The Eric Carle Museum Honors
Or: “It is harder to give away a million dollars intelligently than it is to make it.” – Andrew Carnegie (or so I have heard)
Everyone should have a chance to hobnob at least once a year. To peek over the shoulders of the well-to-do. To scurry around their ankles, pretending that you too make more than a librarian’s salary, eating their food and harrumphing their harrumphs. My chance usually comes when I get to attend the Eric Carle Museum’s annual Carle Honor ceremony, typically held at New York’s University Club. Literally one block away from my workplace, I attended last year’s ceremony content in the knowledge that it was lovely but there was no way in the world that I was ever going to get invited back again. Full credit to the museum, however, and I WAS invited back this past Tuesday. And best of all special guest Maurice Sendak was going to be present. I was going to be able to see the infamous man himself and I couldn’t be more pleased. By the way, for those of you who hate it when I talk about the food at things like this, best that you stop reading now. Food plays a major part in my story.
So. What to do. First off, what to wear. As you can see by the accompanying photo up above I decided to opt for the sometimes problematic but rather fun black H&M dress I purchased a month ago. Note the odd bunching about the tum. Still, I figure that if you can wear a dress to a bunch of different events within a month of one another and there isn’t any overlap in terms of the people who are present then you are good to go. In my bag I packed a pair of shoes that I can only describe as Barbie Black. You know how those Barbie dolls had feet the shape of the Nike swish symbol and you could never get her to stand on her own when you put her in her high heels (a major doll design flaw to my mind)? Yeah, my shoes were like that. Fortunately I was able to sit on the steps of a nearby church and change footwear mere moments before entering the building in an exceedingly topple-ish manner.
Now The University Club is one of those amusing clubs here in town that remind you that in the intervening 200+ years, the rich of New York City are still around and about. I had much fun reading the names of the different floors as I went up and down. Floor #8? The squash courts. Naturally.
I’m a prompt puppy so on the nosey at 6:30 I was ready, willing, and able to do some partying Eric Carle Museum-style. The problem with arriving on time, however, is that I often arrive before anyone I know is around or about. Last year at the Spiderwickian themed gathering this was a bit of a problem and I was reminded of those years in elementary school where I’d spend all of recess walking around the edges of the playground in an effort to amuse myself and not look too pitiful until the blessed bell rang and I could go back to class. This year, I had plenty of stuff to look at until people I knew cropped up. The museum was auctioning off some original butterfly-related art by a whole host of cool illustrators. They were featured in this video here, if you remember:
Neat. So I cruised by them in that vaguely oh-how-pretty-maybe-in-another-lifetime kind of way. The best part was that you could read the names of the people bidding. The Etienne Delessert piece, for example, was topped by the name “Eric Carle”. I did not look back later to see if anyone bid against him. Somehow, I suspect not.
About this time I started to recognize some folks, and that was nice. Paul O. Zelinsky is a member of PEN, so I was able to compliment him on his particularly amazing print of a butterfly (or is it a moth?) and caterpillar reading a book called The Very Hungry Kid together. I ran into Jason Wells with Abrams and Timothy Jones with Henry Holt, which was nice. I also saw Jon Scieszka with his wife.
It was about this time that I joked about playing with the Melissa Sweet three-dimensional piece. It’s quite the complex creation, y’know. There was even a crank on one-side that I was terrified was simply for show. So when I made an off-hand comment to Scieszka that he should turn the crank he gamely reached for it, causing me to screech an ear-piercing, “NO! DON’T DO IT!” within an otherwise peaceful room. Then someone else turned the crank and I effectively prevented our National Ambassador the chance to do it himself. Pooh. Still, take a look at this puppy. Wouldn’t you assume that it was too pretty to potentially mangle?
I located a simply lovely group of Little, Brown fellows soon after that. Little, Brown is such a delightful publisher too. So sweet. Amongst them was a woman by the name of Gail Doobinin. Gail Doobinin is a name you should know. Do you remember the cover of Jerry Spinelli’s Eggs? All her. In short, I found myself in conversation with the person who designs the Twilight book covers. Cause, y’know, that’s how I roll. With the person responsible for some of the most noticeable, distinctive, eye-catching jackets out there.
We checked out the attendees as we waited for dinner. Here then is a rough list of a couple people who were present. And no, I did not speak to anyone I didn’t know. That, unfortunately, is also how I roll. *sigh*
People there: Peter Brown, Rosemary Wells, Helen Bing, Mort Schindell, Ashley Bryant, Tyla Liggett (creator of Reading Rainbow and I WISH I could have spoken to her), Jon Scieszka, Kevin Henkes, Anita Lobel, Paul O. Zelinksy, Tad Hills, Robert Sabuda, Jane Dyer, Lois Ehlert, Jerry Pinkney, Melissa Sweet, Vera B. Williams, and perhaps Chris Van Allsburg. Van Allsburg was a real question. I’ve seen pictures of him before and there was a fellow at a table not far from mine during dinner that I was pretty sure was him. I got into a debate with a dinner companion as to his identity, though, because his hair was short. She thought that Van Allsburg definitely DEFINITELY had long hair. I differed in my opinion. Here then is a picture I found of him online since then.
Short hair sure, but the fellow I saw had no beard. The jury is still out.
It was a good thing that I was hanging out with my Little, Brown peeps because as luck would have it, I was seated at their table! Suh-weet! We filtered in, I dropped off my bag, but everyone was still mingling so editor Alvina Ling, author/illustrator Peter Brown (Chowder), and I all snuck out onto a nearby balcony to catch this view of the city.
Some club members smoking out there gave us the eye, but we didn’t care. Walking back inside we found ourselves in what we could only call a “drawing room”. I dunno. You decide what it is:
As we returned to the room Peter spotted Tad Hills (Duck & Goose). This caused me to launch into a description of how cool the Halloween costumes Hills creates for his kids really are. What are your kids coming as this year? A clown? A gypsy? Tad’s were once The Eiffel Tower and a cello. Full sized. I describe this modern wonder to Peter and Alvina when a woman near us turns around and says, “You’re talking about my kids!” Always be sure to say nice things about people and their spouses at events like the Carle Honors. You never know when Lee Wade or Anne Schwartz (who was also nearby) of Schwartz & Wade imprint fame might be nearby. Tad Hills himself eventually wandered over and showed us last year’s costumes: a lighthouse and an accordion. When asked what they were made of he shrugged. “Just cardboard”. Artists.
We sat down for dinner and I realized that I wasn’t close to the podium, which was fine. It’s very hard to take flashless pics even when you’re fifteen feet away. But I was underneath a large television screen that would shoot images of the podium’s speakers. Ha ha! Makes my job all kinds of easy, it did.
Right from the start people applauded at the notion reinforced that picture book art is, in fact (wait for it . . . ) art. This could be considered an example of someone preaching to the choir, but frankly I don’t think it can be repeated enough. In a cute twist there was also a rather subtle acknowledgment of the two schools of thought that differ between whether or not ithe terms we use should be called "picture book art" or "illustration". Semantics would not be discussed on this day. Of course the Museum spoke of its still relatively new history and, more importantly, their bookshop which Parents magazine apparently called “the best picture book bookshop in the world.” The world. Heavens. Then the other shoe dropped.
It was at this point that my Project: Meet Maurice Sendak hit a snag. In short, there was no Maurice Sendak. I had been lured into an extravagant evening of delicious food, free drinks, fabulous art, and famous authors/illustrators under false pretences. Horrors! Apparently full blame is to be laid upon the 92nd Street Y. Had they not had such a magnificent birthday bash for Mr. Sendak the week before he wouldn’t have been exhausted and, consequently, ill. Or, as the speaker put it, it was like “having a martini without the gin. Fortunately we have some very good vermouth.” Michael di Capua, editor legendaire, was that vermouth. And yes, granted, it was a very impressive vintage, but I was a little sad just the same.
Nick Clark, the Founding Director of The Carle (I love that it’s called “The Carle” because it makes me think that maybe in the future we can look forward to similar museums with names like The Selznick or The Morales) spoke next. He was followed by reigning pop-up king Robert Sabuda (shown here) who discussed the thrill of seeing children’s art hung on a wall. I see that in my notebook I’ve written: “Like furniture in museums. Intent? Look into it,” which I think was an allusion to that old chestnut of a discussion about what constitutes “art”. If you put a chair in the MOMA then surely you can put a page from Where the Wild Things Are. Stands to reason, right? Even if the original intent is pragmatic and utilitarian, it can still be art (which brings us into the idea of “craft” as well, but that’s a post for another day).
I was easily distracted during Sabuda’s talk by the food. We’d had a rather nice salad for starters, with delicious rolls available through a thicket of water glass stems. After the salad we enjoyed what I think might have been lamb chops, or possibly pork chops, that were served with little round succulent potatoes on the side. Then, the piece de resistance: chocolate cake. But not a big triangular slab like you get in a Starbucks dessert display. A delicate little rounded puppy with raspberry sauce on the side and dark liquid fudge on the other. “And it was still warm”. Now I will show you the plate of someone who shall remain unnamed. This crazy person ate this much cake and then left the rest:
Insanity incarnate. I showed this picture to a like-minded friend later and they said with some concern, "Why didn’t they eat it?" The mystery may never be solved.
To give away the Honors the museum had secured historian and author Leonard Marcus, which made perfect sense. And when the philanthropic Vanita Oelschlager came up to receive hers she said with memorable oomph, “I don’t think there’s another room in New York with 300 people who never grew up.” Mr. Oelschlager for his part discussed his and Mr. Carle’s mutual ancestors who were 1640s’ highwaymen, poisoned by their wives. The men lived and the women got off scott free when the king declared that the hubbies totally deserved it.
He was not the only honoree to draw a direct connection to Mr. Carle. Mr. Jim Trelease (a national speaker on education and author of The Read-Aloud Handbook) for his part began his speech saying, “If this was a business meeting this would be nepotism of the highest degree” (I’m paraphrasing here, but that was the gist). Trelease recounted his own ties to the institution (5 degrees worth, no less) and even managed to draw a lovely connection between what in education works and what doesn’t (i.e. No Child Left Behind). He had a fabulous accent too. Was it a New York one? I’m terrible at distinguishing between boroughs, but I think it’s a possibility certainly. Someone let me know.
Former publisher Susan Hirschman received her award next and if you don’t know who she is then I’ll just give you one word: Greenwillow. She started that imprint (and you can look her up in Leonard’s Minders of Make-Believe if you’re still foggy). Hirschman proved to be particularly difficult to photograph because the woman would NOT hold still. She practically buzzed around that podium. This is the only picture I was able to grab that wasn’t completely fuzzy.
Then came the moment when Leonard would have introduced Mr. Sendak. “I was really looking forward to saying ‘Elvis has entered the building,” Mr. Marcus chuckled ruefully. Fortunately they had a video to play of the great man talking about his work and it rocked the house. He discussed his work in lovely raucous grown-up terms. On the topic of how illustration only works within certain contexts: “I would hate to see [Jane] Austen illustrated. This is what so-and-so looks like. To hell with that!” Or on the book In the Night Kitchen he referred to “floating in the sensuality of milk.” I much prefer to hear picture book artists talk about their work when the children aren’t around, don’t you?
All in all, the speeches were short and sweet. Real humdingers, every last one. $54,100 was raised in auction. Much fun all around. Mr. Sendak himself said in his video, “When you hide a story in a story, that’s the story I am telling.” I was sorry that have missed him, but I’m very glad to hear that he was the recipient of the Museum’s Artist honor just the same.
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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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