Where the wild things are

August 5, 2013
Patrons enjoy a moment in the "Good Night, Moon" room of a new exhibit at the New York Public Library. (Ron Charles/Washington Post)
Patrons enjoy a moment in the “Goodnight Moon” room at the New York Public Library. (Ron Charles/The Washington Post)

Everybody from Winnie the Pooh to Pippi Longstocking to Harry Potter is palling around in one big room, and you’re invited to join them.

The New York Public Library has recently opened an exhibit called “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter.” Spanning more then 300 years, this fantastic show at the main branch on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street offers a chance to spend some quality time with the characters who shaped our earliest memories.

What’s particularly wonderful is the way curator Leonard Marcus has constructed displays that will educate scholars and entertain kids at the same time.

The exhibit of 250 books and artifacts begins with a cheery 17th-century New England Primer: “In Adam’s fall/ We Sinned All,” but things pick up quickly from there. The rest of the show moves freely from biographical sketches to cultural analysis to the mechanics of publishing. We’re reminded, for instance, that Mary Poppins was a character in P. L. Travers’s stories before she floated into Walt Disney’s empire. Another display shows samples of Eric Carle’s richly colored collage paper.

Illustrations by 19th-century artist Randolph Caldecott show the man who inspired the prestigious Caldecott Medal. There’s a silly old bear that once belonged to Alan Milne’s son Christopher. Early editions of a new series about a boy wizard introduce us to the magic of a then-unknown author named J.K. Rowling.

The most elaborate elements let us watch Alice’s neck grow as long as a giraffe’s, or walk into Margaret Wise Brown’s famous bedroom and say, “Goodnight, Moon.”

For children who want to get right down to business, plenty of great books are lying around, too.

There’s always a reason to read between the lions, but now is a particularly good time. The exhibit, which is free, will run through March 23, 2014.

@RonCharles

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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