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Children’s Book History Comes Alive at a New York Exhibit

A new exhibit at Pratt Manhattan Gallery that showcases the history of children's books through its authors, stories, and illustrations.
All photos courtesy of M. Alexander Weber

W. H. Auden once said, "There are good books which are only for adults. There are no good books which are only for children." This sentiment is at the heart of The Picture Book Re-Imagined: The Children’s Book Legacy of Pratt Institute and the Bank Street College of Education, a new exhibit at Pratt Manhattan Gallery that showcases the history of children's books through the early advocates of the genre, the writers who contributed, and the illustrators who brought the words to life. Prominently featured side by side in the exhibit are Anne Carroll Moore and Lucy Sprague Mitchell, two champions of children's literature and leaders of opposing schools of thought.


Moore, the head librarian of the Pratt Institute Children's Library at the turn of the 20th century, used her influence to create children's literature that transported children out of their realities and into fairytales and magical lands. She also pioneered the movement to open public libraries to children. Before her time, public libraries were considered unacceptable places for young children.

Mitchell, however, was a social scientist with a degree from UC Berkeley, and through her experiential research of child development argued that children's literature should not jettison the details of a child's day-to-day, but rather, embrace them to create a familiar, lively and interactive reading experience. Mitchell founded Bank Street in 1916, and as the first president, began turning a critical eye to the librarians associated with Pratt Institute and Moore’s movement.

"In the 20's and 30's public libraries were the major market for children's books at that time,” Leonard Marcus, curator of the exhibition and children’s book historian, tells The Creators Project, “which meant that most publishers were interested in doing what the librarians thought was best.” Of Bank Street and Mitchell’s philosophy, he noted that, “the progressive education people were considered somewhat fringy in those days, but gradually the progressive ideas moved into the publishing and mainstream and began to be more accepted by everyone. So by the 50's and 60's pretty much everyone was beginning to see that there was a place for the kind of book for very young children that Bank Street had invented."


The Picture Book Re-Imagined explores this interesting history of a dichotomy finally unified in the famous children's book, Goodnight Moon. Marcus argues that Goodnight Moon was the first example of a resolution between the two schools of thought. Written by Margaret Wise Brown, an acclaimed children's author who is also featured in the exhibit, the book achieves the perfect balance of fairytale and reality. “What this book really says,” Marcus elaborates, “is that the child's reality consists equally of the thing of the material world and the things of the imagination. She's redefining the here and now more broadly than Lucy Mitchell did to incorporate the thing that the librarians were saying was different.” In one sketch on display, you see that an earlier version of the story had human characters instead of rabbits.

Old photographs, notes from students, handwritten research and diaries, and even early Maurice Sendak illustrations that decorated the covers of Bank Street annual reports from the 30's, provide a glimpse into the lives of individuals who fought for a genre and an art form that universally shaped the childhood experience from then to now.

The Picture Book Re-Imagined is divided between Bank Street children's books, and illustrations by Pratt Institute artists, all from the 1930's to present. One large wall focuses on Arnold Lobel, an important illustrator during the time of Margaret Wise Brown, whose work was featured in many seminal children’s books, such as the Frog and the Toad series and Mouse Soup. Of the featured Pratt illustrations, a few notables include Tomie dePaola, Ted and Betsy Lewin, and Kadir Nelson.


The exhibition is up through September 15th, 2016 with Saturday Story Hours and an August 4th Library Salon featuring a conversation between Curator Leonard Marcus and Kristin Freda, Director of Library Services for Bank Street College of Education. For more information about gallery hours and programming click here.


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