The Kerlan Collection of children’s literature at the University of Minnesota is hosting an exhibition in Minneapolis next month, and they are inviting the world to it by publishing a book about the history of children’s literature that is doing double duty as the show’s catalog.
The University of Minnesota Libraries is publishing The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter by Leonard S. Marcus, an authority on children’s books, with a foreword by Lisa Von Drasek, the curator of the Kerlan Collection, which is well-known for its extensive archives containing manuscripts, original art, and other materials given to it by the country’s leading children’s book authors and illustrators.
The ABC of It, an illustrated history of children’s literature from Hans Christian Andersen to the present day, is the result of a six-month collaboration between the UMN Libraries and the University of Minnesota Press (UMNP) that began in earnest five years ago, with an exhibition at the New York Public Library, curated by Marcus.
Von Drasek told PW that she was one of the half-million people who visited the NYPL exhibition in fall 2013. She recalled visiting the show twice, even though she was in New York for only five days, saying, “I was stunned by not only the wealth of materials but by the way Marcus put each object in its historic and cultural context. It was like walking through a living textbook.”
When “The ABC of It” was extended through spring 2014, Von Drasek returned to New York to see it one more time, recalling that she “must have spent 10 hours” in the NYPL exhibit area that weekend. After the show closed, Von Drasek called Marcus to ask if there was going to be a book recreating the experience, but was told that the NYPL did not intend to publish such a book due to a lack of funding.
“As a lifelong teacher and librarian,” Von Drasek said, “I could not imagine this amazing resource gone, just gone. An exhibit is ephemeral; a book is forever.”
Von Drasek hit upon the idea of recreating the exhibit—using materials housed in the Kerlan’s extensive collection. “Yes, NYPL has the first edition of Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats, but in Minnesota, we have the original art and manuscripts,” she pointed out. (Gág, the American author and illustrator, was born in New Ulm, Minn., in 1893 and moved to New York City in 1917.)
The decision to mount such a show, Von Drasek pointed out, corresponded with the Kerlan’s commitment to helping fulfill the University’s mission, as a land grant institution, of “researching, creating, and disseminating knowledge.” Since she was hired as the Kerlan’s curator in 2012, Von Drasek told PW, the long-range plan has been for the Kerlan to share “with teachers, librarians, students, and scholars” the primary source materials housed there.
After discussing with NYPL officials in 2015 “and making it as easy as possible for them to say yes,” by assuring them that the Kerlan’s collection could support Marcus’s text, Von Drasek explained that she and a team of interns, volunteers, graduate students, and staff got to work, researching which materials housed at the Kerlan would best match Marcus’s text from the exhibit.
Besides Gág’s Millions of Cats, highlights of the 250 books and objects selected for display include original art from Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House, Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon, and Gustav Tenggren’s The Poky Little Puppy.
Three floors of the Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota were reserved for the exhibit, with the NYPL giving the Kerlan permission to use its case labels, after adapting them to the Kerlan’s materials. Digital loans and permissions were sought for items that the Kerlan did not already hold. Marcus visited Minnesota this past summer to review the books, art, and manuscripts that had been gathered for the exhibit by the Kerlan staff and others to support his text. Marcus will return to Minnesota for the exhibition’s grand opening festivities on February 27; the public will be able to view it from February 11 through April.
Marcus said he was “thrilled” about the Kerlan’s adaptation of his exhibition. “The Minnesota version will draw upon so many of the unique treasures of the Kerlan Collection, like the original art from Goodnight Moon, which wasn’t available in New York,” he said, adding that he was especially grateful that there would be a catalog this time around as “a permanent record of the show and the thinking behind it.” He noted that many attendees in 2013 had requested a print catalog, but that “it wasn’t in the cards. It’s thrilling to get a second chance.”As for the catalog, Von Drasek said that she approached UMNP because she admired the quality of its children’s book list, especially the fall 2018 release—Hush Hush, Forest by Mary Casanova, with woodblock illustrations by Nick Wroblewski—as well as its reprints of Betsy Bowen’s picture books.
“It was impossible to describe how this would be more than a catalog associated with an exhibit: it would be an illustrated history of children’s books,” Von Drasek recalled of the initial query she sent to UMNP. “I knew there would be demand and a market, not only for the trade, but for instructors of literature and art.”
Serendipitously for both Von Drasek and the Kerlan, last spring UMN Libraries hosted a national conference of academic library publishers as it launched its own publishing program. “So we had a deal. UMN Libraries would produce an open access e-book. UMNP agreed to produce and distribute [a book in softcover print format] if we delivered a well-designed completed manuscript and paid for the print run.” UMN Libraries provided most of the funds for the UMNP’s production of the print book, though foundation grants were also obtained.
While UMNP personnel provided production, marketing, and sales expertise every step of the way, it was most responsible for “the hand-holding of the enthusiastic, inexperienced curator,” Von Drasek said with a laugh. The ABC of It ended up being “an elegant oversized paperback with French flaps,” she added, designed by children’s book illustrator Lauren Stringer. The 240-page book, which contains 483 color images, will retail for $39.95 and will have an initial print run of 3,000 copies.
“It’s been groundbreaking and relationship-building across the university,” Von Drasek said. “Professors here are already adopting it for their courses. And people won’t have to come to Minnesota to see the exhibit: they can just read the book.”