A good children's book is a young person's earliest exposure to art and design, a conduit for parental bonding, a means to teach individual and social lessons, and these days, possibly the last vestige of printed matter for the next digital generation as it weans itself from ink on paper to pixels on screens. All of these things become quite clear upon observing the New York Public Library's fittingly titled "The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter," curated by children's book historian Leonard Marcus. Recently opened, the show focuses on what makes kids' reads essential in art, culture, and in the overall imagination.
"I was told that I would have access to all the library's special collections, and that I could do pretty much anything I wanted," Marcus told me in an email. "I felt I had been handed the keys to the kingdom." And what riches that kingdom contains: the copy of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland owned by Alice Liddell, the real-life model for Alice; a rare, illustrated edition of Aesop's Fables that survived the Great London Fire; Nathaniel Hawthorne's copy of Mother Goose, with cautionary marginalia about the parts that would frighten children; and original Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animals. Other than a handful of loaned items (including Marcus's own copy of MAD and his pre-publication reader's copy of the first Harry Potter book, among others) and four pieces that the library purchased specifically for the show (including a Swedish first edition of Pippi Longstocking), the majority of the 250 items on view come from the library's enviable collection.