‘It’s a pattern really. So many of the progressive writers and illustrators of children’s books were Jews,” says Leonard Marcus, who does not usually concern himself with the old parlor game of counting famous Jews. Marcus is curator of the New York Public Library’s exhibit on children’s literature, “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter,” which will conclude its run of over a year on September 7. It has attracted more visitors than any other exhibit in the library’s history.
The gallery spaces tell the history of children’s literature while giving the visitor the feel of walking into a children’s book. Marcus got this design idea from the children’s classics “Goodnight Moon” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” books that have a way of inviting children to enter the imaginary spaces they describe. The exhibit contains a wealth of anecdotes and artifacts from literary history. You’ll discover there, for example, the original Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, et al. — the actual stuffed animals belonging to Christopher Milne, son of author A.A. Milne, who wrote stories about them — and a handwritten letter in purple ink from Lewis Carroll to his friend Alice Liddell, who inspired him to write Alice in Wonderland.
Marcus explains that Jews from immigrant families in many cases found their way to the field of children’s literature because other artistic fields were closed to them.
“The culture of childhood is often considered a rung below,” says Marcus, who teaches a course in children’s literature at New York University alongside a child psychologist. “Even child psychologists are sometimes treated like second-class citizens by their peers.”
Children’s authors and illustrators like Tomi Ungerer and Maurice Sendak shared a sense of persecution and alienation as Jews, Marcus speculates. Ungerer, author and illustrator of adored children’s books like “Crictor,” lived under the Nazi occupation of Alsace-Lorraine before immigrating to the United States; Sendak grew up in Brooklyn at a time when Jews feared local anti-Semitism. His mother dressed him up meticulously when he was a child in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, Marcus says, so as to be beyond the reproach of anti-Semites. It seems that in part it was insecurityabout their lives as Jewish immigrants that drove them to take refuge in the outsiders’ realm of children’s literature, and that perhaps also drove them to work to legitimize their outsider art in the cultural mainstream.
“He had a vision of children’s books,” Marcus says of Sendak. “It was really transformative of the field. It was because of him more than anyone else that people began to see children’s art as art.” Sendak’s New York Times obituary describes him as “the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche.”
“He was the one who brought the picture book into the Freudian age,” Marcus says. “He opened up the emotional territory of the picture book, showing anger and deep feeling of all sorts. Little children have all these feelings but can’t verbalize them.” In “Where the Wild Things Are,” Sendak’s pictures gradually replace the words in order to depict a journey into the unconscious, “the place for which there is no words,” as Marcus puts it. Artists like Sendak, with their celebration of the child’s inner devil, helped children’s literature in its long departure from the puritanical didacticism of its origins.