Magic to Come at the Rabbit Hole

From a temporary headquarters at 110 Southwest Boulevard, Pete Cowdin and Deborah Pettid are working to create an ambitious new interactive children’s book center called The Rabbit Hole. Look for “an evolving array of immersive storybook worlds and ever-changing galleries dedicated to the very best of children’s literature,” says Cowdin. (Photo by Jim Barcus)

Planned interactive children’s book center will bring stories to life.

The Rabbit Hole is coming to Kansas City. And with it, an innovative new way of experiencing children’s literature that will educate, entertain and inspire, the likes of which has never been seen anywhere else in the country.

With support from a highly motivated team of local and national children’s book enthusiasts, the first phase of creating a world-class gathering place where children’s stories come alive is well underway. The search is on for a building, and a $15 million capital campaign will soon begin.

Right now, the team’s launching pad is a storefront at 110 Southwest Blvd., a temporary space that is serving as fundraising headquarters and demonstration site for supporters. On display are all kinds of scale models, illustrating the magic to come.

The Rabbit Hole, structured as a visionary 501 (c)(3) nonprofit center, is backed by a who’s who list in children’s literature and art, and spearheaded by two Kansas City specialists of children’s books, Pete Cowdin and wife Deborah Pettid.

Cowdin and Pettid are owners of the Reading Reptile, an award-winning children’s bookstore and cultural center of 27 years. For 13 of those years, the bookstore has been a favorite destination place on 63rd Street in Kansas City’s Brookside neighborhood. The same papier-mâché book characters by Pettid  that have been mesmerizing children for years at the Reading Reptile, will be featured on a much grander scale at the Rabbit Hole, along with fabrications and interactive exhibits, a theater, a printing press, a book store and reading room, workshop space and much more. And yes, the Reading Reptile will be closing in Brookside, but is likely to make a resurrection in the Rabbit Hole.

On view at the Rabbit Hole’s temporary space, the growing ranks of Deborah Pettid’s charming maquettes of papier-mâché children’s book characters offer a glimpse of what’s to come when the project is realized. Large-scale versions will be featured in walk-in storybook exhibits.
(Photos by Jim Barcus)

“Everywhere you look, there will be a story,” Cowdin says. Even now, in its temporary headquarters, children’s popular stories are coming to life, like the series, “Captain Underpants” by American author and illustrator Dav Pilkey. It is being transformed into a life-size 3-D pop-up display—an outreach prototype—that will be taken to schools and libraries across the metro to promote reading and advance the Rabbit Hole’s educational mission.

Cowdin and Pettid share a vision for an American center to celebrate children’s literature that “will change lives and change the way we think about literacy.”

“We want to create a platform for educators and parents by building an institution that honors the culture of reading in brand new and breathtaking ways,” Cowdin says. “It will be a portal one enters to experience children’s literature in an interactive three-dimensional environment.”

Cowdin calls The Rabbit Hole “the world’s first exploraStorium.” (ex/plo/ra/Sto/ri/um) “This is a place where children and adults will be welcomed to crawl, walk and climb through an evolving array of immersive storybook worlds and ever-changing galleries dedicated to the very best of children’s literature,” he says.

With its mysterious tunnels, nooks and crannies, filled with life-size characters, iconic locales and scenery from children’s literary classics, the Rabbit Hole will be to the visitor what the rabbit hole was to Alice in her Wonderland—an entry point to a world of excitement, discovery and adventure.

To make the Rabbit Hole a reality, the group needs to raise about $15 million and find a building. That building might be somewhere in the Crossroads Arts District—maybe not. And, then, there’s the creation of the exhibits, staffing, marketing, and many other necessities. Private donations and grants are being sought and the aggressive capital campaign will be headed by veteran fund-raiser, Mike Zeller, who took Kansas City Public Television (KCPT), to better financial well-being. Cowdin says an Indiegogo campaign will launch in mid-March.

“We are searching for a permanent home that’s big enough to contain the full vision: a printing press and bindery, a theater, a bookstore, a library and archive, residency studios, writing labs, open spaces for literary festivals, and, perhaps the coolest part … a pair of large and ever-changing immersive galleries, where kids literally go . . . down the rabbit hole. The Rabbit Hole journey is just beginning,” says Zeller.

Cowdin says wherever the Rabbit Hole is located that it will be a positive economic driver for the community and Kansas City. He anticipates that at least 200,000 people will visit the Rabbit Hole annually when it gets up and running, with steady growth thereafter.  And, there will be plenty of community outreach in schools and through community, business and media partnerships to get the word out.

There is a timeline on the Rabbit Hole’s website that features 2019 as the year the facility might become a reality. But, Cowdin is realistic that this depends on many things, not least finding sponsors and funding, and the right space. “Right now we are focusing on creating an investment group specifically for the purchase of a building,” he says.

Virtually every major publisher has endorsed the project. Award-winning authors and illustrators from around the world will visit The Rabbit Hole regularly—as collaborators, as presenters, and as mentors. The Rabbit Hole will become a criterion in the publishing industry as a spiritual home and relentless advocate for children’s literature, drawing visitors to Kansas City from both regional and national markets.

Barbara Marcus, president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books, is quoted on the endorsement sheet: “The concept of a place where both children and adults can immerse themselves in a range of programming that will foster the love of reading strikes us as not just ingenious and a lot of fun, but also much needed. The scale of it is breathtaking and there is nothing like it in the country. Please know that we are here to help in whatever way we can, and would be happy to facilitate the granting of rights and permissions on our titles.”

The Rabbit Hole’s national advisory board includes some of the most distinguished writers and illustrators in the business, including Jon Scieszka, Kate DiCamillo, Daniel Handler (aka, Lemony Snicket), Linda Sue Park, Brian Selznick, and Kansas City’s own Lisa Campbell Ernst and Shane Evans.

Cowdin, who writes children’s books under the name “A. Bitterman,” feels strongly that reading is a civil right, and greater access to reading leads to greater equality. He feels that the practice of reading aloud to children is a critical factor in their cognitive and emotional development, and that the Rabbit Hole can be a key player in encouraging that.

With plans to host many authors, Cowdin also believes it will be a meeting place for young people and authors that will inspire countless children to find their own voices and stories.

For now, the journey has just started down the rabbit hole.

Kathie Kerr

Kathie Kerr, a former publicist at Universal Press Syndicate/Andrews McMeel Universal, has worked with syndicated cartoonists and commentators, including Garry Trudeau and Pat Oliphant. She now owns her own public relations firm and works primarily with published book authors and animal welfare groups.

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