ALA Midwinter 2020

Exploring Our Five Senses at the Free Library of Philadelphia

Oh, the Things We Saw and Felt!

On Friday, January 24th, the ALSC Special Collections and Bechtel Fellowship and a few special guests were treated to a behind-the-scenes type of tour of the recent “Our Five Senses Exhibit” at the Rare Book Department, Parkway Central Library, Free Library of Philadelphia.  We were amazed at the interactivity and book magic that was demonstrated in this popular exhibit.  It was co-curated by ALSC Member Christopher Brown, Special Collections Curator, Children’s Literature Research Collection and co-curator and our tour guide Karen Kirsheman, Librarian, Rare Book Department.

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Inspired by Aliki’s children’s picture book work and the original artwork from her 1962 book My Five Senses, a gift to the Children’s Literature Research Collection, this exhibition was such a hit with families early on that it was extended.  Original art was created by local children’s picture book and Geisel Award-winning author/illustrator Greg Pizzoli to help youngsters and their parents deepen their understanding of each of the five senses.  The final aspect of this exhibit was individual works of art from children’s picture books that depict the senses being used by their subjects – for example, Ferdinand the Bull smelling the flowers – or exemplified in books, as demonstrated in Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt.  We found it amazing to learn that this incredible author/illustrator – Aliki – currently lives in New York City and continues to publish children’s books today.

Committee members shared some of their favorite memories from the exhibit:

  • BW:  Excitement started to build as we saw the colorful cutouts that led us to the exhibit. My favorite items were the stunning hanging “Circus Bedquilt Design” by Maxfield Parrish and the hornbook that was made to look like a person.  We all appreciated that tour guide Karen Kirsheman had pulled many styles of hornbooks especially for our group.
  • JR: I loved viewing the original children’s book artwork that was associated with the 5 Senses Exhibit, especially Ferdinand the Bull smelling the flowers; the Beatrix Potter memorabilia; and the letter transcribed from Beatrix’s original letter that said “I’m sorry to say we used to have rabbit pie”.
  • RF:  The whole theme of the Rare Book exhibit was made so accessible to families: the writing prompts associated with each sense, the touch area with different boxes, the “Circus Bedquilt Design” and other original artwork by Maxfield Parrish, Aliki’s book dummy for Our Five Senses displayed next to the final printed work for comparison, and the letters in the mailbox for Aliki where children could write letters to send to her. The last ranged from hilarious to absolutely touching.
  • JK:  Stepping into William McIntire Elkins’ Library, we were completely immersed into what seemed to be a whole other world. It was stunning to think that every inch of his library was transported and reassembled within the Free Library of Philadelphia – from the window panes he once gazed out to the wood panels that his artwork hung from – a piece of history you could actually, literally, step into.
  • JL: I enjoyed the mixing of Greg Pizzoli’s new artwork with older artifacts so that it was appealing to adults and to children. There were two working typewriters, with one in Hebrew that writes from left to right; the children loved experimenting with this old technology. I appreciated the Maxfield Parrish art that is not often seen. This is a really nice exhibit for the families of Philadelphia. This inspired me to think about how senses are shown in other books, giving me a new way to evaluate books.
  • BK: My favorite piece on the tour was Grip, the stuffed raven who was Charles Dickens’s pet and rumored to be the inspiration for Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, “The Raven”. Grip was an unexpected and slightly creepy treasure to behold.  The Our Five Senses exhibit was engaging and delightful. The curators did a remarkable job integrating literature, art, and interactive elements providing a visceral experience for kids and adults alike.
  • MD: It was fascinating to learn that because the Library had extended this exhibition, they had to take down certain items and switch them out due to requirements and limitations of materials preservation policy and items on loan from agencies.  Karen kept reminding our group to “look at everything that is out now, as many of the items you are looking at will have to be put away for five to ten years, as a general practice to maintain them”.
  • RH: Karen shared an anecdote of what happened when she was struggling to communicate with a group of Spanish-speaking  children touring the exhibit. She pointed out the original artwork for Maria Had a Little Llama by Angela Dominguez. An immediate  connection was made when they saw the artwork and listened as Karen read the book in English and their teacher read it in Spanish.
  • ALL: Karen explained that there was a lot of upkeep for this exhibit, as it was interactive. One high maintenance exhibit was the Scratch and Sniff stickers, which had to be replaced almost every day.  The favorite scratch and sniff item was the fish; it was “disgusting”.  We all appreciated that there was a high/low element built-in that makes this exhibit enlightening for adults, yet was fun for children.

Many thanks to Karen Kirsheman for helping us have the most enjoyable time using Our Five Senses to see, hear, smell, “taste”, and touch old and new stuff and to look and experience children’s books in a new way at the Free Library of Philadelphia!  What grand memories we came away with that day!

(All photos courtesy of the  2020 ALSC Special Collections and Bechtel Fellowship Committee)


The 2020 ALSC Special Collections and Bechtel Fellowship Committee includes: Stephanie D. Bange, Chair, Special Collections and Bechtel Fellowship Committee, Dayton, Ohio; Maria Dietrich, Youth Services Manager, Oak Creek (Wisconsin) Public Library; Robin J. Howe, Children’s Librarian, King County Library System, Kent, Washington; Rachel Fryd, Young Adult Material Selector, Free Library of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania); Bethni D. King, Children’s Services Librarian, Georgetown (Texas) Public Library; Jacquie Kociubuk, Youth Services Librarian, Warren-Trumbull County Public Library, Warren, Ohio: Joyce R. Laiosa; Early Literacy Consultant, Instructor at the University @ Albany (SUNY), Slingerlands, New York; Jennifer Ralston, Materials Management Administrator, Harford County Public Library, Belcamp, Maryland; Bina Williams, Bridgeport (Connecticut) Public Library.


This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies:  Knowledge Curation and Management of Materials  and Professionalism and Professional Development.

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