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Vol. LXV, No. 48
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
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Elephants, Magpies, and Rudyard Kipling: “Serendipity!” Lives Up to Its Name at Cotsen

Ellen Gilbert

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines serendipity as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” Curators of “Serendipity!”, the new exhibit at the Cotsen Children’s Library, have added an exclamation point to make sure that no one misses the element of surprise implicit in the word.

“Serendipity!” is intended to give the viewer “a quirky glimpse of Cotsen’s diverse modern children’s books,” and with a “hippy’s Haggadah,” an interactive spelling book from the 1930s, and a 1954 edition of Waikiki Nursery Rhymes on display, the curators have done just that.

An English edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, first published in 1902, is given pride of place in the exhibit, but we also see a copy of Otkuda v kita takaya glotka (“How the whale got his throat” in Russian). A 1920 copy of the Polish children’s song, Sroczka kaszke warzyla” (“The Little Magpie Was Making Porridge”) may ring a bell with oatmeal-eating children (and adults).

Chinese, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, and Japanese are just a few of the languages represented in the Cotsen collection. Books in the collection are shelved by writing system, and a printed catalog, in which titles are filed “alphabetically by author and/or title” in a manner of “orderly arbitrariness” that might, we are warned, take some getting used to. No matter; most visitors will not be looking beyond the exhibit.

The curators acknowledge that the “amateurish illustrations” in the “interactive” The Wonder Spelling Slate on display “make the book less than engaging,” but it’s hard not to be riveted by The Santa Cruz Haggadah, billed as a prayer book, coloring book, “and journal for evolving consciousness.” Written in Hebrew and English, illustrations inspired by Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Rick Griffin, and Victor Mosoco, show rejoicing men in long black coats and hats — and very cool sunglasses.

The Cotsen Children’s Library, which is located in Firestone Library on the Princeton University campus, is an international research collection of illustrated children’s books, manuscripts, original artwork, prints, and educational toys from the 15th century to the present day. A gift of Lloyd E. Cotsen ’50, the library is part of Princeton University’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

In addition to being a depository for books, the Cotsen is a resource for children, families, and educators in the greater Princeton area, offering a variety of children’s programs that are open to the public and free of charge. Visitors are also invited to explore Bookscape, the library’s whimsical children’s gallery that is also open to the public free of charge.

For those stuck at home on a cold, snowy day, several virtual exhibits are available online. These can be found on the Cotsen Children’s Library website, /, which will also include details about “Serendipity!” in the near future.

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