Behind The ABC of It: A Talk With Curator Lisa Von Drasek
It was one of the greatest children’s literature exhibits in my lifetime, and yet it produced no catalog. How is that possible? How did NYPL manage to create its most popular exhibit in its history, and yet it left no trace in the world?
When I heard that Lisa Von Drasek, the curator of the Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Minnesota had given a home to a new ABC of It, I was intrigued. And when she allowed me to interview her about it? I was thrilled. Here’s Lisa explaining how she managed to right a great wrong, and contribute something mighty to the world of children’s literature.
Betsy Bird: Can you give us a bit of a behind-the-scenes rundown of how the Kerlan Collection’s connection to Leonard Marcus and his ABC of It show came about?
Lisa Von Drasek: First of all, Why Me?
As you may recall, before coming to the University of Minnesota, I was a children’s librarian at the lab school at Bank Street College of Education teaching pre-K-8th grade. I was also the director for the Center for Children’s Literature at Bank Street. I was at Bank Street for 15 years immersed in progressive education and constructing curriculum for 2-year-olds to 15 year olds. I also taught Children’s Literature and mentored graduate students as a thesis advisor. It was the best job ever.
In Fall of 2012, I accepted the position as the curator of the Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Minnesota. U of M is a land grant university. This is important because our mission is to research, create, and disseminate knowledge.
The Kerlan is one of the leading repositories if rare children’s books, manuscripts and original art. The Collection is open access and anyone can request materials from our collection.
Our first digital exhibit was created with the generous donation of Melissa Sweet of her materials and finished art of Balloons Over Broadway.
What is The Kerlan/NYPL/Leonard S. Marcus Connection?
Back to The ABC of It. In the fall of 2013, I had the opportunity to visit The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter at NYPL.
Although I was in NYC for only 5 days, I went twice. I was stunned by not only the wealth of materials but by the way Leonard S. Marcus put each object in historic and cultural context. It was like walking through a living text book. I felt psychic pain not to have more time in the exhibit space.
The ABC of It was extended through 2014 and I planned a trip in the Spring to revisit. I could not stop talking about the wonder of Marcus’ words, insight and humor.
I was thinking, yes, NYPL has the first edition of Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats but in Minnesota, we have the original art and manuscripts. Yes, it was very cool to be in a reimagined space like the Good Night Moon but the Kerlan holds the color process art of Clement Hurd and the first dummy. In total I must have spent over 10 hours in the exhibit over that weekend.
That August 2014, after the exhibit closed, a ½ a million visitors has attended making it the most successful exhibit in NYPL history. I had a phone conversation with Marcus following up on a few research requests he had of the Kerlan. I asked if the exhibit was going to be a book. He said no, NYPL didn’t have the funds for a catalog and the text belonged to the library as part of the exhibit contract therefore he would not be producing one on his own.
The seed was planted. Could I recreate the exhibit using the materials from the University of Minnesota?
It was more than a year before I could have a meeting with NYPL representatives and with Leonard’s blessing, I started to do the research in my own collection.
The University of Minnesota Libraries gave me the thumbs up and I started the work. I knew that we needed all three floors of the Andersen Library. I knew that we would have a digital companion that would use Leonard’s words and our materials. I had hoped to create an exhibit catalog so that anyone who wanted to could spend time reading and contemplating Marcus’ thesis that “children’s books matter.”
The NYPL graciously gave permission to use the case labels for the exhibit and adapt them to our materials and create a physical, digital, and book editions.
I did not do this alone. A team of interns, volunteers, and graduate students, and staff pulled materials, entered data and created digital scans. None of this could have happened without two volunteer project managers, Mary Schultz and JoAnn Jonas and artist and designer, Lauren Stringer.
Each one of Marcus’ case labels had to be adapted to our materials. Digital loans and permissions had to be sought for examples that we did not hold. For example, NYPL displays the original Winnie-the-Pooh dolls. We will make do with a photograph of them on display.
The preparation took at least a year.
BB: What precisely is the relationship between your ABC of It and the ABC of It show that was presented in New York?
Thematically the structure is the same. We begin historically with William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and the New England Primer and move through Aesop’s fables Hans Christian Andersen and Beatrix Potter to the contemporary books.
We have surrounded the rare books with Leonard’s text explaining why these rare books, manuscripts, and art are important.
We also had to adapt to our space. We have edited the extensive New York City portion. (Though missing from the exhibit, we will have the whole of the NYPL case labels and examples in an on-line digital exhibit that will be completed sometime in Fall 2019)
Attendees to the NYPL edition may recall the mazelike wandering through the exhibit and the physical structures like a growing Alice (from Alice in Wonderland) and the race car from Phantom Tollbooth.These took advantage of the huge gallery space at the “Lion Library” We do not have that kind of exhibit area.
Attendees to our 2014 Arbuthnot lecture with Andrea Davis Pinkney can attest to the brilliance of our exhibit director, Darren Terpstra.
On the other hand, given my background in progressive, hands-on education, there will be interactive areas where attendees can participate in story-telling, writing, and art. The physical exhibit also gives me an opportunity to teach a continuing education course using The ABC of It as our class text.
BB: How much time did Leonard spend with your collection, to make the exhibit exactly right? How much time did you put into it on your end?
LVD: Leonard had been on site twice a few days in October, 2017 and then for a week in July 2018. It was in July that we cleared our adaptation of his words and the presented our selection of materials. We were in continual contact this past November and December by email and phone.
Time? I would say this is two years in the making.
BB: You’re no newbie to the children’s book field, but did Leonard unearth anything that surprised you with this show?
LVD: Leonard’s words and insights continue to surprise me. I have read the text numerous times and find myself marveling at the preciseness of language and intertextual connections. For example, Marcus writes:
“Randolph Caldecott enjoyed drawing galloping huntsmen as he whirred through the landscape in a fast-moving train. A century later, David Wiesner was on board a commercial jetliner when he made his first doodles of frogs in flight on magic-carpet lily pads. Tuesday continues Wiesner’s investigation of the picture book as an all but completely visual narrative art form, a possibility earlier explored by Caldecott in full-dress picture books spun from such slender rhymes as “Hey, Diddle, Diddle” and “Baby Bunting.”
We need to talk about the fact that the majority of the materials in the exhibit were generously donated by the creators.
When I asked David Wiesner if he still had that sketch he made on the airplane, he sent me scans and his further explorations including his thumbnail sketches for the finished book.
From Wiesner “The quick “doodles” I did on the plane. These images came to me quickly and I put them down as fast as I could.”
BB: If you had to choose your favorite inclusion, what would it be?
LVD: How can I pick just one? I am surprised but the first thing that comes to mind is Margaret Wise Brown’s Little Fur Family. It is a first edition, bound in rabbit fur, signed by both Garth Williams and Brown. The manuscript page and original art of Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats. The color studies of Virginia Lee Burton’s Little House—how the deep, deep blue of the watercolor saturated the paper.
BB: Tell me a little about the book/catalog.
LVD: The book/catalog, The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter is by Leonard Marcus will be available from University of Minnesota Press in February. It can be preordered now. It was made possible by funds provided by The Kerlan Friends, Furthermore: a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund, and individual donations. It is a 240 page paperback with French flaps containing almost 500 images. $39.95.
BB: Is this the first of its kind that the Kerlan Collection has ever participated in?
LVD: Yes. This is a unique partnership. The University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing Services is committed to open access scholarship and dissemination. They are producing an open access free-to-anyone digital edition. That means Leonard S. Marcus’ words are available to any teacher, librarian, and student worldwide in English. The physical book is being produced by University of Minnesota Press and all marketing and sales will go through them.
BB: Will this be a static or traveling exhibition?
LVD: In talking to librarians and teacher, I know that I am not alone in my longing to see this exhibit again. There is interest in other adaptations nationally like the Los Angeles Public Library and around the world. We have created digital materials so that the exhibit can travel whole or in part. The deGrummond in Hattiesburg Mississippi holds the original Curious George and Ezra Jack Keats, Snowy Day, and Philadelphia Free Library holds Virginia Lee Burton and Ferdinand. The Baldwin Collection in Gainesville has an extensive rare book collection that can be displayed along with the historical portion of the exhibit. My dream is that librarians from all over that hold rare and unique collection visit The ABC of It (the Minnesota edition) and imagine how they can adapt it for their own communities with their holdings.
BB: What is the Kerlan Collection working on next?
LVD: As soon as the physical exhibit is up, our team will focus their energy on a digital The ABC of It. Our next digital projects in the queue are First Pages: Revision and Editorial Process using the manuscripts and editorial correspondence held in the Kerlan. Titles that will be included are Because of Winn Dixieby Kate DiCamillo, Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis, Love that Dog by Sharon Creech, A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park.
A great big thank you to Lisa and the fine folks at the Kerlan for the interview.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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