As a children’s book author and illustrator, I am always a little embarrassed to admit when I’ve somehow missed a picture book classic. But the truth is, I had never read anything by Eric Carle — not even the book that made him famous, The Very Hungry Caterpillar — when I visited the museum he founded in Amherst, Massachusetts last week.
No matter. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art would appeal to any book and art lover, whether they went in knowing anything about Carle or children’s book illustration or not.
Of course, if you and your kids are already Carle fans, you’re in for a treat. That oh-so-familiar caterpillar and other trademark Carle art can be found everywhere in this pleasant and very child-friendly museum. A caterpillar-shaped bookcase greets you in the many entry space, and enormous paintings done in Carle’s distinctive dappled patterns adorn the walls.
The museum has three galleries, and on our visit the first was filled with some of Carle’s artwork related to food and eating, including several versions of a book called Walter the Baker and, of course, that hungry caterpillar. My teens and I found both the original artwork itself and the glimpse into the making of a picture book fascinating. I was pleased to find that Carle’s collage paintings have a richness and sophistication that I didn’t expect to find just glancing at the covers of his “baby books” from afar. The exhibit “Eric Carle: A Feast for the Eyes” runs through March 20, 2011.
The other two galleries contained exhibits of works by many artists, some known to us and some that were new. We particularly enjoyed “Monsters and Miracles: A Journey through Jewish Picture Books,” which we were lucky enough to catch in its closing weeks. (It runs through January 23, 2011.) That exhibit contained illustrations from Jewish-themed books and by Jewish artists, and included examples of illustrated aleph-bets (alphabet books) and Passover Haggadot (seder guidebooks) dating back to the Middle Ages. My kids were interested in the stories of golems and dybbuks, and were excited to see some works by artists and writers they knew, including Art Spiegelman, Maurice Sendak, and David Mamet. (Yes, David Mamet has written children’s books. Who knew?)
For younger kids, the museum has booklets that challenge them to find particular works. There’s also a library of picture books for them to explore, as well as an art studio where educators help them create their own pieces based on the images on display in the galleries. Finally, there is the gift shop, stocked with so many high-quality children’s books that it’s a little tough pulling them out of the tightly-packed shelves to browse. The store also carries books about the illustrators and about picture books and graphic novels.
All in all, our trip to the Eric Carle Museum was worthwhile on many levels. For my kids, it was a lesson in what goes into book illustration. For me, it was an inspiration to keep honing my drawing skills. And for all of us, it was a reminder that the simple books we’ve long taken for granted can truly be works of art.