VINTAGE ALPHABET BOOKS
OSBORNE COLLECTION OF EARLY CHILDREN'S BOOKS
We interviewed Dr. Leslie McGrath, Department Head of Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books. This extraordinary collection, with examples of English children's literature up to 1910, fills the top floor of the downtown Toronto Public Library at 239 College Street. There is a fourteenth-century manuscript of Aesop's fables, traditional tales from the fifteenth-century, sixteenth-century school texts, eighteenth-century chapbooks and Victorian classics -- even Queen Mary’s children’s books and Florence Nightingale’s childhood library.
The Jean Thomson Collection of Original Art, consisting of over 5,000 original illustrations for children’s books, includes everything from woodcuts to watercolors to multi-media. Early work by Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway, Arthur Rackham, and Maurice Sendak are just a few of the artists represented.
Tell us about some of your visitors and what their purpose is in coming to the library?
We welcome visitors of every age and background. Their interests are varied, and range from adults in search of a favourite book from their childhood days to researchers completing scholarly books, students who come for talks and tours and casual exhibit visitors. Artists and writers look at original book art and stories for inspiration and to do research. For example, historical works require authentic details of speech, behaviour and setting that period magazines and books can help provide.
The interest in Osborne materials is not limited to children's literature and book history. Theatrical designers have come to study costumes in fairytale books, and I recall an interior designer looking at Kate Greenaway illustrations for a possible line of children's furniture, among many examples. I have been asked to find pretty images for use as a tattoo, and every librarian here could cite other interesting questions.
Have you had anyone share with you the impact that their visit to this collection has had on their creative work?
We have, and there is a well-filled visitors' book with messages from visitors and tourists from far and wide. We also keep a list of books that cite the Osborne Collection as a source for help, and it is an honour to be noted as providing assistance and materials to so many distinguished projects.
Can you elaborate on a comment you made about how the "contents of children's books help shape the inner lives of their readers, who then, as adults, go on to influence the world"?
This is the effect books may have on their readers, and children's books are no different in this respect than adult books; if anything, they may have a more powerful emotional impact because young readers are generally more impressionable and receptive. People react differently to books, but those who feel a strong or sympathetic reaction, or who are inspired by a book, often say their outlook was coloured by it.
When you conduct public presentations, what is the most important insight that you provide? Is your audience quite varied or does it mostly include historians and librarians with similar backgrounds to your own? What is your hope that they take away from a presentation?
I want to show students, particularly young students, that they are part of an information continuum. Using a story only sixty years old, I show them how quickly ideas can change: yesterday's anti-recycling picture book, read to enthralled young students, has certainly been replaced by more enlightened stories today. In fifty or a hundred years, people will read the stories of 2014 and may be just as amused or taken aback by what has, in their eyes, become quaint, outmoded and disproved. Yet certain themes and threads, including fairy tales, folk tales, and classic stories, are continually revisited and will always give delight in generations to come, though they may appear in new forms.
How do you feel eReaders are impacting the world of picture books for children today?
There is no doubt that eReaders are altering the reading experience for children today, especially as they enter the school years. Ebooks can range from simply a picture book downloaded to be read on an eReader or a picture book that has a variety of bells and whistles added such as animation and interactive elements. Either way, children are experiencing the picture book in this new format at some point in their early reading journey. The message from the current research though is that eReaders are not good tools for children under two years old. At this stage, in particular, the physical picture book experience is unrivaled. Hopefully the beautiful picture books that children are introduced to first will continue to be a part of their world as they engage with the more interactive elements of the picture book in an ebook format. -- (Joanne Schwartz, Children's Librarian, Lillian H. Smith)
In the last twenty years, which picture book illustrators do you regard as ultimately worthy of inclusion in this collection?
Please look at our online exhibit "Picture Perfect!" on the Toronto Public Library website, to get a glimpse of this, but the list is very far from complete. Wonderful illustrators come on the scene each year.