The trouble with preserving children’s books as artifacts from the past is that they are often shown so much love by the children who read them that they are no longer in mint condition. This winter, however, the Grolier Club in New York City, the oldest bibliophile society in America, is presenting an exhibition called One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature. The exhibition is the sixth in the Grolier Hundred series, and the first to highlight children’s books.

Curator Chris Loker treated PW to a private tour of the exhibit, which premiered on December 10 and will be open to the public until February 7. Over the course of five years, Loker worked closely with children’s book scholars and experts to determine how best to present the history of children’s literature, and to obtain the books, toys, personal correspondences, and other related artifacts from museums, archives, and lenders from around the world. Twenty-two institutional and private lenders have supplied the material on display. The result of Loker and her colleague’s efforts is a beautifully orchestrated and expansive collection, with works grouped together in thematic cases (including Fairy Tales and Fables, Poetry, Girls and Boys, and Animals), and paired with over 50 related objects that “bring the books to life,” explained Loker. The 100 books presented (a great many of them first editions) were published between 1600 and 2000. Familiar titles nestle in proximity to more obscure antiquities and behind even the most recognizable classic works are kernels of surprise.

In addition to displaying rare first and early editions of childhood favorites, the exhibition offers insight into the evolution of children’s reading practices, changing approaches to child-rearing throughout time, and cultural and psychological paradigm shifts. An earliest example of merchandising is represented by A Little Pretty Pocket Book, on display in the Faith and Learning case. The book, which praises good behavior, came with a ball and pin cushion. Loker explained that, if a child was obedient, the guardian would place pins into the colored side of the ball. If the child was not good, pins would be placed on the other side of the ball – and if that side became filled with pins, it was time for disciplinary action.

Also included in the Learning display case is a first edition of The Cat in the Hat. While the classic picture book is generally regarded as a fun and idiosyncratic storybook for young children, “The Cat in the Hat started as a book of education,” Loker said. Dr. Seuss, otherwise known as Theodor Geisel, originally wrote the book after being dared by William Ellsworth Spaulding, the director of Houghton Mifflin’s education division, to write a book that included 225 words considered essential for early readers. Seuss succeeded in presenting 223 of the words, with an additional 13. Other rare items on display include a copy of William Blake’s illuminated Songs of Innocence and Experience and a first edition copy of Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from Saint Nicholas, illustrated by Thomas Nast, “from whom we receive our Western image of Santa Claus,” said Loker.

Featured in the Girls & Boys display is an early edition of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, accompanied by two Hallmark cards, with paper doll representations of Elizabeth Taylor as Amy and June Allyson as Jo. A copy of Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day (Puffin, 1962) is displayed, marking “the first time, as best we know, that a child of color is placed on the cover of an American book,” said Loker. In the next display, among the books and items themed around animals, is a copy of Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings (Viking, 1941). Alongside the book is the maquette created by Nancy Schön, which served as the model for the sculpture of the ducklings that stands in the Boston Public Garden, and a 1931 comic strip in which Mickey Mouse first appeared.

Moving onto the Fantasy section of the exhibition, Loker explained that there are two cases devoted to the theme because “fantasy is so important in children’s literature.” Lewis Carroll’s personal copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is open to a page containing a purple line drawn by the author himself. The book is also paired with a copy of Robert Sabuda’s pop-up interpretation of the classic (Little Simon, 2003), while L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, illustrated by W.W. Denslow, is accompanied by doll representations of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman, merchandised 10 years after the book’s publication.

An illustration that Maurice Sendak created for his editor Ursula Nordstrom, in which one of his Wild Things eats a stack of books as though they were pancakes, is set near an early edition of Where the Wild Things Are (Harper & Row, 1963). Reportedly, Sendak adamantly did not want the item to ever be sold, but once Nordstrom died, it was. While this might not have made Sendak happy, it has enabled the item to be a part of the exhibition, Loker said. She also shared a relatively unknown fact about Sendak’s classic fantasy story: originally, Sendak intended the book to feature horses and to call it Where the Wild Horses Are. But once he discovered that he could not draw horses, his plans changed. Sendak’s inspiration for creating the Wild Things that appeared in the final book came from King Kong as well as from his childhood recollections of his rather eccentric Jewish relatives.

A copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, published by Bloomsbury in 1997 (the U.S. edition’s title was changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), contains only a few minor blemishes: “You never see these copies because they were so loved,” Loker said.

Additional storied objects on display include the Raggedy Ann doll that Johnny Gruelle created in 1915 for his daughter, Marcella (interestingly, Gruelle wrote the books based on the doll rather than the other way around). Despite how the dolls would go on to be reproduced and associated with decades of joyful play, the original story of Marcella and Raggedy Ann is a sad one. Marcella received a vaccination at age 13 and died shortly afterward; Gruelle, who felt her loss deeply and believed that the vaccination was the cause, actively campaigned against inoculation from that point forward.

The final image on display is a watercolor and ink drawing (ca. 1865) by illustrator Walter Crane, which, as Loker describes, “recalls the structure and beauty of a medieval illuminated manuscript, in this instance filled not with religious images, but with beguiling images for children.” The watercolor served as a prime inspiration for the exhibition, Loker says.

After many years spent organizing, designing, and seeking out the treasures featured in the exhibition, Loker now has the pleasure of witnessing guests admire the many characters and stories on display. Supplementing the exhibition is a 320-page, hardbound catalogue containing photographs of the 100 books and items on display, notes, and four essays. And there’s more in store: a colloquium entitled “Journeys Through Bookland: Explorations in Children’s Literature” will take place in the Grolier Club exhibition hall on January 20.

But while Loker hopes that “exhibition visitors and catalogue readers will come away knowing that literature for children truly does stand tall on the shelf with literature for adults,” she makes it clear that the exhibition is for kids, too. It was important to Loker that visitors to the Grolier Club be able to see books up close and to touch them. This is why the exhibition includes a central reading area with custom-made book caddies supplied by the nonprofit Bring Me a Book Foundation, based in Mountain View, Calif. The caddies contain reading copies of many of the books in the display cases (more than 30 of the books in the exhibition are still in print).

The reading station has been a big hit with young readers. One boy was so taken with reading the picture books that, when his guardian told him it was time to leave to go to the candy store, he wailed: “I don’t want to go! I want to stay with the books!” For Loker, that a child would choose books over candy particularly speaks to the lasting resonance of the books on display – and children’s books in general – which she describes as being “forged from the same enduring elements as literature for adults: powerful narrative, unforgettable characters, illustration that stirs the imagination, and insights that engage the mind and heart.”