Recognizing an Eric Carle book is easy. Many of them have the same characteristics: a white background, a bright image or two using just a few colors on each page, a nice dark black font with a few words. All distractions are taken away so that the focus can be on what the focus should be on, the illustrations and the words.
The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (link) is like walking into one of his books. Expansive white walls with four large canvases. Each painted in one major color, but instantly recognizable as a Carle. Small details, such as chairs and tables, are black. This keeps the focus on what it should be on: the art.
Please note: I received complimentary tickets to the museum, but all thoughts below are my own.
This is not your children’s children museum
There’s one thing to note about this museum from the get-go. It is not a typical children’s museum. Actually, nowhere that I noticed specifies it as a children’s museum. It’s an implication because Eric Carle is known in children’s sections of libraries, bookstores, and also in preschools and elementary schools around the world. (Yes, I say around the world having not traveled around the world to check. However, when I was pregnant in Germany many of my German friends “introduced” me to his books. There was an ownership with the Hungry Little Caterpillar even in Germany because his books are so loved.)
Now many other children’s museums, whether science or art-related, have a feel that’s more similar to an indoor play space than, let’s say, the Louvre. This museum does not have that same sense. It’s not one where you go and feel that you can touch everything, but there are invitations all over the place to allow the art to inspire. And that’s what it does because that’s what it’s meant to do. From Eric Carle’s website:
We were interested in developing enthusiasts for the art of picture books and in encouraging habit of museum going in our younger visitors. Children’s picture book art is the introduction to art for young people, and we wanted to show the highest examples of that art to demonstrate the beauty, the seriousness and the fun of it.
And it works.
Since our visit, I’ve thought a lot about why it works. It works because it takes kids seriously. It doesn’t try to child-proof everything or make everything so child-friendly that it borders disrespecting the art. If there’s one thing kids feel walking through this museum, it’s that it matters. The art on the walls matter. The inspiration matters. The kids matter.
What to do at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
Now I’m going to do something I don’t normally do, but I can’t think of another way to do it. I’m going to walk you through our experience there from beginning to end. I attended a special story time on June 29, 2017. It was for the book called June 29, 1999, written by David Weisner. This event was extra special because David Weisner’s art was on display in the museum. This book was extra special because the illustration captured events around the world. This is how the event was advertised on their website:
Artichokes in Anchorage! Parsnips in Providence! In David Wiesner’s book,June 29, 1999, a young girl’s science project begins with seedlings sent up in the atmosphere, and ends with an invasion of giant vegetables! Come to The Carle for a special storytime followed by a collaborative window installation project where young artists imagine what vegetables they see flying through the sky.
So, with that, join me and experience story time Eric Carle Museum-style.
June 29, 1999…in 2017!
Visiting the Library
Families gathered at the small library in the back of the museum waiting for story time to start. How small is the library? It’s hard to tell. The Museum is huge and walking to the back, between the open spaces, large canvases, and minimal decoration warped my sense of space. So, in this context, it seems small. However, many families were filling it up, and it never felt crowded.
What were the families doing? Some sat on couches or on the floor reading books, some sat at the large table and colored, and some (like me) wandered around and looked at the books on the shelf. This may (or may not) be a small library, but every book in its collection is gorgeous. The library is, after all, part of a museum dedicated to Picture Book Art. There’s a bookshelf dedicated to just Caldecott winners. Books are organized alphabetically by illustrator. The walls have displays. During my visit, the displays were about Beatrix Potter and art inspiration from the Lake District, animals, and more. Note to self: I need to return to this library again.
Storytime in the Library
I think the right term to describe story time here is engaging. I’m always interested in how the reader tells the story. I’m quite proud of the way my kids’ school teachers have read to them. However, this is different. The story teller allows kids the space to feel the book. They get a chance to soak in those pictures, think about what’s happening, why, and what’s next. The kids were all about it. They raised their hands to discuss their thoughts, and you can tell how much they love that they’re being heard.
And when it was time to change the page, after everyone was heard, he turned the page. And it started again.
Story time doesn’t end when the story does
When he finished the story, the floor was opened to more discussion. The story teller went with it. No responses too silly. No responses too serious.
After this part of story time, we headed over to the art exhibition next door. Here we got to see some of the actual prints from the book. The art curator then took over. She discussed the images with the kids continuing that feeling that the children’s thoughts matter.
Next, we were off to the art studio. It was time for all the little ones to make their own pieces inspired by the work.
Now here’s something every parent will appreciate. That engaging storytelling session from earlier? It continued all throughout this experience. The staff at the museum all took a huge interest in what the kids were doing. All of the staff the children had met while listening to the story and discovering the art on the walls were with us in the studio. We also had other Carle staff members present, too. They commented on the color choices, strokes. They listened as the kids explained what they were doing and commented to others about it as well.
For example, in the picture above, the bottom right is my daughter painting. The guy who read the story came over and asked her about her work and commented on her brush strokes. When my daughter was done with the painting, she brought her smock back to the studio staff. She was asked about her work again, and then the story teller commented about something she had told him earlier about her work. Her work was important enough to be not only to be remembered, but to be discussed in the same way we discussed the picture book earlier in the day.
What to do when there’s not story time
When story time and post-story time finished for the kids, we headed back to see some more of the exhibits. The exhibitions rotate, but it’s obvious that any show the museum hosts will be carefully thought out.
Collecting Inspiration: Contemporary Illustrators and Their Heroes
First up, Collecting Inspiration: Contemporary Illustrators and Their Heroes. Here we saw famous picture book artists work next to a piece of art that inspired them. And while I really loved seeing this, my favorite part was the invitation for the kids to see what art could inspire them.
There was a stack of papers on two desks in the room. Each piece of paper had two squares. One was filled with picture book art, the other square was empty. Kids use the picture books as inspiration for their own work in the blank space. And the best part? The instructions: “Which artwork inspires you? Tear off a sheet and create a drawing inspired by one of the contemporary artists in the exhibition. Take your picture home or leave it on the table for The Carle to keep. (emphasis mine)” Here it is again, The Carle and their subtle hints that the artwork kids create matters.
Eric Carle and Friends: What’s Your Favorite Color?
The room next door was all about color. Artists share their favorite color with a piece of not just their own art, but with something from Eric Carle in that color was well. Color conversations happen throughout the room. Conversation cubes give kids the opportunity to interact with what they see around them. The postcard station invites kids to share their thoughts on color with Eric Carle himself. Just stick the postcard in the provided mailbox for him to see when he gets a chance.
Visit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
Before your visit, check out their website to maximize your experience.
Address: 125 West Bay Road, Amherst, MA 01002
Hot Tip: There’s no restaurant on site, but there are tables so you can bring food. I highly suggest going to Atkins Farm Country Market if you’re hungry. The grocery section has fresh-made sandwiches, a salad bar, other fresh ready to eat meals, and a coffee corner.
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