The New York Public Library is home to a wonderful exhibition these days: The ABC of it: Why Children’s Books Matter.
The first thing that struck me as soon as I entered the Gottesman Exhibition Hall was the sheer colours on display: you feel submerged in utter gorgeousness as soon as you enter—from beautifully illustrated picture books to silvery handmade embossments on indigo-violet coloured hardbacks (the name of which I now forget) to William Blake’s elfin-like watercolours in Songs of Innocence to the lush greenliess of the mock “Secret Garden” from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden—the exhibition is a feast for the eyes. (Unfortunately I was so entranced that I forgot to take pictures except one or two. I plan on rectifying that when I go again for the free guided tour. Yes, free. Isn’t NYPL simply awesome?)
I have experienced only a very tiny slice of the authors and the books featured in the exhibition and I had absolutely no idea that there exist such exquisite picture books for kids. I don’t know if my unfamiliarity was primarily due to a preponderance of books-famous-in-America or simply a result of my doleful exposure to children’s literature. Perhaps most likely, as is the case with all things in life, it’s a case of both-and: a glut of books popular in US and my general ignorance of kids’ books. The one glaring exception to my ignoramusness though was Amar Chitra Katha! Yes!! They had Amar Chitra Katha comics too as a part of the exhibition and that of course brought back all the happy memories of summers spent swaying back and forth on the tiny swing at my grandma’s place while breezing past through the stories of Ramayan and Mahabharta and Shakuntala in a comic form.
There is also interspersed through the exhibition quotes on libraries: from Ray Bradbury’s “Libraries raised me” to ““But why’s she got to go to the library?” “Because that’s what Hermione does,” said Ron, shrugging. “When in doubt, go to the library.””
The theme of the exhibition is of course Why Children’s Books Matter. The question makes me sort of gurgle with speechlessness. I mean, isn’t it sort of obvious why books and especially children’s books matter? But then again maybe it’s a good thing we’re actually having conversations about such important issues. So apart from the obvious that instilling a love for reading during childhood (something that children’s books play a huge role in) ensures a life long love affair with the written word, here’s what the exhibition had to say on the matter: there are two opposing camps on why children’s books matter.
One train of thought follows the puritanical view that reading should not only have a Purpose (yes, purpose with a capital P) it should also instill in the child good old moral values. Case in point: the biblical version of the ABC primer, one of the very first such books to be published in US that was in exhibition (by the way it was really really tiny)
A is for Adam: In Adam’s Fall/We Sinned all.
B is for Bible: “Thy Life to Mend/This Book attend.”
To counter is the singularly beautiful and illustrated collections of poems from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. Mr. Blake of course is a firm believer in espousing and encouraging a child’s innocence and nothing else.
The funny thing is that this argument which is essentially a battle between an activity having no purpose other than the doer’s sheer enjoyment of it and there being no purpose to an activity unless it has a well defined objective can be extended from books to their more glamourous cousins, the iPads and all such new-fangled technological inventions that today’s kids find themselves in the midst of. The viewpoints that the exhibition is putting forward about children’s books can be extended to almost all forms of technological inventions that have been on offer for kids since technology happened to humankind.
I am not sure what and even more if there is a right answer to such a question. Certainly, assigning a purpose to each and every new “device”/technology that a child experiences sounds extremely militant while having fun for fun’s sake sounds much more appealing. Then again intending to learn while having fun does not sound all that nefarious. So I am not sure. Perhaps, it’s one of those things for which the answer lies somewhere in the middle?