Patience and Fortitude, the enormous marble lions that guard the entrance to the main branch of the New York Public Library, serve as gatekeepers to a vast and glittering treasure trove – and it’s not just the stacks. Launching on June 21 in the NYPL’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is a free multimedia retrospective titled The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter. The exhibit features more than 250 books, art pieces, memorabilia, and other items amassed from the library’s diverse collections and will run until March 23, 2014.

The show’s curator, children’s book historian Leonard S. Marcus, treated PW to a behind-the-scenes tour of the exhibit, which illuminates the origins, history, and evolution of children’s books. Marcus described the process of curating the exhibition as an 18-month “treasure hunt”: an intensive quest to locate and organize artifacts that would collectively show how children’s books have paralleled, informed, and transformed society’s understanding of the child in the world. He emphasized how he was delighted to incorporate materials that “people would not necessarily associate with children’s literature,” and to observe new links between works of the past and present.

The exhibit’s multidimensional design mirrors the labyrinthine content of the many books it highlights: a motorized art installation piece depicts Alice in Wonderland as her neck elongates and then retracts. A furry standalone display features the cut-out shape of one of Sendak’s wild things, suggesting that it has just bounded through, and a model of Milo’s toy car from The Phantom Tollbooth sits invitingly as though awaiting a small driver to take the wheel. Nearby a case with Norton Juster’s novel is on display. Unlike many of the other books featured at the exhibit, this particular copy doesn’t have a storied past, but it’s emblematic of the show itself: first editions and precious memorabilia from ages past are comingled with newer picture books that might have come from any child’s shelf. Behind the exhibit is a trace of irony: Marcus pointed out that a single copy of The Poky Little Puppy practically has its own throne, surrounded by as much glass as the Mona Lisa. Historically, Little Golden Books were exempted from many libraries’ collections because the books (selling at 25 cents apiece) weren’t considered prestigious enough for inclusion.

With extensive background information accompanying virtually every piece on display, it’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole. But the exhibit’s organization – combining a chronological timeline of children’s literature with more conceptual arrangements – creates a lively and approachable framework that highlights relationships and connections. A sample from the Puritanical publication New-England Primer expresses the then-prevailing philosophy that children are inherently sinful. An original illustrated sample from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence stands in sharp contrast, asserting that children are born spiritually pure, while John Locke’s Enlightenment notion of the tabula rasa led to a fresh perspective on children’s potential and the importance of nurturing their development. This romantic sensibility blazed a path for many modern classic children’s books. Lewis Carroll and Maurice Sendak are both disciples of the romantics, Marcus believes. “Like the romantics, Sendak was interested in what went on in the woods,” he said. “Wildness was honored instead of oppressed.”

Among the objects on display: a 1666 edition of Aesop’s Fables that escaped the Great Fire of London; the original manuscript of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden; one of the first published sketchbooks from Japanese artist Hokusai; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s copy of Mother Goose (some passages he deemed too scary for his children are carefully annotated), and much more. One of the unexpected gems that Marcus discovered while finding material for the exhibit were two ivory-carved figures of Tweedledum and Tweedledee from Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. The artifacts were housed in the library’s collections, but the history behind them was unknown. Research revealed that the figures were intended to be fitted on the handle of a parasol: a gift given from Lewis Carroll to an adult Alice Liddell in 1892.

Offering wide-ranging cross-cultural materials, the exhibit also includes a section devoted to children’s books designed to foster readers’ cultural allegiance – including an original edition of James Stephens’s Irish Fairy Tales and a Civil War-era grammar book from the Confederate states (the “V” entry is for “Victory).

Another display traces the development of the early reader, beginning with a text-heavy nature guide, then the child-focused, didactic Dick and Jane books, followed by the unbridled silliness of Dr. Seuss. Also included in the mix is a reader directed specifically at Native American children. At the turn of the century, progressive educators – notably Lucy Sprague Mitchell and others connected with New York’s Bank Street School – also helped to usher in a more playful, experience-based style of picture book that fosters a child’s growing awareness of the world. Marcus explained that an author like Margaret Wise Brown enabled children to “participate” in reading instead of “listening solemnly.”

The ways in which children have acquired books throughout history also play a significant role in the exhibit. Some of the earliest children’s books (such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) were highly personalized, handmade gifts. The birth of public libraries profoundly broadened children’s access to reading materials: a noteworthy photograph shows the NYPL’s first Latina librarian, Pura Belpré, reading to a group of children in Spanish Harlem in the 1940s. Her original puppets and a book she wrote based on those characters are also on display.

Finally, there are the books that children have acquired secretly – such as comic books, which Marcus explains were once thought to “cause juvenile delinquency.” Speaking of clandestine reading material, a covered arena in the exhibit shows banned and challenged children’s literature from around the world; a stack of titles, all of which have been censored, tower toward the library ceiling. Illustrating the ways in which the exhibit’s content has informed the design, Marcus pointed to a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank. A photograph of Anne Frank is placed alongside an image of actor Joseph Schildkraut, who played her father Otto Frank in a New York stage production based on her diary. Juxtaposing a photo of the “real” Anne with the “fake father” was an intentional subtle commentary on the fact that Otto censored certain passages of his daughter’s writing.

Other areas of the exhibition touch on innovations in book form, concepts, and shape. Randolph Caldecott’s artwork is placed in proximity to Kara Walker’s pop-up book Freedom, a Fable: A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times and Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s fairy-tale spoof The Stinky Cheese Man.

Children’s books that take place in New York City receive their own display, such as Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day, Bernard Waber’s The House on East 88th Street Walter Dean Myers’s YA story collection, 145th Street, and Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach. The exhibit offers visitors cocktail party literary trivia to be gleaned at every turn. One such gem illustrates the firestorm of controversy that can surround seemingly innocuous children’s stories. For example, Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand, published in 1936, was widely believed to be a piece of pro-Franco propaganda, even as it was banned by Franco himself in Spain. Meanwhile, Hitler called it “degenerate.” And, according to Marcus, Ferdinand’s horns also inspired a hairstyle for women.

Two other examples of little-known children’s literary history: when Katharine Sergeant was a child (and long before she met her husband, Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White), she published a story about a spider in St. Nicholas; and, contrary to common belief, Heinrich Hoffman’s Der Struwwelpeter was intended to be a parody of German stories meant to frighten errant children – not a cautionary tale itself.

Marcus explained that his main impetus for the exhibit was to draw meaningful connections – almost like limbs on a family tree – between the tattered copies of books that readers especially treasure from childhood and more expansive channels of literary and art history. His initial inspiration for the show, he added, was personal and homegrown: it came in the form of a silly old bear and his steadfast companions who make their home at the library (and who were in prominent display at the exhibit). “I wanted to frame the Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animals in a broader context,” he said. And he most certainly has.

All photos by Jonathan Blanc.