Curious Monkeys, Fantastic Foxes, and Three Little Bears Sitting on Chairs

By Ilene Dube

Photography by Andrew Wilkinson

The world brought to life in children’s literature thrives in a region that celebrates with libraries, bookstores and festivals.

On trains and planes, on the beach or in an overstuffed chair by the fire, the written word is served up on electronic devices, but those under age 8 are still turning the pages between cloth covers. Children, and the adults who love to read to them, can still escape into the magical world of wild things and the night kitchen, green eggs and ham and a purple crayon that can make all nine kinds of pie Harold likes best, and say goodnight to the great green room and the telephone.

An understanding of literary characters is one of the first ways a young child has of making sense of what it is to be human, says Kay Vandergrift’s Children’s Literature page on the Rutgers University website. “We all come to know more clearly who and what we are while reaching out, imaginatively, for what we might become.”

It is no surprise that Princeton, with its academic institutions and intellectual pursuits, is hot for children’s literature, with the nation’s largest children’s book festival taking place every September in Hinds Plaza. Many of the authors and publishers either live or are from here, and Princeton University’s Firestone Library includes a children’s library with holdings going back to the 15th century. The Cotsen Library’s public reading space with a two-story bonsai tree brings the world of picture books to life.

Ik-Joong Kang’s “Happy World” mural, Tom Nussbaum’s playful sculptures and Faith Ringgold’s “Tar Beach” mosaic welcome children and their families to the Princeton Public Library, where the youth services department is planning its ninth annual Children’s Book Festival for Sept. 20. Festival Coordinator and Youth Services Librarian Allison Santos recalls how it began with 22 very local authors, and grew to include 86 authors from across the country, drawing a crowd of 4,000 in 2013. Authors vie to participate.

“We even have unique artwork created for us,” says Santos, whose office displays posters designed by children’s book illustrators Sophie Blackall, Peter Brown and John Rocco—the latter includes the library building in the background.

The festival has been cherished by the community from its inception. Princeton is passionate about reading, writing and education, says Santos, who sees families leaving the library with stacks of books during summer reading clubs.

THE BEAR AND THE BOOKS

“We live in an educated priveleged corner of the country and parents are very interested in their children becoming readers,” says Bobbie Fishman, who owns The Bear and the Books in Hopewell. “Part of that culture involves starting early.”

Fishman was formerly children’s book buyer at Micawber Books, Princeton’s dearly departed independent bookstore, which featured an outstanding children’s collection. When Micawber closed in 2007, Fishman went to start the children’s section at Labyrinth Books, remaining there until spring 2012. In October 2013 she opened The Bear and the Books on Hopewell’s Broad Street.

The opportunity came to her while out walking. The Hopewell resident learned that Dharma Books—“an off beat, beatnik bookstore with ’60s books”—had shuttered its doors. With some paint and carpentry, the formerly dark space could become a childhood fantasy world.

Fishman painted the walls yellow. She put barn siding on the floor, and had custom shelves built from framing timbers, as well as a table and cash desk. Her friend Jody Olcott, who runs the shop Ebb next door, painted the sign, modeled on pub signs Fishman saw while visiting her daughter at Oxford. She also turned the front windows into display shelves that can be seen from both sides.

Can you find the secret painting? Look for the stools painted with an elephant and hedgehog. Continue searching under the little desk—only those small enough to crawl under can see it.

“I never cared what I did but about what it could teach me,” says the former freelance editor and Crossroads Nursery School teacher (1989- 1992), rocking in a small chair surrounded by neatly stacked shelves of picture books.

As an editor Fishman had worked with writers to develop medical, humanities and art history textbooks (“I was a fantastic editor because I knew nothing and could advise authors on what needed to be explained”). Micawber owner Logan Fox knew her as a customer and invited her to join his staff. It took several years for her to break away from her editing and accept his offer in 1998.

“It was the best job in the world, I loved my customers and what I did,” she recollects.

Fishman says she will only sell what she can stand behind. As an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence, she learned from Grace Paley that “real writing isn’t something you know about until you’re in the middle of it and you can’t know what’s going to happen, you have to let it happen and listen to it.

“That’s what makes the difference between merchandized books and real books—either you have a story to tell or you don’t,” she continues.

This is the criteria she uses to select books from the samples she gets from publishers. She describes it as an instinctual sense. “Some feel genre driven—there are hot subjects and you know the books were written to sell. Kids want to read them because it’s all they see—if everything out there is the same, kids think that’s what they’re supposed to read. But if you tell a kid about a good book they’ll read it. I do think readers recognize good books and they will sell. Kids will get tired of merchandized books and will hunger for more.”

Books in series can be comforting to a reader, she admits. “When you’re just learning to read, you want something that bolsters confidence and you don’t want to have to meet new characters.”

Fishman and her husband raised their own children without TV. “I was a huge TV watcher as a child but by high school I couldn’t stand the sound.” She read aloud to her children until they were 12. Her son, 30, now in his second year of law school, likes writing, and her daughter, 28, who is finishing her dissertation at Oxford, still enjoys reading children’s books. “Good readers never outgrow a good book,” says Fishman. “Good readers go back and reread.”

The Bear and the Books does not offer story hour. “I believe in reading out loud but it’s not an event you go to,” says Fishman. “I’d be happy to read to anyone at any time but not as a scheduled performance.”

Both Santos and Fishman agree that children still love to read books and digital devices have not yet impinged on this. “The publishers don’t offer much in children’s literature for digital devices,” says Santos. “Parents still like to put physical books in children’s hands. The size of the page and the placement of the text can’t be replicated on an e-reader, and the page and picture tell the story— even if you’re not reading the words. A digital device doesn’t capture that.”

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