Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Eric Carle Museum

Having recently moved nearby, it was inevitable that we’d visit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. Any museum that won’t instantly bore a toddler is a worthy museum for our current lifestage. Besides, having read The Very Hungry Caterpillar aloud several hundred times, I was a stakeholder.

For the uninitiated, Eric Carle is author of so many popular children’s books that his work often commands its own shelf in bookstores. Carle’s medium is the picture book: Each page has a picture and a small amount of text. A typical Carle book tells a story about an animal while teaching concepts like colors or counting.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Carle’s most beloved book, seems to charm every child (and parent) it meets—to the tune of more than 20 million copies. The only risk in giving the book to new parents is that someone else already has. (If you want another Carle option, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? is also a sure winner.)

Visiting the museum, I was interested to learn that Carle was formerly an art director at an ad agency. In a video, I believe he even said something to the effect that he thinks of each page in his picture books as a billboard. This explains much about his simple visual style, child-like in its own way, communicating essence with little ornament.

Carle’s visual recipes typically include basic shapes, vibrant colors with varied textures, and lots of white space. His textures are from painted tissue paper—cut, pasted, and layered into figures like the famous caterpillar below.

For a selection of Carle’s work, with commentary by the artist, see this three-minute slideshow by National Public Radio.

And if you’re in the Amherst area with small children in tow, check out the museum. It’s part Eric Carle, part other picture-book authors and illustrators. In addition to the galleries, the library has thousands of children’s books, the art studio lets children create their own collages, and the smartly curated gift shop goes well beyond just Eric Carle and kids’ books.

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