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Time Machine: Cedar Rapids children's librarian Evelyn Zerzanek

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As the Cedar Rapids Public Library celebrates its 120th year, I could think of no other person who touched more lives through the library than Evelyn Zerzanek, the children’s librarian for 34 years.

She started many programs for children during those years, but it was the extraordinary collection of illustrations she solicited from the authors and artists of children’s book, that would become her legacy.

Zerzanek was born in Wisconsin in 1904 and moved to Cedar Rapids with her parents, Edward and Albia Zerzanek, in 1918.

She began working as a summer apprentice at the library in 1920, while still a student at old Washington High, graduating from there in 1922.

She continued as a student assistant during her studies at Coe College (Class of 1925) and the University of Iowa. She lived with her parents at 1821 Ridgewood Terrace SE until selling it in 1942 and buying a home at 554 Vernon Dr. SE.

In April 1938, Zerzanek’s parents died within two weeks of each other. That year, she also earned her master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago and went to work for the Cedar Rapids Public Library.

She spent the next 34 years promoting reading programs for children at the library, where she was the head children’s librarian for 23 years. She began story hours and summer programs to encourage children to read.

“Children naturally love to read once they acquire the reading habit, a habit that should be established before youngsters start to school,” she said.

Kid questions

As part of her duties, Zerzanek and her staff fielded thousands of questions from youngsters, some of them unusual. For example:

“What’s a pyramid look like inside?”

“Do you have a book that isn’t literature? I had one of those, and it’s too hard.”

“What’s a good Mexican name for a dog?”

And then there was the youngster who presented a written request for a book about “Abharm Licion.” The librarians figured that one out and found the child a book about the 16th president.

Old series out

Ever on the lookout for books with outstanding literary value, Zerzanek phased old series books out of the library. By 1965, standards such as the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys had disappeared from the shelves.

“It isn’t that they’re harmful,” she said. “But it’s the consensus of most professional children’s librarians that the old series books, however popular they have been in the past, just don’t measure up to the demand for quality in children’s literature.”

She suggested her young readers instead try books by Beverly Cleary, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Jay Williams.

Letters from afar

Zerzanek began her efforts to connect her young readers with the outside world in 1953. She located addresses for child stars, Europe’s royal children and other internationally known children. In letters to them, she wrote, “Do you think reading is fun? If you do, will you tell us why, and name some of the books you like best?”

Letters, written by the children, or by their mothers, nannies or secretaries, arrived from Holland, Sweden, Greece, England, Hollywood, New York and Washington.

Among them were letters from Carola Boxer, daughter of children’s author Emily Hahn; Jennie Hecht, daughter of playwright Ben Hecht; young actors Bobby Driscoll and George Winslow; President Eisenhower’s grandchildren; and Edgar Bergen’s daughter, Candice.

Illustration collection

An unsolicited donation to the library from Kurt Wiese, illustrator of the “Freddy” books, was so well-liked, it inspired Zerzanek to begin collecting illustrations.

She began writing to publishers, writers and illustrators in 1960, requesting original illustrations to display during National Library Week.

Original works began pouring into the library of Curious George, Little Toot, Kiki and Henry Huggins’ son. The illustrations were in oils, watercolors, chalk, crayon, pencil and ink.

After the first year, the collection had 150 items. By 1971, it held 750.

“I am continuously amazed at the generous response of the artists,” Zerzanek said. “They even send letters thanking me for thinking of including them in our collection. Sometimes the letters are more interesting than the pictures.”

Collection grows

Probably one of the most memorable donations came from Jean and Cle Kinney of New Milford, Conn. When she sent a letter requesting art from the authors of “What Does the Tide Do?,” Zerzanek had no idea that Jean was the daughter of Dr. C.A. Stout of Cedar Rapids.

Another illustration, donated in 1971 by Tom Eaton, author and illustrator of “Steven and the Green Turtle,” was a personalized picture of Steven pointing the way from Costa Rica to Cedar Rapids with a sign reading “Cedar Rapids, U.S.A.: 2185 miles.”

Eaton’s letter to Zerzanek included this note: “For the benefit of any kid who asks how I knew the mileage between Costa Rica and Cedar Rapids — I guessed.”

“There has been almost universal acceptance of the collection among both the illustrators and publishers,” Zerzanek said. “I don’t really understand why.”

In the process of collecting the art work, Zerzanek formed friendships with illustrators, exchanging Christmas cards every year. Sometimes her correspondence led to visits to the library by authors and artists.

Largest of its kind

When Zerzanek retired in 1972, the library owned more than 900 original illustrations from children’s books by artists/writers like Dr. Seuss, H.A. Rey (“Curious George”), Maurice Sendak (“Where the Wild Things Are”) and Arthur Geisert, an internationally known illustrator and writer of children’s books who grew up in Bernard, Iowa, near Dubuque.

The Evelyn Zerzanek Collection of Original Art from Children’s Literature is believed to be the largest of its kind in the United States, including everything from preliminary sketches to finished illustrations.

Zerzanek moved to Arizona after she retired in 1972. She died there in 1995 at the age of 91.

The art collection was moved to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art after the Flood of 2008.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; diane.langton@thegazette.com

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