Children's Literary Salon in Retrospect: "The ABC of It" Curator Leonard Marcus on October 12, 2013

  • by Miranda J. McDermott

    I was very excited to hear Leonard Marcus speak, since I have read several of his books, and he is an important scholar in the field of children's literature. I was also completely impressed with The ABC of It exhibit that is at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building through March 23, 2014. Betsy Bird, Youth Materials Specialist at the New York Public Library (NYPL), hosts and organizes the Children's Literary Salons. The Interim Director of Bank Street's Center for Children's Literature, Jenny Brown, interviewed Marcus.

    Analyzing Children's Literature

    Brown asked if children are born sinful or innocent since this quandary was introduced in the exhibit.

    Marcus replied that is important to ponder how we understand childhood. Books arise from different interpretations of the nature of children. For example, in the time of Puritanism, fantasy was not considered suitable for kids; realism ruled the day.

    Marcus discussed the portion of the exhibit entitled, "A Question of Class." Throughout history, upper class kids have had more access to books than lower class kids, including luxury books. One of the fancy books included in the exhibit was a book about the kings and queens of history. A book for lower class kids included miniature clothing that was made by a charity to help poor girls learn needlecraft so that they did not have to be on the streets. This was written in the 1840s, which is the time of Charles Dickens.

    Children's Books Transformed Into 3-D

    Brown asked how Marcus conceptualized the physical placement of objects and display cases in the exhibit.

    Marcus replied that the physical design of the exhibit space was handled by the design firm that he worked with, Pure & Applied. They have a good sense of what is visually pleasing. He wanted to make the exhibit feel to visitors as though they were walking into a book. Curating is storytelling in three dimensions. In addition, there are two library staff members whose sole responsibility is exhibitions. Marcus was surprised at how part of the process was trial-and-error. Basically, the staff would put something in the exhibit and see if it looked good.

    Brown asked how Marcus found his assistant curator, Patrick Kiley.

    Marcus said that he was contacted by the Library and invited to do the exhibit. He found Kiley through networking that he did at Yale University.

    Brown commented that Kiley became engrossed with comics due to that section of the exhibit.

    Marcus commented that he wanted to show many ideas of what makes good children's books. Some books, such as comic books, were not approved of by the establishment of the day, even though they were published by the droves and reached many more people than picture books. In 1954, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham published a book entitled Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today's Youth, which stated that comic books led to juvenile delinquency.

    Libraries Influence Children's Literature

    Brown asked Marcus to discuss how NYPL interfaces with the history of children's literature.

    Marcus stated that children obtain books in many ways. Some are obtained as gifts, and some are gotten and kept in secret (eg, comic books). NYPL was one of the first libraries in the United States to open its doors to children. There was a fear that kids would be noisy, have sticky fingers and be exposed to knowledge that had sexual content and was not appropriate for them. New York City is the capital city of the book publishing industry in the U.S. It helped by getting publishers to think about children's librarians becoming critics. Anne Carroll Moore, children's librarian for NYPL, was instrumental in providing an international model for children's librarians and libraries. Librarians from all over the world, including Scandinavia, visited NYPL to learn more about allowing kids into libraries. Anne Carroll Moore was friends with Beatrix Potter, and in 1911, Moore helped open the first central children's room, which had a staff and books in many languages. This exhibit highlights how important the role of the library in the community has become.

    Marcus mentioned that the design firm, Pure & Applied, wanted children to feel at home in the library. He noted that the "library with the lions" is a research library, and he definitely did not want the exhibit to be "cute." Libraries are shapers of culture, but people rarely think about books in a larger context. For example, many children and adults like to sit in the small white car in the exhibit, since the seats are large enough. In fact, Judy Blume wanted a photograph of herself in that car. The green Goodnight Moon page sprung to life brings memories of the book back to 4- and 6-year-old kids. It is like something from the past exploding in front of the them in a fantastic way. People of all ages visit the exhibit and take away something from it. There are books from other parts of the world and books in many languages. People also can look at the comic books which will inevitably beckon memories from their childhoods. Books are more marginal in our society than they used to be, but parents and teachers today are also more flexible about what kids read. The challenge in creating this exhibit was to make an exhibit for everyone, not just specialists.

    Brown asked if any surprises emerged for Marcus while he was creating the exhibit.

    Marcus replied that he learned many things during the process. He found an alphabet book from Palestine, and he was not aware of the Indian comic books. There were many books and stories that were new to him. Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, has ghost-written many children's books. At one point, Hawthorne worked for a man who told him that he was not paying him much because he was not worth much. Luckily, Hawthorne was able to get it together, and he later worked with more supportive people.

    Audience Questions

    At that point, the floor was opened to the audience for questions.

    One person asked what he found in the archive that did not make it into the exhibit.

    Marcus said that the cutting ratio was 100:1. Some things are more interesting to think about than to show. For example, there was a map that was in shabby condition that would not look good in an exhibit.

    Another audience member asked if he intended to make a catalog of the exhibit.

    Marcus stated that the Library does not want to do that, but he thinks that it is a wonderful idea.

    Someone asked if he considered Pulp magazines like science fiction and westerns for the exhibit.

    Marcus replied that there are children's magazines in the show.

    An audience member asked if there was any reason why classic comics were not thrown into the exhibit.

    Marcus said that you cannot throw things in since there is not room for everything. He regrets that some things are left out. However, visitors can have a personal connection to the books that they love, and they can think about how they can fit into the show.

    I asked if Marcus could explain more about what he meant by saying that books are more marginal in our society today than they used to be.

    He said that other forms of entertainment take up people's time nowadays. When he was growing up, kids in the Bronx used to strip the shelves of the public libraries bare after school because that is what there was in terms of recreation. Today, kids use the computers in the libraries more than they look at books.

    An audience member commented that there is a sense that books should be didactic. Around the world, it is difficult to convince adults that children's books can be more than simply a tool of moralism.

    Marcus said that parts of the exhibit illustrate the different uses of books. For example, one part discusses the use of books to introduce kids to nature. Where the Wild Things Are is being published in China now. There is an international Bologna Children's Book Fair in Italy every year since 1964, where visitors can see what is being published in the world.

    Thanks to Betsy Bird for hosting and organizing the Children's Literary Salon series. Thanks to Leonard Marcus and Jenny Brown for discussing Marcus' work.

    Upcoming Children's Literary Salons at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

    Saturday, November 2 at 2 p.m.
    The Art of the Great Picture Book Read Aloud

    Wednesday, November 13 at 6:30 p.m.
    Marc Boutavant and Leonard Marcus in Conversation

    Saturday, December 7 at 2 p.m.
    Inseparable Companions: Dolls and Their Influence in Children's Literature