caused an uproar in the South of of the US where segregationists tried to get the book banned. In the end it was put in a special reserve section of the library. See this quote on the issue:
This got me thinking about the representation of gay, bi and transgender characters in children’s books and the objections made by some conservative parents. In that sense, children’s books are a sort of battle-ground where adults fight it out and decide what is and is not OK for children to read and be influenced by.
A few other snippets from the exhibition: