September 2012 | Rebecca Rego Barry

One Hundred Famous Children's Books, Vol. 2

It is a truth universally acknowledged that readers love lists. Collectors do, too. The Library of Congress made a splash this summer with its Books That Shaped America list and exhibit. The exhibit, which is on through the end of the month, is designed to kick off a discussion about books leading up to the LC's annual National Book Festival on Sept. 22-23. As some of you know, the Grolier Club is also busy compiling One Hundred Books Famous in Children's Literature, due to premiere in December, 2014. Is there any overlap between the LC & the Grolier exhibits? Last spring we spoke to curator Chris Loker about the Grolier Club list. We're following up on that conversation with some questions about both exhibitions.

RRB: Since we last talked in May of this year how has the Grolier Club exhibition progressed?

CL: The Grolier exhibition One Hundred Books Famous in Children's Literature has been making great strides in the past few months. When you and I talked last, I mentioned that we had completed the selection earlier this year of the "one hundred famous children's books" that will be displayed in the exhibition in 2014. I'm happy to report that this month we have completed the next step in our project, which is the complex job of arranging to borrow these one hundred famous children's books from nearly twenty institutions and private collectors in the US. We're pleased that this has been accomplished successfully.

In the course of completing this borrowing process, my advisory committee and I learned of the outstanding exhibition of books that currently is on show at the Library of Congress. Titled Books that Shaped America, this exhibition presents 88 books written by Americans from 1751 to 2002 that have had a strong influence on our lives in this country. Of the 88 books in the LC exhibition, 11 are children's books. And I'm delighted to say that all 11 of the children's books selected by the LC for their exhibition also have been selected independently by our committee for the "Grolier 100" children's exhibition. I take great encouragement from this strongly shared vision.

RRB: What do you think is the greatest similarity between the two exhibitions?

CL: Both the LC and the Grolier exhibitions have in common the goal of presenting viewers with books that cover a large span of time ~ the LC exhibition covers approximately 250 years of history; the Grolier exhibition covers roughly 350 years. Both exhibitions take the brave step of displaying books from centuries gone by that, while not well known today, were exceptionally well known in their time, and have left remarkable contrails as they have entered and influenced literary culture.

Curious-small.jpgFor example, the earliest children's book in the LC exhibition is a wonderful book titled A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible ~ and yes, that "k" at the end of "Hieroglyphick" is correct. This innovative book (shown at left), shown in the American edition of 1788 published by Isaiah Thomas, represented an effective and entertaining way to teach children biblical passages. It accomplished this by utilizing the "hieroglphick" tradition of replacing some words in each sentence with simple pictures. The result was an enjoyable way for children to receive and retain important information. This tradition continues today in the form of the "rebus" book for children.

While I don't generally talk about the books we've selected for the Grolier children's exhibition, I'll bend my own rule here just a bit to provide your readers with a taste of what they can expect from this landmark show. The earliest book in the Grolier exhibition is called Orbis Sensualium Pictus (often referred to simply as Orbis Pictus), which translates roughly as Visible World in Pictures. Written by Johann Comenius in 1658, this innovative work was an one of the earliest illustrated textbooks for young students, and functioned much like a bilingual (Latin and German) encyclopedia to instruct students in Latin, as well as to inform them of basic scientific and social components of the physical world.

Both of these fascinating books were exceptionally influential in their time, and remained in print for several hundred years.

RRB: What is the biggest difference in the two shows?
CL: The LC exhibition bases the selection of its 88 books on the concept of "influence," which is another term that might be used for books that "shape" a culture. In contrast, the Grolier exhibition bases the selection of its 100 books on the concept of "fame." Each of these words requires a detailed description that might best be illustrated by looking at specific books.

Huck-small.jpgThe LC exhibition has focused on books whose exceptional "influence" has "shaped Americans' views of their world and the world's views of America." Perhaps one of the best examples of this is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by Mark Twain in 1884 (shown at left). This iconic tale of Huck and Jim's trip down the Mississippi River is a work of the highest caliber in American literature, and so has left its mark as an exceptionally influential work. It also is a book that depicts encounters with racism, violence, and other evils of American society, and at times utilizes profanity and racial slurs. And this is another way in which the book has had an important cultural influence ~ it has engendered controversy which has set it firmly in the minds of the American public since its publication. In either regard, this book has had exceptional impact on American literature, and has shaped the work of important writers such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and many others over multiple generations.

In contrast, the Grolier exhibition will focus on books of great "fame." We have defined this term to refer to books of both great popularity and of literary merit. One of the best examples of this, and not a surprise to anyone interested to guess at books on the list, is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, written in 1865 by Lewis Carroll [C. L. Dodgson] and illustrated by John Tenniel. Alice is one of the most famous books in the history of children's literature, and perhaps in literature in general. It was an immediate publishing sensation whose popularity has not waned in the nearly 150 years since its publication, during which time the book has never been out of print. It has sold millions of copies in hundreds of editions in over one hundred languages to adoring children and adults alike. But beyond its popularity, Alice has strong literary merit. It offers exceptional intellectual play with logic and mathematics, and is considered one of the finest examples of both the literary nonsense genre and the fantasy genre. Few books have ever achieved this level of fame in the world of children's literature.

RRB: What can you share about the list of books that the Grolier Club exhibition will display?

CL: Oh Rebecca, you've already gotten me to mention several books that will be part of the Grolier children's exhibition. I'm working hard to insure that when this exhibition opens it will offer viewers great intellectual interest, much joy of heart, and SURPRISE. If I say any more about books on the list, that sense of surprise will be diminished. What I will say is that, like the LC exhibition, the Grolier Club's One Hundred Books Famous in Children's Literature is likely to engender great discussion, and possibly controversy, about which books "made the list" as well as which books did not. And rather than looking at this as cause for concern, I welcome it as a great opportunity for compelling conversation, and for lauding the great depth and breath of literature for children.

The Grolier Club exhibition is scheduled to open in December of 2014. We'll be following along till then, checking back in with Chris every now and again to watch this major exhibition and catalogue take shape.