The ABC Of It: Why Children’s Books Matter With Leonard Marcus

Originally Posted: February 2014

by Leah Heilman Schanke

Leonard Marcus, historian, author, critic, and curator of The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter at the New York Public Library (NYPL) began his presentation by simply defining an exhibit as storytelling in three dimensions. Marcus observed that when people think about children’s books, they primarily think about them in terms of their personal experience. Marcus places books in a larger context by considering:

  • How are children’s books a part of literature?
  • How are the illustrations a part of art?
  • What do the stories say about culture?

Children’s books are connected to art and literature and“express the hopes and fears of every generation.”

Marcus shared that curators also need to be detectives.In addition to having the first copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, NYPL’s collection had an ivory carving of Lewis Carroll’s Tweedledee and Tweedledum with no documentation of its history or original function. Marcus’s search yielded a response from a collection of Carroll’s work in Philadelphia that solved the mystery. In a letter from Carroll to the real Alice when she was in her 30’s, Carroll wrote that the Tweedledee and Tweedledum carving was the only carving from a set made by a friend that could work as a good parasol handle. Sure enough, the item has a hole in the bottom that would enable it to function as a parasol handle.

The show’s first section is organized around seven ideas of childhood including Puritan, Romantic, Enlightenment, and Progressive Education, with books illustrating opposing concepts of childhood sometimes placed side-by-side. One example of contrast in the exhibit was the placement of the 1727 New-England Primerwith its Puritanical idea that children are born with original sin next to William Blake’s 1789 Songs of Innocence which expresses the idea that children are divinely inspired.

Marcus pointed out that three years after The New England Primerwas first published (in 1690), philosopher John Locke wrote, in effect, that Puritans had it all wrong and that children learn best when they’re playing. Therefore, children’s books should be amusing and educational. This became the foundation of modern children’s books. Books like Grimms’ Fairy Tales appealed to the Romantics and became best sellers in the 19th century.

Marcus gave examples of how “children’s books are used to create a sense of national identity.” Noah Webster, lexicographer, reformed the spelling of words in English, creating American English. His blue-backed speller books taught generations of children how to read and spell. Books were also used to preserve and transmit stories central to a group’s national identity, as was the case with James Steven’s Irish Fairy Tales, which was published in response to British occupation of Ireland.

The 19th century saw the commercialization of children’s books. They were often published before Christmas as a lavish gift option. The “democratization” of children’s books occurred in the 20th century. Golden Books, for example, were very affordable at 25 cents.

One of the most popular parts of the exhibit creates the feeling of walking in Margaret Wise Brown’s “great green room” of Goodnight Moon. Illustrations like Clement Hurd’s for that book began to be less realistic to allow children to fill in the gaps, essentially making children collaborators. The line “Goodnight nobody” in Goodnight Moon appears on an otherwise blank page, allowing children to imagine who nobody is.

What do the books of today say about our culture? Marcus pointed out that “we think we are very enlightened, but our view of multiculturalism is very narrow.” When we compare U.S. picture books to South America’s and France’s, we see that the “Puritan tradition has not died.” The other striking thing about books of today is the focus on high concept in an effort to impress rather than “establish a relationship of intimacy with the child.”

What was most surprising to Marcus in creating the exhibit? It was the volume of text. Each of the over 250 items needed a 100-word description. It had to solidly researched yet seem effortless, and “be the right 100 words.”

How was the overall experience of creating the exhibit? Marcus summed it up in one word, trans-formative.



Leah Heilman Schanke was a finalist in the 2013 PNWA International Literary Contest in the children’s book category. By day, Leah is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR). Leah lives on Long Island with her husband and children.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s