With the extensive collection from children’s books donated by Peter J. Solomon ’60, MBA ’63, the newly renovated Houghton Library could have opened an exhibition of the genre’s “greatest hits”. Among other treasures, the Salomon collection includes the first editions of Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and that of Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit. But in “Animals Are Us”, an exhibition open in the library until January 7, 2022, guest curators H. Nichols B. Clark ’69, Founding Director and Chief Curator (Emeritus) of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, and Meghan Melvin, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, aimed at a broader perspective.
The new exhibit, the first in a newly renovated Houghton library, explores anthropomorphism in children’s literature, celebrating Solomon’s collection while inviting guests to explore the cultural influence, potential and pitfalls of books. for children. “As we welcome feelings of joy and longing,” writes Houghton Library librarian Thomas Hyry in an introduction to the collection, “this exhibit – and children’s literature in general – is quickly emerging as a source of much more powerful to understand our collective past. and present.
Visitors usually start with the first section, “Getting Started,” which examines the introduction to children’s literature as a genre. With German folk stories by the Brothers Grimm and other early classics, the section traces some of the basic elements of children’s literature – talking animals, nursery rhymes, colorful images – back to their origin. This growth trajectory continues in “Fables”, with original works by Jean de La Fontaine and Rudyard Kipling. On the wall above the exhibition is “Drawing of a lion”, a work by Alexander Calder. “We don’t want people to miss what’s hanging on the walls,” said Melvin, where many unique features of the exhibit hang.
Much of the intrigue of the exhibition comes from the common thread curators construct from some of the oldest and most famous children’s works to contemporary stories. In the “Nursery Rhymes” section, which follows the progression of rhymes in children’s literature, Hey Diddle Diddle and Baby Bunting by Randolph Caldecott sits next After the fall: how Humpty Dumpty got up—A contemporary piece on a classic by author and illustrator Dan Santat (who won the Caldecott Medal for Illustration in 2015). Examples like this are an invitation, says Melvin, “to think about books that visitors might be very familiar with and very fond of … through a new lens.”
A more critical look emerges more clearly from the “Controversy” section of the exhibition, which deals with cultural appropriation, racism and religious proselytism in children’s literature. In the window, Helen Bannerman’s The story of Little Black Sambo—A book criticized for its depictions of racial stereotypes — side Sam and the Tigers: A New Story from Little Black Sambo by African-American writer Julian Lester. Both Conservatives have recognized that while children’s books can offend and cause harm, the best way to answer the questions they raise is to confront them directly. “These books don’t need to go away,” says Melvin, “but maybe the way we talk about them and the way we look at them should change.”
Some of the controversies exposed are less substantial. In the original version of EB White Stuart little, a first edition of which was donated by Solomon, Stuart has been described as being “born” into the small human family. This description turned out to be scandalous at the time, and the wording was later adapted to say that it “happened”.
Sections ‘Endurance’, ‘Adaptation’ and ‘Innovation’ follow, showing how and why children’s literature remains so firmly entrenched in the popular imagination and where gender, technology and broader cultural perspectives are playing an increasing role. . The exhibition concludes with a selection titled “Restoring Dignity,” devoted to writers’ efforts to portray Indigenous peoples in children’s literature in a respectful rather than stereotypical and humiliating way, as was often the case in previous generations. . After a library renovation that added accessibility features to a rather closed space, the exhibition continues the theme of belonging. “What it does,” said Clark, “is it gives the individual an entry point.”