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Happy Children’s Book Week!
This past fall, the Newberry made a sizable acquisition: boxes upon boxes of children’s books. The majority belonged to Evelyn Lampe, who occupies a special place in Newberry history. In late 1984, she answered an ad in a local newspaper, volunteering to work at the first Annual Book Fair. For over a decade, she guided the Book Fair through an ever-increasing number of donations, volunteers, and customers, earning the half-humorous title of Book Fair Curator (and then, Curator Emerita).
With hundreds of books, duplicates, and a cache of ephemera, including the occasional stuffed animal, her personal collection is categorically grand. It covers a literary gamut, housing sections on history, cooking, art, bibliography, and, most emphatically, children’s literature. The works are tied by an undeniable thread—their eclectic, and sometimes eccentric, beauty.
Lampe had a particular affection for the works of German Expressionists, who captured our inner reality with non-realistic, geometrically absurd images. She amassed an arresting number of illustrated books and paraphernalia, inspired by the techniques and emotionality of these expressionists.
Many of the donated materials, though marketed to and read by children, are decidedly macabre—the novels of Maurice Sendak, for instance. Sendak, who died last spring, is remembered for wrenching the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery. His heroes and heroines are not well scrubbed or behaved, and their adventures stray from the G-rated.
The collection’s greatest strength is its congress of Edward Gorey materials. Like Dr. Seuss, Gorey delighted generations of children (and their parents) with riotous, often rebellious, tales, coupled with topsy-turvy illustrations. Inspired by the works of Ionesco, Buster Keaton, Goya, and Matisse, he, like Sendak, placed children’s literature on its head. His preferred technique was injecting sardonic material into Victorian templates. In The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963), he transforms an abecedarium into epitaphs about hapless toddlers: “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs…. B is for Basil assaulted by bears.”
Gorey authored 100-plus books (some under anagrammatic or translated pseudonyms, e.g., Ogdred Weary, E.G. Deadworry, and Eduard Blutig—German for “Edward Bloody”) and illustrated works for nearly 50 authors, including Samuel Beckett, H. G. Wells, and T. S. Eliot. But the literary community would never fully embrace him. First editions of his individual titles had small press runs, and were quickly swooped up or squirreled away by aficionados. The bookselling community was, and is, uncertain of how to treat these treasures; in any given bookstore, new or used, Gorey’s works can be found in the art, humor, and children’s sections. This confusion began as a marketing dilemma. Publishers were wary of Gorey’s reception among parents. Take The Loathsome Couple, which features Harold Snedleigh and Mona Gritch, would-be lovers who murder children…. Not your typical bedtime story.
Still, there is much to admire in Gorey’s work—its beauty, its influence on modern subcultures, and, perhaps most importantly, its emotional realism. Gorey had a keen understanding of what frightens children—a dimly lit hall or black abyss, the occasional dragon or unnerving waif, and, of course, a menacing adult. Hidden in the depths of these children’s tales are portraits of the human psyche.
We’re proud that these novels now call the Newberry home.