The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
By Jerry Griswold
The Eric Carle Museum
If it were in Manhattan or downtown Boston or next to the new public library in Seattle, chances are you would have heard of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Open since 2001 and the only institution of its kind in our country which is devoted to this art form, if the museum is still an unknown treasure that's because of its location in bucolic Western Massachusetts. But that's not to suggest it isn't rightly situated.
Amherst and the Five College Area is where Rural meets Academic and Yankee goes Bohemian. University women with crewcuts tap away at laptops in coffee shops built in converted riverside mills. Companions read paperbacks in the collapsed couches at nearby bookstores. Elsewhere, matrons in L. L. Bean sweaters park Volvo station wagons outside restored colonial homes. In this milieu and next to Hampshire College is an architectural masterpiece set in an apple orchard - the Eric Carle Museum, all glass and brushed aluminum, blonde wood and whimsical decorations on the bathrooms' tiles. Parking is free and ample.
Eric Carle is the picture book artist most well known for The Very Hungry Caterpillar, though he is the author of some 70 other books (among my favorites are his alphabet books and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?). He is the master, Peter Neumeyer has pointed out, of that kind of book the Germans call a "Gesammtkunstwerk" or a book that employs every kind of thing (in Carle's case, that includes collage, layering, texture, cuts, holes, etc.). Indeed, Carle once described a picture book as "a toy that can be read."
An immigrant from Germany, Carle has done rather nicely (it seems) and wished to repay his host country; at the same time, he wished that the special genre he works in—where visual and verbal interact—might receive the attention it deserves. Those wishes built this museum. And with the help of the likes of Maurice Sendak and Jules Feiffer and dozens of other well known artists, this unique place came to be. And, yes, it's worth the drive--though you will also find directions on their website about how to arrive via train, plane, and bus.
This is not a place dedicated solely to the work of Eric Carle, though you will often find exhibits of his work there. Instead, the three main galleries feature the work of celebrated artists like Margot Zemach, James Marshall, Arnold Lobel, and others. Until December 7, 2008, the Central Gallery will be devoted to an exhibit of Dorothy Kunhardt's tactile classic Pat the Bunny, while the East Gallery will feature (until October 26) "Flights into Fantasy" (children's illustrations from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection), and the West Gallery will present (from November 11 until March 8, 2009) "Over Rainbows and Down Rabbit Holes: The Art of Children's Books" (an exhibit first mounted at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art).
That's not to suggest the 40,000 square-foot museum is a stuffy place suitable only for connoisseurs of childhood. When I was there, busloads of schoolchildren scampered about. Out of the house and out of their cars, young mothers, infants strapped to them, passed the afternoon in interesting ways. And at other times, schoolteachers and professionals take classes there. Some nights, performances are staged in the auditorium.
Not just a museum, there is also a hands-on art studio where kids can make things and where (if the truth be known) grown-ups can also work with scissors, paste, and scraps of material or paper. In another, library-like area, stories are told and books shared. The brightly lit museum café features healthy foods, from apples and soup to organic chocolate-chip cookies.
My favorite locale, however, was the bookstore where the manager is a boy genius about picture books. While you can shop at the store online (http://www.picturebookart.org/Shop), I suggest you go to the museum and ask for Andrew Laties by name. Bring lots of money and ask Laties for guidance on how to spend it. This is the very best bookstore for picture books in the entire world and, by itself, a second reason to visit.
Information on hours and admission prices, as well as directions to the museum, may be found at: http://www.picturebookart.org/Visit/Directions
* * * * *The Very Hungry Caterpillar
By Eric Carle
Philomel, $10.99 (Boardbook)
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
By Bill Martin Jr.; illustrations by Eric Carle.
Henry Holt, $7.95 (Boardbook)
The Art of Eric Carle
By Eric Carle.
Philomel, $16.99 (Paperback)
Akin to an autobiography but also accompanied by essays about Carle, this book is perhaps the best overview of Carle's career and contains 60 illustrations.
Pat the Bunny
By Dorothy Kunhardt
Golden Books, $9.99 (Touch and Feel Book)
Artist to Artist: 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children About Their Art
Philomel, $30.00 (Hardcover)
A terrific collection of essays and art from the likes of Mitsumasa Anno, Quentin Blake, Steven Kellogg, Nancy Elkholm Burkert, Barry Moser, and others. Profits go to the Eric Carle Museum.
Flights Into Fantasy ($24.95) and Over Rainbows and Down Rabbit Holes ($19.95) are the catalogs of current or forthcoming exhibits at the Eric Carle Museum. If you like to prepare for a visit, read the interesting essays contained within and luxuriate in the pictures. Best purchased through the museum store: 413-658-1129; http://www.picturebookart.org/Shop
About the Author
Jerry Griswold is the Director of San Diego State University's National Center for the Study of Children's Literature. His most recent book is Feeling Like a Kid.
Copyright © 2009 Parents' Choice Foundation. All rights reserved.