Installation view showing part of the exhibit honoring “Frog and Toad,” written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel, as well as Martina’s house from “Perez and Martina,” written by Pura Belpré and illustrated by Carlos Sanchez. (The Rabbit hOle)
At a recent concert I was inspired by an intermission moment when I spotted a boy, the son of friends, reading a book. Wow. In the age of hyper-fragmented media, nano-second attention spans and rampant, dispiriting anti-intellectualism, maybe there’s hope. Hope, that is, for those of us who hold onto the belief that books and reading are essential. By expanding our consciousness, by introducing us to new people, places and ideas, books help to maximize our humanity.
Like most readers, I started early. Dr. Seuss and “A Fly Went By” — how can I possibly remember that? — shaped my interior world. There was a bookmobile where I loaded up on Scholastic paperbacks, few that I recall. I can almost remember the solo trips to the town library, which stood atop a hill between my grade school and home. I devoured a series of hero biographies — of Patrick Henry, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, now often and rightly considered problematic for their blinkered whiteness. And I confess to pursuing the guilty pleasure of Nancy Drew mysteries. (Why her and not the Hardy Boys, I can’t say.) From a deep stash of personal effects that surfaced not long ago, I found a Golden Library history of mathematics and a few of those Scholastic learning moments, including one on words and language that I’m sure must have spoken to me back then.
Whatever spirit of learning and reading I experienced all those decades ago — the magic all of us discovered in our youth — is about to soar again.
In March, a huge, gray-painted warehouse in an industrial, highway-hugging expanse of North Kansas City, is to be reborn as a place of wonder. It’s now home to the Rabbit hOle, an unprecedented experience center and museum that celebrates the world of books and children’s literature. Immense, immersive, exquisitely planned, programmed and constructed, the Rabbit hOle, with its giant recreations of story scenes and animal spirits, seems destined for general amazement.
On a recent walk-through, construction dust, wet paint and exhibit incompletion predominated as a crew of 22 designers, artists and fabricators remained fully engaged. But by a planned opening on March 12, the stage will be set, and imaginations will be ready for ignition.
To visit with Debbie Pettid and Pete Cowdin, the project masterminds, as their vision was coming to life is to be transported. (Disclosure: The couple are longtime friends of mine, and I’ve been a small-scale donor to the project.) Their enthusiasm for the books, the authors, the stories, the publishing history and the opportunity for childhood and parental education rises as they pass each display or placeholder.
On this day they marveled at the completion of a multi-scene arrangement presenting the story of a French mouse named Anatole. The Anatole books are the award-winning creation of author Eve Titus, illustrated by Paul Galdone. Anatole earns his living as a cheese taster (think: sommelier), though he must carefully navigate his way through the human world. In the completed display case, which Pettid and Cowdin were seeing for the first time — “It’s so cute,” she said — the new lighting might have been a bit too bright, and as they peered in for a closer look, they both bumped their foreheads on the immaculate glass facing of the box. Still, Cowdin added, “It kicks ass.”
The wonderland experience ranges from the H.A. Rey classic “Curious George” to “Bread and Jam for Frances,” by Russell Hoban, from the out-of-print work of Harlem writer John Steptoe (“Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters”) to exquisitely made room-sized recreations of scenes from Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon” and Taro Yashima’s “Crow Boy.”
There’ll be a group of familiar author-illustrators who got their starts as cartoonists, including William Steig, Jules Feiffer, Shel Silverstein and Jerry Pinkney. Personally, I can’t wait to see what the place will do with Chris Raschka’s books about three jazz titans — John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker.
Those who fondly remember the fanciful playground the proprietors built in their longtime children’s bookstore, the Reading Reptile, will only be partly prepared for the super-magnified experience of the Rabbit hOle.
Pettid recognizes that what they are up to now can reach a far wider audience than could a single small bookstore. Most of the exhibits in the Rabbit hOle are not dependent on wall texts and most offer a wholly visual experience that anyone can appreciate, whether or not they know the book at hand or even have a comfort level with reading. “I always wanted to have an impact on more kids,” she said.
Families will be able to bond over what they see, and teachers will find ways to inspire even their most resistant students. “A lot of what makes a person a reader,” Pettid said, “is an emotional connection.”
The giant and colorful exhibits can’t help but bring emotional responses to the surface.
At the same time, those with an intellectual interest in books, publishing and reading will also be abundantly served.
Pettid has conceptualized two large dioramas offering the range of experience that awaits. One speaks to adults or older kids, as it illustrates, along a 120-foot wall, a century of children’s books and publishing.
The other is meant specifically for young brains. Below the history diorama will be a series of 13 large cubes, situated along the floor at toddler height. The display cubes will contain images from 13 toddler picture books, sequenced from case to case, so that children and their parents can experience all the ways that young minds receive the world — by way of color, shape, motion, and even sound, among other stimuli. “I went through hundreds of toddler books to pick these 13,” Pettid said.
Each cube, with nature scenes, animals and other imagery, presents a mash-up of two-page spreads from each book, arranged in order, so that a child can follow them singly one after the other or figure out the connections among them all at once.
That kind of thoughtful invention seems endless within the walls of the Rabbit hOle. Old books will be revived. New books will be transformed. New readers will be inspired. I suspect that even my friends’ reading son will be moved, as I’ve been, by the unexpected magic.
Dante’s soul-sustaining, medieval epic, “The Divine Comedy,” gets the magical-spectacle treatment when the movement troupe NoGravity presents its visual interpretation of the epic poem from Italian choreographer Emilliano Pellisari on Jan. 31 at the Folly Theater. Presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series, this feels like a one-of-a-kind literary mashup for the adventurous spirits among us. www.hjseries.org/events/2324nogravity
The Missouri Humanities Council each year co-produces, with Southeast Missouri State University Press, an anthology of poetry, essays, fiction and photography by military veterans. Keep your eye out for “Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors,” Vol. 12. It’s edited by James Brubaker and includes the award-winning essay “What Is Caesar’s,” by Anne Kniggendorf of the Kansas City Public Library staff. www.semopress.com/books/proud-to-be-writing-by-american-warriors-volume-12/
With some newly available recordings and reissues the singer-songwriter Nina Simone (1933-2003) is having a wholly justified cultural moment. She was a vital component of the soundtrack of the 1960s and beyond (“Mississippi Goddam,” etc.). And now she’s the focus of a stage production, “Nina Simone: Four Women,” which Kansas City Rep presents Feb. 13 through March 3 at the Copaken Stage. The show expands on her powerfully frank song “Four Women,” which shouts out the lives of Black women in the Civil Rights era. www.kcrep.org/event/nina-simone-four-women/