Monday, November 16, 2009

Happy Birthday, Kerlan Collection!

Yesterday was the Kerlan Collection's 60th anniversary celebration, and to mark the occasion, the U of M Libraries hosted a talk by Leonard Marcus, literary historian and children's literature critic.

Leonard Marcus preparing to sign a book at a table
Marcus spoke about the kinds of things a researcher finds in collections like the Kerlan. Of course, it made me want to drop everything and go do some research myself!

He has published a variety of books, from picture books to interviews with writers to his own research on literary figures. A few paraphrased more-or-less quotes I particularly liked:

"Children's books tell the story of changing culture. What a society cares about is revealed by the books it chooses to give and not give to its children."

"Children's book illustrations are the most distilled forms of artwork of any kind."

Marcus spent much of the talk relaying details about the sleuthing involved in creating his book Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon.

Photo of Margaret Wise BrownIt all started when he stumbled across a copy of MWB's book Goodnight Moon in the early 1980s (the book wasn't such a widely known classic at the time... I never read it as a child, did you?). Inspired, Marcus set out to learn more about MWB. He placed an author's inquiry in the New York Review of Books and got one serious reply, from a man who knew Goodnight Moon's illustrator Clement Hurd. This led to a meeting with Hurd, and the years-long process of researching the book was begun.

MWB had worked with several talented illustrators in addition to Hurd, including Leonard Weisgard (The Noisy Book, The Little Island) and Garth Williams (The Little Fur Family, Sailor Dog). Marcus went to Denmark to meet Weisgard, who told him he thought the photographer who had taken some of the few published photos of MWB was named Canaga.

Returning to New York, Marcus had no luck finding any reference to a photographer by that name until he happened by a used bookstore one day. In the window was a book about women photographers, and the name Consuelo Canaga was on the cover. It turned out the Brooklyn Museum had some negatives of hers, so Marcus spent a day looking through three boxes (using a bare light bulb instead of a lightbox). At the end of the third box, he found the negatives of her photos of MWB, and was able to publish them in his book.

White house with irregular shaped profileAnother anecdote Marcus told involved a little white house where MWB had lived (or possibly used as a writing studio). Located in Greenwich Village, the house is tiny and ramshackle, an almost magical place -- perfect for MWB's tendency to mix fantasy and reality together in her presentation of self. The house had originally been built as a shepherd's cottage on the Upper East Side around 1810. The city grew up around it (Marcus made the point that it was much like a real-life version of Virginia Lee Burton's Little House), until it was moved to the very edge of Greenwich Village. It remains there today, at 122 Charles Street.

Having not read Marcus's book (though I hope to soon!), one of the things I found most interesting about MWB and her work was that it was very much based in the philosophy of progressive education, and that it was considered quite controversial at the time. She studied at the Bank Street College of Education in the 1930s, a protege of its founder Lucy Sprague Mitchell. As MWB's publishing career advanced, she enjoyed sparring with librarians (such as Anne Carroll Moore) who disagreed with the progressive education approach and wanted to maintain influence over what was published and available in libraries. According to Marcus, Good Night Moon didn't get into the New York Public Library collection until 1973 (it was originally published in 1947).

Margaret Wise Brown died much too young at the age of 42 while in Nice, France (1952). After an operation to remove an ovarian cyst, she was confined to bed, as was common hospital practice at the time, which caused clots to form in her extremities. She died from an embolism. At the time, it was reported that the surgery had been to remove her appendix, but Marcus's research found the truth, which had been euphemized because it was a "female" health problem.

After the talk ended, everyone went to the Anderson Library building, home of the Kerlan Collection, for cake and a look at the exhibit set up to commemorate the anniversary. Original artworks by Wanda Gag, Louis Slobodkin, Ted Rand and many others are on display.

Display case with original artwork from Caps for Sale and Ferdinand
A few favorites of mine shared this display -- Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina and Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf (illustrated by Robert Lawson).

Happy 60th birthday! I hope to visit you soon.

1 comment:

Unemployed Dragon said...

What a lovely reflection about this event. I love it when libraries do these sorts of's one of the things that librarians do best, I think.
I think I may have read GNM, but it may not have been until my younger siblings or cousins came along (I'm Daughter Number One in my family and Grandchild Number One in both of my parents families).
Very interesting to consider the history araound childens literature and the themes reflected at different times and the influence of educational theories.
and shame on the NYPL for holding out for so long for Good Night Moon!