The cover of Beatrix Potter's 1902 edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Image courtesy of the British Library.
The cover of Beatrix Potter's 1902 edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Image courtesy of the British Library.
A pop-out jigsawed book of Dolly the Sheep © Karen Bleitz
A pop-out jigsawed book of Dolly the Sheep © Karen Bleitz
The title page from the 1950 London edition of CS Lewis' The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe. Copyright © CS Lewis Pte Ltd
The title page from the 1950 London edition of CS Lewis' The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe. Copyright © CS Lewis Pte Ltd
An illustration from the 1877 edition of Anna Sewell's Black Beauty. Image courtesy of the British Library.
An illustration from the 1877 edition of Anna Sewell's Black Beauty. Image courtesy of the British Library.

Animal Tales at the British Library

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Kids in Museums’ volunteer Lois Keith took a look at a new free British Library exhibition exploring animals on the page.

This exhibition goes on the trail of animals on the page, asking why they have come to play such an important role in literature for adults and children alike. Using examples from the British Library’s impressive collection, it includes well known writers such as Michel de Montaigne, Anton Chekhov and Franz Kafka who have used animals to deliver powerful messages about what it means to be human.

There’s also an eighteenth century Chinese woodblock and the original version of Art Spiegelman’s powerful and disturbing cartoon drawings which use animals to describe his parents’ experience of the Holocaust, amongst a huge range of other things.

With children in mind, they’ve provided a reading area with classics such as The Gruffalo, Wind in the Willows, The Tiger who Came to Tea and a sound point with readings. A Family Trail brochure is available at the Information Desk. There’s also a nicely produced ‘fill it in’ activities leaflet called My Bestiary: A book of animals both real and imaginary which can fold into a little booklet once completed. It includes riddles – children can find the answers in the illustrated trail around the walls of the exhibition – and suggestions for their own imaginative drawings and ideas.

It’s an interesting and well thought out exhibition and even the most knowledgeable of readers will find things to surprise and admire. But it isn’t an exhibition designed specifically for children and is static and two dimensional. What is a book for, if not to rifle through its pages?

I use a wheelchair which means that my line of sight is probably about the same as an average nine-year-old. I can therefore say with some certainty that for most children this age or younger it will be difficult to really appreciate what’s on offer because most of the books and the labels are displayed flat in unnecessarily high glass display cabinets.

I discussed my concerns with Roger Walshe, The British Library’s Head of Public Engagement and Learning and was impressed with his willingness to listen and respond. In my experience, this is unusual. He emailed me a few days later to let me know that he had arranged for the high labels to be lowered and the font size increased and for the in-case labels to be raised at the back so they are angled towards the reader, making them more legible and less susceptible to glare from the top lights.

I haven’t been back since but I hope that these small changes will make it a bit easier for all visitors. The height of the cases won’t be changed for this exhibition but he assures me that the British Library is working on a longer term re-development of their galleries and this is definitely something that they will consider.

For those who have never visited the British Library, this bright, modern building is worth a visit. The building is free to enter, with a choice of places to eat and a very good shop. There are several toilets for disabled people around the building and in addition to the disabled drivers’ spaces, Blue Badge holders can park on this side of the Euston Road in residents’ parking bays all day and on single yellow lines for three hours.

Animal Tales will be on at the British Library, London until 1 November. Admission is free of charge. For more information: http://www.bl.uk/

Judith Kerr will be speaking about stories and animals at The British Library on Sun 25 Oct at 3pm. Tickets should be booked in advance by contacting the box office on +44 (0)1937 546546 or [email protected] Full Price: £8.00; Under 18: £5.00 Other concessions available.

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