NYPL’s Children’s Literature Exhibition – The ABC of it: Why Children’s Books Matter 

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.

NYPL's Children's Literature Exhibition Amar Chitra Katha

Amar Chitra Katha @ NYPL’s Children’s Literature Exhibition
Photo Credits: Juhi @ Noooks & Crannies

NYPL's Children's Literature Exhibition Amar Chitra Katha

Amar Chitra Katha @ NYPL’s Children’s Literature Exhibition
Photo Credits: Juhi @ Nooks & Crannies

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?

Talking Through A Post Comprised of Bullet Points (NYPL, Neil Gaiman, Cecilia Grant, Charles Yu & David Whyte)

1.

Schwarzman Building - NYPL

Schwarzman Building – NYPL
Credits: Juhi @ Nooks & Crannies

So the relative silence was due to some upheavals in my life. I’m now a baby New Yorker and so far I’m in love with the city. One of the best things it has to offer? The New York Public Library! Where one can borrow up to 50 books at a time. And from where I always borrow more books than I can possibly read at any given time. Which leads to the pleasurable task of deciding which book to renew and which to finish right away. And oh of course, the putting of books on hold and then checking up on them to track their progress as they make their way to me! As you can see, all momentous tasks that I have to tend to with utmost gravity and precision.

The NYPL also includes the gorgeous Schwarzman building with its two majestic lions, Patience and Fortitude, guarding the entrance to the hallowed world within. The marble halls, the intricate woodwork and the hand-painted mural ceilings are a sight to behold. I am in awe of there being a public space of such beauty.

2.

I finally read Neil Gaiman. The Graveyard Book to be precise. At first, I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was – most likely because my childhood was tethered to the adventure stories and mystery tales of Enid Blyton sans ghostly fables that took off on flights of imagination and otherworldliness.

I couldn’t connect to the tale emotionally. The whole premise was too alien and I was not really interested in finding out why Jack wanted to kill Nobody Owens. Or who the mysterious Silas was. And yet, halfway through the story I looked up and discovered that I had become so engrossed that it was past the time to get back to my chores. Something had clicked. The strangeness of it all was suddenly not so, well, strange anymore – I was vested in Nobody Owens’s future and wanted him to be safe and happy. All this to say that yes I want to try out more Neil Gaiman. And will include him in the list of authors-my children-have-to-read. (Yes, I have such a list).

  1. I also read Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened and quite enjoyed it. Like the hype about Mr Gaiman, I see why the romance reading community has made such brouhaha over this author.

  2. Part science manual, part a meditation on memory, and part an exploration of a father-son relationship, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe  is the other book that I read and I have decidedly mixed feelings about it. Mr. Charles Yu sure loves words and sentences–some of which went on for more than a paragraph. The story takes place in a universe where time travelling has been invented and as the narrator tells us almost everyone chooses to travel back to his or her worst day, hoping to redo it and start all over even though they can’t really. I found this particular facet thought provoking. It left me wondering if Mr Yu’s fiction has any basis of reality to it. Is that what we would really do? Given such a choice would we really go back to the days that housed all our regrets and mistakes instead of visiting those that had our most treasured memories? While I cannot know what posterity will choose I can certainly hope that it will be the latter.

Mr Yu’s musings on memory being a vehicle for time travelling which makes time travellers of all of us was certainly lovely. If the story had not been jettisoned into a hasty and not-properly-resolved ending and had had less ramblings (the pitfall of first person narratives I guess) I might have enjoyed the book more.

5.

Currently Reading – The Three Marriages by David Whyte. His discussion on work, relationship with your significant other and spirituality being the three marriages of an individual’s life as opposed to just the one that we normally think of is unique, interesting and will hopefully give me a new way of thinking about my own life.

Here’s Whyte, on the three marriages:

These are the three marriages, of Work, Self and Other.

A word on this word marriage: Despite our use of the word only for a committed relationship between two people, in reality this book looks at the way everyone is committed, consciously or unconsciously, to three marriages. There is that first marriage, the one we usually mean, to another; that second marriage, which can so often seem like a burden, to a work or vocation; and that third and most likely hidden marriage to a core conversation inside ourselves. We can call these three separate commitments marriages because at their core they are usually lifelong commitments and, as I wish to illustrate, they involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously.

And here’s a bit that I really liked:

Work is a constant conversation. It is the back-and-forth between what I think is me and what I think is not me; it is the edge between what the world needs of me and what I need of the world. Like the person to whom I am committed in a relationship, it is constantly changing and surprising me by its demands and needs but also by where it leads me, how much it teaches me, and especially, by how much tact, patience and maturity it demands of me.