Monday, February 10, 2014

Why Children's Books Matter

On January 29th I took advantage of a six-hour layover in New York to go see the exhibit "The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter" at the NY Public Library.

"It highlights the distinctive visions of childhood of the Puritans, Romantics, progressive educators, and others and how each inspired a new kind of book for the young. It explores the key ways in which children historically have acquired their books: as gifts, at the public library, and, as with comic books, in secret—when grownups were not looking.

It provides a meaningful new context for many of the New York Public Library’s treasures: the copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that belonged to Alice Liddell, the child for whom Lewis Carroll wrote it; a rare 1666 illustrated children’s edition of Aesop’s fables that survived the Great Fire of London; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s family copy of Mother Goose, with annotations stating some passages were too scary to read to their children; the manuscript of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden; Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers’s parrot-head umbrella; recordings of E.B. White reading excerpts of Charlotte’s Web; and the original Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animals; among others." (NYPL press release)


It was emotional for me, both to revisit the (imaginary) places I had inhabited as a child and to encounter the books from my own children's childhood, because I was returning from a trip during which I had to make decisions about a lot of things to keep or give away, including quite a few children's books. With Matt we decided which books to give away, which ones to hold onto for now, and some I carried back with me.

A while ago I was tagged in one of those Facebook challenges: List the first 10 books that come to mind. The books that immediately came to my mind were children's books: The books that I read over and over as a child… and then the books that I read over and over to my children. These books are the talismans of parent-child ritual.

I quickly whipped off my list and posted it to my friend's wall. My books included Goodnight Moon, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Love You Forever. Other people listed great literary oeuvres and philosophical treatises. I felt a bit embarrassed by my kiddie list but those are the books that always come back to my mind. Children's books are our first explorations of the imagined world, the world beyond the one we experience. They shape our sense of identity, allow us to imagine and explore, and introduce us to the notion of what is universal.

Books matter. Children's books matter.

At the exhibit there is a series of quotes by authors about books and libraries, printed on library book cards. Sorry about the picture quality.

No comments: