Marvelous tales and adventures: the Children’s Special Collection at the Portland Public Library’s Portland Room

Many years ago, fresh out of graduate school for library science, I landed my first professional job as a grant cataloger of 19th century American children’s literature at the esteemed American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Although I found the books that I catalogued to be fairly depressing (which echoed my life at the time) with their pious and moralistic themes, it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for classic children’s literature and illustration, which I have always loved. One of my happiest memories as a child was reading “The Adventures of Uncle Lubin” (first published in 1902) with my grandmother, as well as reading books on my own such as A Little Princess (by Frances Hodgson Burnett), Hans Brinker, or, The Silver Skates (by Mary Mapes Dodge), and all the Wizard of Oz books (by L. Frank Baum). My imagination was also stirred through the illustrations of books, such as those by Beatrix Potter, Arthur Rackham, and Kate Greenaway. In fact, when in graduate school I was assigned to create an exhibit (on paper) on any subject of my choice, I chose to create an exhibit based on the clothing in Kate Greenaway’s books (with my premise that the clothing of the time was influenced by Kate Greenaway).

So, imagine my delight when I finally perused the marvelous books in the Portland Room’s Children’s Special Collection. (I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that it took me over 25 years to finally sit down and look at these amazing books). On my lunch hour one day this winter I wandered over to the Portland Room, where Special Collections Librarian Abraham Schechter allowed me to immerse myself into the magical books behind the glass sliding doors. I spent a very happy hour oohing and aahing over the book bindings and illustrations throughout many of these books, including endpapers.

My first question, though, was “Where did these books come from?” Abraham said that they were in the previous home of the Portland Public Library in the Baxter Building. Investigating the bookplates and inscriptions explained some of the provenance beyond that.

The most well-known children’s book authors, from both sides of the Atlantic, can be found in this collection, including Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), J. M. Barrie (Peter Pan), L. Frank Baum (Wizard of Oz), Frances Hodgson Burnett (Secret Garden), Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), Kenneth Grahame (Wind in the Willows), Rudyard Kipling (Jungle Book), and Robert Louis Stevenson (Kidnapped). Lesser known to today’s modern audiences, but very popular in their time, are G. A. Henty (known for adventure fiction and historical fiction), Harriett Lothrop (Five Little Peppers series), and Oliver Optic (pseudonym for William Taylor Adams). Closer to home are Maine authors Jacob Abbott (best known for the Rollo books), Sophie May (pseudonym for Rebecca Sophia Clarke, and best known for the Little Prudy series), Kate Douglas Wiggin (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm), and Josephine Perry, the wife of Admiral Robert Peary, who wrote “Snow baby” with her daughter Marie Ahnighito Peary.

And, oh, the illustrations! I found books illustrated by Howard Pyle, N. C. Wyeth, W. Heath Robinson, Randolph Caldecott, Arthur Rackham, Beatrix Potter, and Kate Greenaway. Even William Blake, the English poet and painter, is represented.

There are also wonderful fairy tales, such as those by Andrew Lang, Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm, and Charles Perrault. There are books in several languages, including French, German, Spanish, and Italian.

Alas, I could only begin to skim the surface in surveying these 600+ books. I hope I can return soon, to really delight in these beautiful books in a more leisurely way. (Here are more of my photographs of this marvelous collection)

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