Children have often read comic books without the approval of their parents, but a new exhibit shows how these and other children’s books have taught young people about law during the past four centuries.
“Juvenile Jurisprudence: Law in Children’s Literature” is now on display at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The exhibit features over 100 historical books that have taught children about government and the legal system.
The exhibit includes examples of books intended to entertain, those offering lessons in government and the legal system, and others including moral instruction. Works on display range from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” to catechism-style textbooks that employed a question-and-answer format to instruct children about the law.
“It was thought to be essential for the survival of the republic for young members to know about it,” Eva Heinzen ’04 said about the American legal system. “[The books] try to teach kids about the constitution, sometimes in a fun way, but other times in a serious way.”
Heinzen is research assistant for the curator of the exhibit, Morris Cohen, professor emeritus at the Yale Law School.
About half of the exhibit consists of Cohen’s own personal collection and the other books come from the Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection of American Children’s Literature. A few works come from other libraries, including the Lillian Goldman Law Library.
Cohen attributed the idea for the exhibit to his son, who as a child developed an interest in collecting children’s books during family vacations. Encouraging and assisting his son with his collection stimulated Cohen’s own interest in the genre.
Cohen said the appearances of the books helped determine which ones he he would exhibit from his personal collection.
“I wanted it to be visually exciting and intellectually stimulating,” he said. “I chose the ones that were most graphically appealing.”
Many works displayed are classic stories redone in a colorful format to attract the attention of children. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, “Crime and Punishment,” is included in comic book format in the vintage “Classics Illustrated” series from the 1940s and 1950s. Other such works include “Pudd’nhead Wilson” and “Joan of Arc.”
But some of the books are less well-known.
“[The books are] little odd bits and pieces you wouldn’t normally see otherwise,” said Timothy Young, assistant curator of the general collection at the Beinecke library. “People will see things that are extremely rare and things that have only a few copies in existence.”
“Juvenile Jurisprudence” is one of four major exhibitions a year that are displayed throughout the Beinecke library. Young said the show was conceived when Beinecke’s director invited Cohen to curate the exhibit as part of an effort to display more varied themes in the library.
Heinzen said she expects the exhibit’s material will intrigue and surprise visitors.
“I had no idea that there was such a genre of books,” she said.
Heinzen said one display case featuring animal trials attracts particular attention. The displayed pictures include depictions of mice executing a cat and a jury of elephants trying a man.
The exhibit will run through April 11 and is free and open to the public.