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Exploring the dark side of children's literature

In the late ‘90s, a certain boy wizard kicked off a tidal wave of fascination with children’s literature from readers of all ages.

Much of that literature contains elements of magic, violence, drugs, death and sex that concerned adults deemed problematic, but it didn’t start with Harry Potter. Even before Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm, characters in books for children and young adults have always reflected the darker elements of society.

Detail from an illustration by Arthur Rackham, from "Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens," included in "Wardrobes and Rabbit Holes: A Dark History of Children's Literature" The newest exhibition from Cornell University Library — which opened Nov. 7 in the Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections — showcases that darkness and explores the vast wonderland of children’s literature.

“Wardrobes and Rabbit Holes: A Dark History of Children’s Literature” is composed primarily of the Library’s own collection of rare materials, including:

•    Two pages from the original manuscript of the first chapter of E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” which is written in longhand and shows White’s own sketches of his famous spider and her barnyard;
•    Illustrated first editions of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”;
•    Examples of young-adult dystopian fiction, including an autographed first edition of M.T. Anderson’s “Feed”;
•    Postcards, manuscripts and illustrations from Dutch-American author Hendrik Willem van Loon, who graduated from Cornell in 1905 and won the first Newbery Medal in 1922;
•    A rare copy of “Little Lord Faultleroy” from 1896, which inspired mothers to dress their sons in his style; and
•    First editions from the recent young-adult craze, including “Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight”

M.T. Anderson opened the exhibition with a talk, “The Ceremony of Innocence Is Drowned.” Anderson has won a host of awards, including the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2006 for “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party.” He has written multiple series and books for pre-teens, teens and adults, as well as four picture books.

“We are thrilled to host M.T. Anderson’s lecture,” said Eisha Neely, curator of the exhibition. “He’s a brilliant writer, and his work incorporates so many of the themes explored in this exhibition: fairy tales, dystopias and the profit-driven industry that children’s literature has become.”

The lecture and reception are funded through the generous support of the Stephen ’58 MBA ’59 and Evalyn Edwards ’60 Milman Exhibition Fund, the Nathan Zimelman endowment and Jon and Virginia Lindseth ’56.

To see more of the exhibition, visit the “Wardrobes and Rabbit Holes” webpage.