'Bookscape' brightens literary landscape in children's library

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann


Laura Bohn '03, a volunteer at Cotsen Children's Library, finds a cozy reading nook in the trunk of a 17-foot bonsai tree that soars over the new installation at the Cotsen gallery. See page 8 for the complete story on "Bookscape."

Princeton NJ -- Cotsen Children's Library is being transformed into a literary wonderland.

Princeton NJ -- Walk through the doors, and you enter a replica of a garden with five-foot animal topiaries made of fiberglass. There are stools shaped like daisies and a table with sunflowers growing out of it, with benches that look like hedges. Beyond the garden is a miniature house with a bookshelf that doubles as a staircase, which children can climb to reach a reading loft.

The bookshelves contain a quirky send-up of an Edwardian library. Interspersed among real books are 52 carved wood books with titles such as "If I Ran the University" by Shirley Tilghman, a play on "If I Ran the Zoo" by Dr. Seuss. Another is "Just So-So Stories" by U.C. Knoepflmacher, a Princeton professor who teaches Rudyard Kipling's "Just So Stories."

Next to the fireplace is a s atorytelling radio. Push one of the buttons and you'll hear a Danish folktale called "Six Brothers" performed by a local storyteller. Push another, and "The Rooster Who Went to His Uncle's Birthday," a Latin-American tale, will play.

In the back corner is a 17-foot bonsai tree made of plywood, foam and fiberglass. Children can sit inside the trunk, which is covered with graffiti from characters like Tom Sawyer and Eloise. Perched on one of its branches is a pagoda and a tiny bridge.

The installation is called "Book-scape," and it immerses visitors in a literary landscape "reminiscent of places you've been in picture books," said Bonnie Bernstein, education and outreach coordinator for the Cotsen library, which is located on the first floor of Firestone Library. The Cotsen gallery, a space for reading, programs and exhibitions, has been closed since June for refurbishing.

The design is the work of architect James Bradberry, who set out to stimulate children's imaginations while encouraging their interest in reading. "We want visitors to feel as though they are in a fictive environment, that they have literally 'gotten into a story,'" he said. When someone told Bradberry, "The design reminds me of the McCarter Theatre prop room," he replied, "Exactly."

The father of three took care to create spaces just for children and to make those spots cozy. There are secret reading hideaways that parents can see into -- and perhaps squeeze inside to fetch their children -- but the spaces are designed for kids' dimensions. There is a wishing well into which a child can climb -- a reading light is nestled into the water bucket. Parents can't fit inside, but they can sit along the outside and read to their child.

A worker in the gallery climbs up some bookshelves, which double as a staircase and lead to a reading loft. The architecture of the new installation, called "Bookscape," is designed to stimulate children's imaginations while encouraging their interest in reading.


Nooks and crannies

There are dozens of details in the architecture that will allow children to make fresh discoveries on return visits. The house, for instance, has green wallpaper adorned with gold frogs and butterflies that become three-dimensional at the top of the wall. "It's kind of like looking into Jim's imagination," said Bernstein.

There are plenty of other nooks and crannies where the library staff is planning to put surprises so that there's always something new for children to discover.

Bradberry, whose firm is based in Bryn Mawr, Pa., has designed more than a dozen schools, including Princeton Friends School. He is currently working on a renovation of the Education Research Section in Firestone. The Cotsen project, which has been under way for the last year, is unlike anything he has ever done before.


A five-foot rabbit topiary made of fiberglass awaits its move into the gallery.

Judson Beaumont, the man who fabricated the structures, has assembled many fanciful creations. His custom furniture company, Straight Line Designs Inc., specializes in whimsical pieces for children. Beaumont's daughter sleeps in a bed nestled in a castle, and his son scoots around in a soapbox derby racer shaped like a giant carrot.

Beaumont transformed Bradberry's imaginings into tangible objects at his design studio in Vancouver, British Columbia, where a team of 12 woodworkers, painters, sculptors, laser cutters and metalworkers spent five months on the project. Beaumont took care to make each element highly detailed because "kids have very good eyesight," he said with a laugh.

The pieces arrived in Princeton on Sept. 4 after a six-day journey on an 18-wheeler, and they sat outside the library entrance for much of the day while a crew of four moved them inside. The animal topiaries, swathed in bubble wrap, looked like giant chess pieces. Passers-by gawked as workers lifted a piece of the 17-foot fiberglass tree trunk, its limbs extending several feet in the air, which was constructed in three sections so it could fit through the doorway at Firestone.

A fanciful clock offers the time in children's tales -- on the Cinderella clock, it will be approaching midnight.


"It looks good here," Beaumont said as the tree was brought in. "I'm glad it's in its rightful home."

The tree was installed on a platform that will be used as a stage for workshops, readings, theatrical performances and puppet shows. The installation will expand the library's seating capacity to fit 100 parents and children comfortably.

The Cotsen research collection is regarded as one of the great depositories of historical illustrated children's books in the world. Holdings include more than 50,000 manuscripts, drawings, books and educational toys dating from the 15th to the 20th centuries in more than 40 languages. The collection is the gift of Lloyd Cotsen, a former trustee of the University and a member of the class of 1950.

Photos by Denise Applewhite

The Cotsen gallery will re- open in early October with an official debut event for "Bookscape" on Oct. 19.


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