The Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library’s exhibition of books from its 15,000-piece Children’s Literature collection may draw viewers eager to visit shrines to their childhood favorites. Conventional forms of the ever-popular stories are indeed present – familiar, quaint pages from Beatrix Potter’s “Peter Rabbit,” A. A. Milne’s “The House at Pooh Corner” with its delightful illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard – but it’s images like a book cover proclaiming “Hamaxostichus Rapidus Hogvartensis” that will draw viewers in for a second look.
In English, “Hamaxostichus Rapidus Hogvartensis” translates to “Hogwarts Express.” It’s emblazoned on the cover of a Latin translation of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (in the American printing, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”). Viewers may doubt whether Harry Potter has the street cred to match “Gulliver’s Travels,” which was originally framed as political satire and has become a staple for adult and child readers alike. This seeming inequality gives a clue to the real nature of the exhibition. Rather than giving a who’s-who of classic children’s literature, the exhibition reveals the competing goals of publishers, illustrators and collectors, and tracks the metamorphosis of works in the public market and the popular consciousness.
The displayed works are not necessarily representative of the library’s Children’s Literature collection, which is non-circulating and is intended as a resource for research. Very little from the library’s extensive store of materials on C. S. Lewis’s “Narnia” series is displayed, while materials on Peter Pan merit an entire case.
The curator for the Children’s Literature collection, William A. Gosling, explained how he chose the books. He leaned over the Peter Pan case, indicating the range of information given by this handful of texts: “They seemed to be groupings that told more of a story.”
The works displayed were selected to do more than just lip service to the standard set of children’s classics.
The Peter Pan case contains the earliest editions of J. M. Barrie’s play, a text illustrated with images from a 1924 movie of his story, and editions of his book from the past decade. They reveal the life of this story up to present day, in a way that the library’s “Narnia” materials could not.
One of the illustrators of J. M. Barrie’s tale is Arthur Rackham, Name sound familiar? That’s right: It’s the man whose name the Rackham School of Graduate Studies borrows. According to Mr. Gosling, Rackham is one of the most widely collected children’s illustrators. A close viewing of the displays will reveal in what ways the exhibition is a product of the University. Works by University alum Nancy Willard and Ann Arbor resident Tom Pohrt are each given ample space. Through the University connection, the library was able to obtain preliminary sketches, personal statements and further material to display.
The largest display is of “Alice in Wonderland.” Materials are organized in optimally informative juxtapositions. A book illustrated with stills from a 1917 film of the story is next to a version printed by Disney with images from the 1951 animated film, which is in turn next to an edition with illustrations that were originally made in 1939 for a film project that was never produced.
Organized this way, so near John Tenniel’s definitive 1865 English-garden-party illustrations, the wild, jungle setting of the Disney movie suddenly seems like a highly conscious and timely decision on the part of the designers.
At its best, the exhibition pulls away the layers of time that distance us from the creative choices made by those who first conceived a work and by those who market it, by those who translate it and by those who reimagine it.
Avid viewers of “Imaginary Worlds” can lead themselves on a journey both through their fond memories and through the workings of history.