July 22, 2013

The ABC of it: Why Children's books matter

Attention everyone in the NYC area! The New York Public library has launched an exhibit on the history of children's books and their illustrations at its main branch in Bryant Park. Many of the items on display are pulled directly from the library's fantastic collection of rare books and artwork, providing a glimpse at some of the delicate and irreplaceable tomes which are usually locked away in a climate controlled vault.

I loved this show (despite the absence of a few of my favorite artists), and will definitely be returning a few times before it closes next March. The curator, Leonard S. Marcus, does an admirable job of tackling such a sprawling subject in a way that is visually interesting to both adults and small children. There are picture books from Brazil, comics from India, and a few hilariously moralistic tomes from the early days of print. There is original art by Sir John Tenniel (Alice in Wonderland), and W.W. Denslow (The Wizard of Oz),  as well as real-world artifacts that appear in famous stories- the stuffed animals that inspired the Winnie the Pooh stories, and P.L. Travers' parrot handle umbrella (Mary Poppins had one of a similar design). The show touches on some interesting ideas, such as the influence of Eastern art on Western illustration (and vice versa), or the way children's books in the 1950's and 60's adapted to be in direct competition with comics (which were the scourge of librarians at the time). It left me wishing the show was large enough to warrant an in-depth exhibition catalog!

There are a handful of comics included in the exhibition, but I had mixed feelings about the way they were presented. I don't know that I would classify Blankets as a children's book, and Will Eisner's Contract with God is definitely aimed at an older, more sophisticated, audience. But I'm glad to see that comics were represented, and I enjoyed the novelty of seeing a paperback copy of Blankets in a formidable glass display case next to a Hokusai manga from 1817. 

This exhibit made me want to see a deeper exploration of the role of comics in the children's market.
And while it's true that many comics aimed at children or young adults lack the literary recognition and critical acclaim achieved by some the books featured in this exhibit, that is certain to change soon. New Yorker editor Francoise Mouly has started a much-lauded imprint dedicated to comics for children, and you couldn't hope for a better literary pedigree than that.

So definitely see the show! It's free, it's air conditioned, and there are several shelves of books to read as part of the exhibit. And if any of you attend, I'd love to hear your opinions on the show in general, and the presentation of comics in particular!

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