FOR children's book buffs, the Kerlan Collection is a fairy tale come true. To browse through an author's or illustrator's project from start to finish is to witness the creative process of an artist. The collection contains more than 50,000 children's books, with the original manuscripts and artwork for more than 5,000 of them. Founded by Irvin Kerlan, who turned it over to the the University of Minnesota in 1949, the Kerlan Collection includes materials that date back to 1717, with 46 languages represented. Some 750 authors and illustrators have donated their original works to the Kerlan.
But this is no dusty archive. Housed in the majestic Walter Library here, the collection is part of an internationally recognized Research Center for Children's Literature. It's seeing more scholarly activity between its wood-paneled walls than ever before.
``More and more people see that children's books are worthy of scholarly attention,'' says curator Karen Hoyle, ``not because the books are any better, but that this is a body of literature that can be looked at from a scholarly point of view.''
Over the last decade, children's literature has enjoyed a heightened reputation in the scholarly world.
With such a significant collection, the research center and its staff are well-poised to serve scholars as well as to play an active role as a forum in the world of children's literature - organizing lectures, symposiums, traveling exhibits, and awards.
Here teachers, students, librarians, researchers, authors, illustrators, journalists, theater staff - even people on a lunch break - can be found browsing through card catalogs, books, and boxes of materials brought in from climate-controlled storage. Their reasons range from pure curiosity about children's literature to serious studies of social history, censorship, or gender. Some are interested in particular authors such as Wanda Gag, Tomie dePaola, Jean Craighead George, Maurice Sendak, Charles Miko laycak, or Ashley Bryan. The same rules apply to all: Wear white gloves to protect the art, and handle with care.
``It's probably one of the finest collections in the country,'' says Norma Bagnall, president of the Children's Literature Association. Children's books follow and echo what goes on in American society, says Ms. Bagnall, which is why such a collection is valuable.
There is also great interest of late in studying the impact of children's books on children. ``We spend a quarter of our lives as children,'' Dr. Hoyle says.
Recent acquisitions of the Kerlan include a large collection of illustrations from Barbara Cooney, a two-time winner of the Caldecott Medal, both as author and illustrator. (This writer poured over original materials for her ``Peter and the Wolf'' with fascination.)
WHAT are some of the emerging patterns and trends documented here?
Multicultural themes. Children's literature is becoming increasingly pluralistic. More minority groups are represented, both in subject matter and authors.
International scope. Stories have better translations and truer depictions.
Greater accuracy. In this information and technology age, facts are more accurate. Also, illustrations and photo reproductions have greatly improved. It is not uncommon now for children's books to be read by outside experts before publication.
Varying subject matter. There are more photography books for children and books illustrated with photos, both color and black and white. Difficult subjects are being tackled, such as war and the experience of being a refugee. Also, ``There's a trend toward fuller biographies,'' Hoyle says. ``History is exciting enough that authors don't have to fictionalize a lot. We have so much more access to information and archives and special collections.''
With so many more children's books being published each year (about 4,000) and the growth of scholarly study in the field, Hoyle says she's pleased.
``It's a delight to be part of a great movement,'' she says. ``To have been part of the acquisition of some of these materials that are used by scholars and exhibited by libraries and museums is very satisfying.''