I had to laugh when this book crossed my desk a few weeks ago: "The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter," by Leonard S. Marcus.

Why children's books matter? Why they matter?

I'm not sure that any books have mattered more to me in my life than the ones I read as a child.

When I was young, reading children's books was pretty much all I did — holed up in my bedroom after school; or hogging the family bathroom for as long as possible, simply because it was the only quiet place where I could lock the door; or huddled in the basement, in my father's book room, wrapped in a blanket. I read and read and read.

In my memory, I leaped from picture books to chapter books in about a minute, but who can remember? I do know that the pinnacle came during the first few months of sixth grade.

Redistricting had sent me to a new school where I didn't know a soul, an avant-garde "school without walls," with few rules and plenty of chaos. I didn't like it, and I found it an easy matter to slip out of the wall-less classroom area into the wall-less library area every day, escaping the confusion and losing myself in books.

This is where I read Noel Streatfeild's "The Magic Summer," the engrossing story of four English children who lived in a creepy old house in Ireland. It's where I read "Greensleeves," the coming-of-age story by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, about a teenage girl who got to live and work incognito for a whole summer. What could be more enthralling to a sixth-grade girl than the possibility of trying on a new identity?

That library is also where I discovered "Harriet the Spy," by Louise Fitzhugh, the story of a girl who carried a notebook and a pen with her wherever she went and wrote down everything about everyone. (That one, obviously, stuck with me for my whole life.)

Children's books, I have always understood, are crucial. So Marcus' book grabbed me before I even opened the cover.

Marcus is a scholar of children's literature and illustrations, and he was the curator of an enormously popular exhibit on children's books at the New York Public Library.

His new book, published by the University of Minnesota Press and with a foreword by U children's librarian Lisa Von Drasek, was inspired by that exhibit. The lavishly illustrated book focuses on books and illustrations that are housed in the comprehensive Kerlan Collection at the university (one of the largest archives of children's literature in the world).

It is an impressive and gorgeous book, with full-color illustrations from 19th-century primers, original sketches from Margaret Wise Brown's "Goodnight Moon"; many editions of "Alice in Wonderland" in a multitude of languages (ditto "The Very Hungry Caterpillar"); the original typescript of Wanda Gág's "Millions of Cats" (marked up with edits in pencil and pen); a first edition of "The Adventures of Peter Rabbit"; mock-ups of the first "Amelia Bedelia."

An entire childhood of books, spread beautifully over 230 pages.

An accompanying exhibit spanning three floors of the Elmer L. Andersen Library at the U will continue through the end of May, with more than 240 books, pieces of art and other artifacts, all selected from the Kerlan Collection.

Oh, Mary Poppins! Oh, "Make Way for Ducklings!" Oh, Maurice Sendak!

If you didn't read these books as a child, it's not too late. You can't check them out of the Kerlan Collection, but you can check them out of just about any other library. Just find a quiet table, and settle in. (Best not to hog the family bathroom, though.)

Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.