Why Children's Books Matter

By Rebecca Sutton
Cut-out wall space of Where the Wild Things Are

The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter, on view at the New York Public Library, elicits the wonder of Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Photo by Jonathan Blanc, courtesy of NYPL

Wandering the gallery space of The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter, on view through September 7th at the New York Public Library, feels like stepping back into a comforting, colorful, and perhaps forgotten world. There is Alice, with her flowing hair and look of curious surprise. There is the red balloon, drifting over a hushed, almost sleeping room. There are wild things roaring their terrible roars, and the original parrot-head umbrella owned by Mary Poppins author P.J. Travers. There are less familiar pieces too: books from China and the former USSR, or more didactic offerings from the 18th and 19th centuries. These books and their characters have meant different things to different children, and carry with them the values and principles of their given time and culture. But different though they might be, they all have the same basic goal of speaking to children in their own language, and of helping to shape their developing young lives.

Since we’re in the midst of Children’s Book Week (May 12th-18th), we chatted with NYPL children’s librarian Betsy Bird about the exhibit, and about the wider world of children’s literature.

NEA: Let’s start with the basic question: why do children’s books matter?

BETSY BIRD: When we're kids, the hope is we're seeing as many children's books as possible to instill that love of literature right from the start. Sadly for so many people, sometimes those are the only books they have any memory of because they stop reading later in life. But they still have this emotional connection to the first books that they loved. There's a great Anita Silvey book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned From A Children's Book. She interviews famous people and asks them what book inspired them as a child, or what they remember best. The answers are fascinating, how sometimes those books, you carry them with you your entire life. 

Children's book museum display

A display at The ABC of It exhibit. Photo by Jonathan Blanc, courtesy of NYPL

NEA: A major aspect of the exhibit is children’s books from other cultures. In your experience, what do you think children’s literature from around the world can reveal about a particular society?

BIRD: I have had the pleasure of going to the Bologna Book Fair, which is the biggest fair for children's rights in the world. It is just eye-opening. Almost every country you could think of is presenting there, so you get a real sense of what the countries value in their children's literature. Certain European countries are really esoteric with their children's literature, very artsy. They push buttons, and they're not afraid to do that. You've got other countries that just do whatever America does. If America does a book, then they do the exact same thing. I was fascinated by the variety of Diary of a Wimpy Kid-type books from other countries—they've all made their own versions to a certain extent.

And what I found when I was there is that certain countries just don't publish children’s literature. Mexico has great authors and illustrators, but they often have to go to Spain to go to America to get their stuff published. They don't have a lot of bookstores, and there isn't a big focus on children’s books in the libraries. So they don't have any way of pushing this material, even if they did get published. You really get a sense of what societies value, not just even in having the books, but in what messages they want to convey to their kids.

NEA: There are some really beautiful areas of the exhibit that focus on favorites, like The Secret Garden and Goodnight Moon. Why do you think certain books like these have achieved such iconic status?

BIRD: It's something I've always wondered about—what makes a book stick around, or come back to a certain extent. Because Goodnight Moon was not a hit when it came out. It did okay, but it didn't do great and it kind of disappeared. So some things come back and some things are hits from the start. Harold and the Purple Crayon—that was a hit from day one. But there's got to be something that can connect not just with the kids at the time, but the kids in the future. The question is what is it? What is that spark? If you can get both kids and adults to adore you, you are good to go for life. But you have to connect with the kids. If you don't connect with the kids, they're not going to grow up and remember you. It has to be memorable. There has to be something about that book that sticks in the brain so that when [kids] end up being 35, and suddenly there’s a new baby in the family and they have to buy that kid a book, they think, “What did I read when I was a kid? Oh yeah, there's that book with the caterpillar and eating.” And then they buy that book for their niece or nephew. That's the thing—it has to stick in the brain. It's got to wheedle its way into the gray matter.

Alice in Wonderland museum display

An Alice in Wonderland exhibit at The ABC of It. Photo by Jonathan Blanc, courtesy of NYPL

 NEA: I think it seems to be pretty widely recognized that reading to your child is important, whether or not you do it. Despite this acknowledged importance, it still seems that children’s literature often struggles to be taken seriously as an art form. Do you see that disconnect?

BIRD: Absolutely. If you talk to anyone who is an academic world, they feel it more than we do. The term “kid lit” has been a very loaded, derogatory term for a long time, particularly in the academic field. In the world of children’s literature scholarship, lots of scholars would look down—particularly in the English department—at anyone who studied children’s literature. “Oh you do kiddie lit. That's adorable.” It’s very interesting to watch what popular culture does with children's literature when children's literature catches its attention. When Harry Potter came out, suddenly they were very interested. They were like, “Wait a minute, these things can make money!” But yes, children's literature doesn’t get the respect that a lot of other books do, unless they make a ton of money in which case suddenly people are really interested. 

NEA: There’s been a lot of chatter recently about the lack of diversity in the world of children’s literature. Do you see any ways this problem might be overcome?

BIRD: I think one way that [increased diversity] might happen is Common Core [State Standards education initiative]. Common Core requires diversity and multiculturalism, and different points of view and opposing viewpoints. If they're studying folk and fairy tales, they're doing them from all around the world; they're looking at other cultures. And this applies to everything—American history, science. So there is a hope that in terms of diversity, this will help kick it up a notch.