Arts & Culture

Rabbit Hole aims to make KC world capital of children’s books, top U.S. publishers sign on

Wearing a pair of corduroy trousers he purchased for the occasion and his trademark Vans sneakers and baseball cap, Pete Cowdin stepped into a world known to most Midwesterners only from Woody Allen films.

He carried a laptop filled with video testimonials from some of the biggest names in children’s literature: Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, (“A Series of Unfortunate Events”); Jon Scieszka (“The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales”); Brian Selznick (“The Invention of Hugo Cabret”) and Kate DiCamillo (“The Tale of Despereaux”).

The elite authors already were fans of Cowdin, trekking to appear many times at his former children’s bookstore, the Reading Reptile in Brookside and, before that, Westport. Cowdin had visited the authors, knocked on their front doors, and sold them on his grand new project in Kansas City, and got them to vouch for and pledge to support him on camera.

Ammunition in hand, Cowdin was in Boston and New York on a three-day quest to conquer the most hallowed halls of children’s publishing: Houghton Mifflin, Candlewick, Harper Collins, Random House, Macmillan, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster.

He sat on buttery leather couches with vice presidents, rode special elevators that only went to certain floors, gazed over leafy parks from corner windows in historic skyscrapers, sat across a boardroom table so wide he had to slide his laptop across it to show his video clips to executives.

At another table, for the first time in his life, he recalls, “people were throwing business cards at me — boom, boom, boom. It was weird. I didn’t have a card.”

At an evening meeting, he made his pitch over a Manhattan served with “the trendy big ice cube.”

At each meeting, men and women in suits listened politely to Cowdin’s pitch, then asked the same question: “What do you want from us?” Over and over.

Each time he said, “Not money. Not now,” and everyone relaxed.

What he wanted, he explained, was a promise, in writing, of help securing rights and permissions for characters and stories, including estates of dead authors such as Arnold Lobel of the “Frog and Toad” books.

He flew back to Kansas City with letters of endorsement from six of the largest children’s publishers. He brought them to one of his board members, Anne St. Peter, who had given him the daunting assignment, and laid the letters out on the table — boom, boom, boom.

“We have access to an entire industry,” he told her.

With that, The Rabbit Hole took a giant leap.

Reviving joy

Word of the tantalizing adventure had been spreading around town for the past few months. Cowdin and his wife and business partner, Deb Pettid, wanted to create a huge immersive museum and attraction called The Rabbit Hole, an ever-changing celebration of children’s literature. They’ve deemed it the world’s first Explorastorium.

They opened a workshop on Southwest Boulevard to build scale models of planned galleries, then built a 4,000-square-foot temporary walk-through exhibit based on Jon Agee’s storybook “The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau.” It opened two weeks ago at 17th and Oak streets to throngs of curious visitors.

Now The Rabbit Hole is blasting off to the next level, launching on Monday a 40-day, online Indiegogo fundraiser (igg.me/at/rabbitholekc ).

The goal is $150,000. To help get there, quirky perks are being offered, ranging from Wonder Cabinet Specimen Cards featuring things like Corduroy’s lost button (from Don Freeman’s 1968 book) for smaller donations to more substantial prizes for larger amounts, such as original artworks by famous children’s book illustrators like Herve Tullet and Rosemary Wells.

Perhaps the weirdest high-dollar perks are a chance to have your kid’s name written into Jon Scieszka’s next book, and an elaborate handwritten note from Daniel Handler that excuses your child from school for a day.

Of course, $150,000 is only a drop in the bucket of what will be needed to build the museum (an early estimate is $15 million). Cowdin says once they find a suitable and affordable building, a public capital campaign will be launched to purchase and build it. That could take two to three years.

The larger importance of the Indiegogo campaign is to propel The Rabbit Hole onto a national stage.

That is crucial, because the planned 50,000- to 80,000-square-foot museum — inspired by City Museum in St. Louis and the Exploratorium in San Francisco — aims to be far more than a weekend option for Kansas Citians.

Backers believe it will draw visitors from across the country, like the Baseball Hall of Fame brings people to Cooperstown, N.Y.

In the way the hall is an ode to baseball, Pettid and Cowdin see The Rabbit Hole as the biggest love letter in the world to the art of children’s books and the joy of stories.

Cowdin believes the way to turn nonreaders into readers is not to thrust a book into a kid’s hands, but to get the kid to want to read.

“A lot of well-meaning programs have taken the joy out of reading,” he says. “I want to revive the joy.”

Letterpress, theater, radio

The Rabbit Hole will be a wonderland where visitors drop, Alice-like, into lushly sculpted worlds that previously existed only on the page.

In addition to those walk-through galleries, which will change frequently, there will be permanent features such as, perhaps, a giant version of Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel, Mary Anne, rising out of a hole, or the forest from “Where the Wild Things Are” where children can swing on branches with Max.

A 100-foot-long diorama will depict iconic characters and scenes from the past 100 years of children’s literature.

A working letterpress print shop and bindery will create limited-edition books, some through author and illustrator residencies. An open studio space will give visitors a peek at artists building and sculpting upcoming exhibits.

A theater, an archive/library, and — sweet music to Kansas City booklovers’ ears — a bigger, better version of the couple’s beloved Reading Reptile bookstore are planned. Pettid and Cowdin married in 1989 and have five children.

“We are moving away from this precious, permanent model of museums,” Pettid says. “Our motto is: It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it can’t suck.”

[The true, strange story of how Pete Cowdin, Deb Pettid met, married and launched the Reading Reptile]

Cowdin, who is also a respected, provocative artist working under the pseudonym A. Bitterman, says The Rabbit Hole endeavors not just to entertain but to build a culture around children’s books.

“I want to do radio programs. I want to have a blog that is a catalyst and lightning rod for new thinking,” he says. “In adult lit, there are tools like the New York Times Review of Books, but in kids lit world, you only have publishers’ newsletters, which are blatantly marketing. From Kansas City, we are going to become a national voice for quality in children’s literature.”

He also sees the museum as a place where readers can discover the rich history of children’s books.

“Few people realize that children’s literature has a canon, like music or dance,” Cowdin says. “The superstore model and then the Internet model have destroyed publishers’ backlists. Whether it’s the ‘Little House’ books or ‘The Story About Ping’ and ‘The Five Chinese Brothers,’ there are thousands of classics that are not being connected back to the culture. We want to renew and revive and regenerate older titles.”

[A. Bitterman lived in a sculpture park in Indianapolis wearing a beaver suit]

But the leap into The Rabbit Hole has been exhausting and vertiginous.

For Pettid and Cowdin, forming a nonprofit, setting up a board of directors and an advisory board, and the incessant demands of fundraising were foreign territory.

Stacking his national advisory board with superstar authors and illustrators was easy-peasy. Over nearly three decades, more than 20 Caldecott Medal-winning illustrators and 15 Newbery Award-winning authors, plus dozens more honorees for both prizes, had participated in Cowdin’s high-octane happenings at the Reading Reptile, named the best children’s bookstore in the country in 2005.

“That’s our asset,” Cowdin says. “We didn’t make any money in 27 years, but we made a lot of friends.”

The breadth and abundance of those connections sets The Rabbit Hole apart from the few existing children’s-book-themed museum experiences, namely the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., and New York Public Library’s 2013-14 walk-through re-creation of the great green room from Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon.”

Some East Coast and West Coast authors have praised Kansas City as a location for The Rabbit Hole because of its centrality. The fact is, it could not exist anywhere else.

Since launching their mind-bendingly funky bookstore in 1988, Cowdin and Pettid’s long, strange journey has uniquely positioned them to conceive and execute a world-class cultural institution.

Pettid’s whimsical constructions in papier-mache are museum quality, and Cowdin’s commissioned operas and plays loosely based on children’s books and his annual DNA LitFest push stories off the page and knit them into contemporary society.

“With art or music, there are many ways to live it every day,” Pettid says. “You can go to concerts, museums, critical discussions. Exhibitions spark conversations and connections across a city, ‘Did you see the Water Lilies at the Nelson?’ There’s nothing like that for children’s books, even though their history is absolutely as rich as adult literature.”

A lofty vision

It’s an indication of how deep the support for The Rabbit Hole runs when you leave messages on a dozen big-shot authors’ and publishing executives’ cellphones on a Friday afternoon, hoping one or two will call you back, and 11 do.

Betsy Groban, senior vice president and publisher of Houghton Mifflin Books for Young Readers, called while stuck in traffic in Boston on marathon weekend to share how Cowdin won over her associates, some of whom may have been skeptical at first of his lofty plan.

“At the meeting, he was a great combination of enthusiastic and thoughtful. Everyone left the room thinking, ‘This is someone who may really get this done,’ ” Groban said.

Groban said she would be very supportive of the walk-throughs, especially for characters and books on the backlist such as “George and Martha” and “Mike Mulligan.” “Those are crown jewels for us.”

Two-time Newbery medalist Kate DiCamillo called from a Houston hotel room. She was there on a book tour and was stranded by floodwaters.

“Pete is a force of nature. To create a place that is constantly changing, where you can step into a book and where people can gather for stories, have writing studios and internships, it’s amazing,” DiCamillo said.

The authors and publishers, of course, stand to gain sales if their characters find a home inside The Rabbit Hole. At the same time, they would never risk damaging their valuable properties if they weren’t convinced of Pettid and Cowdin’s ability to pull off their extraordinary vision.

Caldecott winner Brian Selznick, who lives in Brooklyn and San Diego, is as excited about visiting the museum as having his characters possibly included in it.

“I think the immersive galleries might remind us of some of the more enjoyable rides at Disneyland, like flying over London in Peter Pan. They are allowing people to enter into the world of children’s books in a way that is entirely new.”

Daniel Handler lives in San Francisco and says he would return to Kansas City often to see The Rabbit Hole.

Asked how he could imagine his “Series of Unfortunate Events” books coming to life there, he replies, “Frankly I spend enough time in my head with my characters, and I look forward to seeing other people’s characters transformed.”

Story bus planned

In addition to the workshop on Southwest Boulevard and the temporary walk-through gallery (open weekends through May 20; online reservations required at rabbitholekc.org), Cowdin and Pettid have a host of other Rabbit Hole-related projects going on.

They created a Literary Fashions exhibition that recently closed at Johnson County Central library but is available to travel to other venues. It features elaborate mixed-material costumes based on picture books.

A mobile interactive exhibit based on Dav Pilkey’s “Captain Underpants” books has traveled around to schools. The exhibit is made of 30 pieces of plywood held together with clips that can be reconstructed on site in 90 minutes.

An ambitious project set for the fall is the so-called Mobile Storybook. In cooperation with the KCATA, The Rabbit Hole crew would transform a city bus into the bus from “Last Stop on Market Street,” a 2015 Newbery and Caldecott winner by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson. The unveiling would coincide with the national conference of the Urban Libraries Council, giving The Rabbit Hole more exposure.

The story would unfold along the route with digital animations on LED window glass, audio landscapes, and sculptures of characters inside the bus.

As riders board the bus, they can pick up copies of the book to read along. They can also “check out” the books and return them at any public library.

Cowdin hopes the magic bus will run on both a regular route and customized tours.

Cowdin and Pettid are also planning to open another temporary immersive gallery in the fall with a new story, depending on the budget and their fundraising success.

‘Age will disintegrate’

Sticking out of the grass in Cowdin and Pettid’s Brookside front yard is a headstone that reads, “Here lie the best ideas of A. Bitterman/1963-2013.”

[Pete Cowdin’s alter ego, A. Bitterman, aims to provoke]

Cowdin has had to sacrifice his personal art projects for The Rabbit Hole, but he has few regrets.

For one, art was even more of a money-loser than the store. He spent much of his time writing grants that would net him maybe half the cost of a project.

Although not art in the sense of his previous performances and interactive exhibits, The Rabbit Hole gives outlet to his deep creative impulse.

One of his passions is educating people about the distinction between literacy and literature. It is the difference between reading an eye chart and reading “Charlotte’s Web.”

“The Rabbit Hole is not about literacy, but it can serve that goal,” he says. “Story underpins everything in society. As soon as a kid understands that, that kid becomes a player at school and in society.”

He also wants to reach the other half of the all-important reading-aloud-to-kids equation: the parent.

“I don’t want The Rabbit Hole to be a place parents bring their kids to run around so they can sit with their phone. Hopefully it will be so compelling on a visual and creative level that age will disintegrate and everyone will experience it on an equal level.”

Cindy Hoedel: 816-234-4304, @cindyhoedel

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