Leonard S. Marcus’s The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter goes beyond its original function as an exhibition catalog to make a compelling argument of children’s books as cultural self-portrait: a reflection of cultural hopes and aspirations, as encapsulated in ideas of childhood. The book is in the popular tradition it describes, being written by Leonard Marcus, exhibition curator and children’s book historian, in response to popular demand, to make accessible the exhibition of the same name in the New York Public Library from April 2013 to September 2014, which received half a million visitors, making it the most highly attended exhibition in the library’s history. Featuring a stunning variety of full-color images (400 in all) and illustrations of children’s books and related memorabilia displayed in the exhibition – which included the University of Minnesota’s Kerlan Collection – ABC illustrates the continuing relevance of children’s books, by itself being a beautiful and instructive book that children of all ages can peruse with pleasure.
Marcus’s curation of the book is underlaid by a rigorous intellectual approach, whereby he organizes the different worldwide traditions of children’s book into four chapters. The first chapter, “Visions of Childhood,” is an overview of the history of discourses of childhood that shaped children’s books, from Puritanism to Locke’s Enlightenment vision of the Rational Child, to the Romantic hero of Rousseau, Wordsworth and Blake, to progressive twentieth-century innovators such as John Dewey and Maria Montessori, and contemporary emphases on diversity, social responsibility, and environmental consciousness. The second chapter, “Off the Shelf: Giving and Getting Books,” focuses on children’s access to books, from decorative giftbooks presented by parents to comic cooks purchased by children themselves, as purchasing power gradually shifted to the children in the twentieth century. The third chapter, “The Art of the Picture Book,” argues for the serious artistry underlying illustrated children’s books and proves its case with a stunning range of illustrations. Standouts from this chapter include Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats, Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and J.K, Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and illustrations by Maurice Sendak. In the final “Coda,” Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Kerlan Collection, continues the argument for “children’s literature being “an art form that educates, entertains, challenges, and inspires.” The layout of each chapter is as vivid and accessible as the exhibition that inspired it, consisting of a brief introduction followed by illustrations alongside Marcus’s accompanying witty commentary.
ABC promises to be a classic of the study of children’s literature, and an invaluable resource for researchers and the general public alike. With its accumulation of wise delights, it will surely resurrect the forgotten treasures of childhood to the inquiring and earnest adults who consult it.