What Is The ABC of It? A few words from Lisa Von Drasek
Although the exhibit's contents cover four centuries of literature, The ABC of It is not a strict history of children's books. Rather, it is historian Leonard S. Marcus's thesis on how "books for young people have stories to tell us about ourselves," and that "behind every children's book is a vision of childhood: a shared understanding of what growing up is all about."
When I am giving tours, teaching, traveling, attending conferences, or presenting papers, the question I'm most frequently asked is, "Who was Dr. Kerlan?" Dr. Irvin Kerlan, an alumnus of UMN, was a staff doctor at the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, D.C. He was also a collector of rare children's books, original art, and manuscripts.
One only has to read Dear Dr. Kerlan by Jean Stevenson, PhD, to gain a sense of his passion for the work of children's book artists and illustrators and of their respect for his objective to preserve the process of children's book making. The year 2019 was a milestone for the Children's Literature Research Collections, as it marked the 70th anniversary of Dr. Kerlan's first gift to the University of Minnesota.
The first curator of the Kerlan Collection was Karen Nelson Hoyle, PhD. Her care of Dr. Kerlan's collection would have been a significant accomplishment on its own, but for 43 years Dr. Hoyle also maintained relationships with authors and illustrators and developed new ones, identifying the best of the best to be included in one of the finest repositories of rare children's books and related manuscripts and art.
Allow me to digress for a moment. In 1916, Lucy Sprague Mitchell founded what is now the Bank Street College of Education. Mitchell's work with children and teachers informed her teaching, which in turn informed her writing. And it was there, at the Writers Lab, that teachers, librarians, and writers witnessed the foundations of modern children's literature.
And it was there, embedded in the college's progressive curriculum, that I practiced my teacher/librarian craft for 15 years while Dr. Hoyle was curating, researching, and writing. It is all connected. In 1992, as a publishing assistant, I read Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon by Leonard S. Marcus. Marcus wove together the threads of social history, the history of progressive education, and the history of children's literature, elucidating his original research to paint a unique portrait of this significant author from the Writers Lab.
Twenty-one years later, I spent hours poring over case labels in The New York Public Library's exhibition hall, immersed in The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter, the show Marcus curated for the NYPL. With materials pulled from across its collections, The ABC of It was a wild success—the most highly attended NYPL exhibit, it was extended twice, running from June 2013 to September 2014.
But what about those who didn’t make it to New York City, and those of us who wish we could have returned just one more time? We at the Kerlan Collection dreamed of adapting Marcus’s text to pair with the Kerlan materials, and it is with enormous gratitude that we thank The New York Public Library for permission to adapt its impressive exhibit for this new one, using Marcus’s intellectual framework and insightful (and sometimes wry) descriptions.
Our exhibit explores the impact of children's literature in society and culture over time, using more than 200 books, pieces of original artwork and correspondence, and other materials selected from the University of Minnesota Archives and Special Collections.
-Lisa Von Drasek, Curator Children's Literature Research Collections