Visiting the Eric Carle Museum / Treading on the Caterpillar’s Turf
This past Thursday I was asked to speak at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. Naturally I said "yes" and "thank you" and then "yes" a couple more times before they realized what they’d done and changed their minds. This would provide me with just the excuse I had been looking for to visit The Carle since its opening in 2002. Still not sure what the place is? Here’s the mission statement:
"The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is the first full-scale museum in this country devoted to national and international picture book art, conceived and built with the aim of celebrating the art we know first. Through the exploration of images that are familiar and beloved, it is the Museum’s goal to foster connections between visual and verbal literacy and to provide visitors of all ages and backgrounds with the opportunity to explore their own creativity and the confidence to appreciate and enjoy art of every kind."
So I was asked to come up and speak and it sounded like a blast so I did so. After making the three-hour drive from Manhattan to Amherst (I’m beginning to see how some people are able to live in one state and work in another) I checked into the B&B that The Carle had secured for me. Bear in mind that they were dealing with graduation season and that the pickings were supposed to be slim with all the parents in town. Here then the is the room they got me at The Black Walnut Inn:
I walk in and think I’ve found the living room.
Strangely enough, there appears to be a bed in the living room.
A bed and . . . an extra hall to a bathroom? Good heavens, it this my room?
Yep. That appears to be the case. For the rest of the day I did my best possible broken record imitation telling people, "My room’s the size of my apartment! My room’s the size of my apartment!" There was a little variation to this blabbery, but it was fairly negligible.
Best of all, when you upped the temperature in the room an old fashioned stove would suddenly light up with bright blue flames like so:
I stood staring at that thing for a good 40 minutes before I remembered that I was due at The Carle. Better than TV.
In twenty minutes I was in The Carle’s parking lot. To my delight I found their cute little bug decked out like the Hungry Caterpillar there waiting for me as I approached.
Now that’s what I call a Love Bug.
Once inside I met up with Rosemary Agoglia, the Curator of Education, who was kind enough to give me a rough tour. If you know me then you know that my stomach is my primary directive, and so we traipsed into the cafeteria where I saw these.
Cookies with holes cut out of them? I must be the last person to get the Very Hungry Caterpillar gag inherent in the sale. Even the tiny caterpillar puppet present wasn’t enough to clue me in to why a perfectly good cookie should have a round hole cut out of it.
The general lobby consists of four gigantic paintings created by Mr. Carle himself in honor of the museum’s opening.
I was particularly partial to looking at the paintings alongside the blue sky that would occasionally peek through the window that stood high above.
The gift shop had everything a good little girl or boy might want. Note the Sendakian Wild Thing display front and center. If I’m not too much mistaken, Sendak created it solely for this museum itself.
Inside you could find a variety of Carle memorabilia, alongside some neat posters, signed books, and other dribbles of ephemera.
Of course I was speaking on a day when librarians got a chance to come in and look at the museum for free. So where did my oily little heart lay? In the Carle’s library, of course. While snuggling down and enjoying a book or three, I took advantage of this comfy reading space with its brightly colored furniture and lovely clean carpets.
You might fear that the Carle-inspired design might get to be a bit much at this point, but it becomes rather charming after a while. For example, check out this bathroom. Not only do you have Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? tiles everywhere . . .
. . . but even the child toilets are caterpillar shaped:
My particular talk was to be held at 4:30 in the auditorium, but until then I had some time to kill. The exhibit I was particularly excited to see is up between now and June 15th. Seeking a State of Grace: The Art of Arnold Lobel celebrates the late author/illustrator and the works of his too short lifetime (he died at age 54). Now when you walk into a museum, any museum, you want a sense that the curator of each given exhibit cares not just about your experience within the space as a visitor but also about the subject of the exhibit itself. In this case, I truly felt that the Lobel presentation reflected that love and attention. Introductions to his different styles and works were written with insightful, intelligent introductions. For example, after mentioning the many honors he garnered during his lifetime the opening statement concludes, "However, he will be best remembered for enabling us all to find such good friends in the pages of his books."
The curious thing about the space is that the written curatorial sections on the walls have to strike a balance between addressing the child visitors and the adult visitors. In the case of each exhibit, I thought they did a marvelous job. The written portions would ask kids questions about the art they were about to see. On the benches in each room were the authors’ books, so that you could page through the final product as you sat in front of the original art, or preliminary sketch. It gave the rooms the loftiness of a museum with the kid-friendly qualities required to maintain a five-year-old’s interest.
Of course my favorite part of the Lobel exhibit was the collection of his unpublished book dummies. They had names like Petrouchka and (my personal favorite) Cyrus the Virus. Cyrus the Virus, from what little I saw of it, might do very well in the wry, eclectic publishing atmosphere we live in right now. A publisher would be ahead of their game if they put out a posthumous publication of this particular book. Best of all of these though was a little book that was created by James Marshall (who died when he was 50) for Arnold Lobel. It was a birthday present, and on the open page we could see Marshall’s famous hippos George and Martha discussing the fact that they were going to have to go all the way to Brooklyn to wish Arnold a happy birthday.
The two other exhibits up included one on Dorothy Kunhardt’s Pat the Bunny and Selections from the Art of Eric Carle: Bears and Beyond. For a woman who uses Brown Bear, Brown Bear What do You See? as her standard go-to storytime fare, it was downright eerie seeing the original art for the 1992 version. The exhibit was sufficiently up-to-date to also include art from Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What do You See? and I enjoyed the video of Mr. Carle creating his paintings and papers.
Then it was time to give my talk. Now the auditorium in The Carle is pretty darn nice and looks a little something like this:
A person could be forgiven for thinking that the seven holes at the top of each seat in the room represent the seven holes in The Very Hungry Caterpillar, right? Well apparently that’s just a big ole coincidence. They ordered the chairs, had them installed, and when people started to coo over the design they were amazed to find how well they fit with the rest of the decor.
I was following The Carle’s Instructor of Children’s Literature Programs, Megan Lambert, and her talk on The Whole Book Approach to Evaluating and Using the Picture Book as an Art Form. This was a talk discussing "a critical framework and pedagogical method aimed at evaluating and using the picture book as an art form . . . . Ultimately, a Whole Book Approach storytime emerges as an experience of reading with children rather than reading to children as the group engages in a collaborative interpretive process of the picture book while its text is read aloud." Talk about a hard act to follow. But I did my shtick and only screwed up in ways that I myself could see (for the most part). Thanks to everyone who came out to hear me talk! It was a good crew and a lot of fun to give.
For dinner, Megan, Rosemary and I were joined (to my delight) by Jane Yolen, Jeanne Birdsall, and Susannah Richards (Assistant Professor of the Education Department at Eastern Connecticut State University, doncha know). Others trickled in later, but we were the beginning group, which was swell. We ate at The Monkey Bar, which provided good lamb chops and pecan pie with an eerily smooth quality to it. Of course, usually Kidlit Drink Nights move to standing at a bar at some point, but the constant flow of people in and out meant that we actually were able to stay seated for the most part. That was nice. The restaurant was good but I have to admit to being a little taken aback by the bathroom:
Easygoing folks, these Massachusetts denizens.
The conversation inadvertently turned into information on moving to Amherst, where to buy a home, what school systems to avoid, etc. etc. I’ve no chance of moving to that burg, but I could understand the temptation. I really could. In the meantime we talked about everything from taking book jackets, laminating them, and turning them into placemats (an act that would simultaneously enthrall some and shock others) to biographies of Madame C.J. Walker. Looking over my notes I see that at one point I wrote, "Hogwarts is not Deerfield – Jeanne Birdsall". No idea what that was. I should have hooked up my recorder to my iPod.
Having left my car at The Carle I needed a ride back. How often does one get a ride from a National Book Award winner? Not often enough. Jeanne Birdsall, author of The Penderwicks (and the new sequel) was kind enough to give me a ride in her hot little Mini Cooper.
I asked Jeanne how many award winning authors owned Mini Coopers. She suspected that Kate DiCamillo also has one. And as I drove home the next day I spotted a whole plethora of them on the roads. When a person doesn’t drive regularly for a couple years and then rents a car, road trends are fascinating things to watch.
In any case, it was a lovely trip. For those of you with access to the Amherst area, I can’t recommend it enough. Good people. Great exhibits (I’d love to see the upcoming Flights into Fantasy exhibition in July). Well worth a visit for any of you with a love of children’s books and illustration.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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