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  • The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter by Leonard Marcus
  • Zhang Shengzhen (bio)
The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter. By Leonard Marcus. University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

A favorite childhood book can leave a lasting impression, but as adults we tend to shelve such memories. For fourteen months beginning in June 2013, more than half a million visitors to the New York Public Library viewed an exhibition about the role that children's books play in world culture and in our lives. After the exhibition closed, attendees clamored for a catalog of The ABC of It as well as for exhibition curator and children's literature historian Leonard Marcus's insightful, wry commentary about the objects on display. Now with this [End Page 296] book, a collaboration between the University of Minnesota's Kerlan Collection and Marcus, the wide-ranging research and underlying vision of that exhibit can be experienced anywhere.

With Marcus's rigorous intellectual framework and insightful descriptions, this book explores the impact of children's literature on society over time and across cultures. More than 400 full-color images of original artwork and archival materials illustrate the text, which is divided into four parts: "Visions of Childhood," "Off the Shelf: Giving and Getting Books," "The Art of the Picture Book," and "Coda: From the Kerlan."

"Visions of Childhood" considers childhood as a cultural construct that has prompted the creation of not just one children's literature tradition, but many. Marcus argues that "behind every children's book is a vision of childhood: a shared understanding of what growing up is all about" (5). Concepts of childhood vary in fundamental ways from culture to culture and over time. The New-England Primer, first published in Boston around 1690, addressed the spiritual education of the children of the North American colonists who believed in original sin. The notion of the "Rational Child" developed by John Locke was a repudiation of the Puritans' vision. In the writings and artwork, spanning two centuries, of William Blake, Hans Christian Andersen, E. B. White, and Maurice Sendak, the child is a Romantic hero who perceives and at times also reveals the truth of life. The rise of developmental psychology inspired the vision of the "Progressive Child." Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon and Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon put into practice this new psychological understanding of how children experience the world. A discussion of the "Citizen Child" considers the role of children's books as propaganda, nation-building tools, and ultimately as building blocks of cultural identity.

Part 2, "Off the Shelf: Giving and Getting Books," focuses on the kinds of books that children have traditionally gained access to via their adult gatekeepers, and certain kinds of reading material children have found on their own. During the nineteenth century, with the emergence in the West of a prosperous middle class, a vibrant market developed for holiday gift books characterized by literary merit and visual splendor. Children's free access to public libraries, which became near-universal in the US after 1900, opened a new chapter in the democratization of reading and literacy; pioneered in America, children's library service has been emulated internationally. Yet some of the most beloved children's books were not those that the librarians and other adult authorities championed. To the amazement—and horror—of the experts, it was Edward Stratemeyer, the turn-of-the-last-century American author and entrepreneur whose army of ghostwriters produced vast quantities of formulaic series fiction, who captured the hearts of America's young readers. In the 1930s, comic books proved to be equally popular and controversial: loved by children but regarded as crude and possibly dangerous by the adults. Considering [End Page 297] the extreme contrasts in the types of reading matter that adults and children have sometimes favored, it is not surprising that censorship, a topic that Marcus discusses in depth, became a persistent factor as American children's literature evolved and flourished.

"The Art of the Picture Book" features a selection of memorable illustrations and argues convincingly that underlying the seeming simplicity of picture books is a high degree of...


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pp. 296-299
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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