Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
In bucolic Western Massachusetts where Rural meets Academic and Yankee goes Bohemian.
If it were in Manhattan or downtown Boston or next to the new public library in Seattle, chances are you would have heard of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Open since 2001 and the only institution of its kind in our country which is devoted to this art form, if the museum is still an unknown treasure that’s because of its location in bucolic Western Massachusetts. But that’s not to suggest it isn’t rightly situated.
Amherst and the Five College Area is where Rural meets Academic and Yankee goes Bohemian. University women with crewcuts tap away at laptops in coffee shops built in converted riverside mills. Companions read paperbacks in the collapsed couches at nearby bookstores. Elsewhere, matrons in L. L. Bean sweaters park Volvo station wagons outside restored colonial homes. In this milieu and next to Hampshire College is an architectural masterpiece set in an apple orchard–the Eric Carle Museum, all glass and brushed aluminum, blonde wood and whimsical decorations on the bathrooms’ tiles. Parking is free and ample.
Eric Carle is the picture book artist most well known for The Very Hungry Caterpillar, though he is the author of some 70 other books (among my favorites are his alphabet books and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?). He is the master, Peter Neumeyer has pointed out, of that kind of book the Germans call a “Gesammtkunstwerk” or a book that employs every kind of thing (in Carle’s case, that includes collage, layering, texture, cuts, holes, etc.). Indeed, Carle once described a picture book as “a toy that can be read.”
An immigrant from Germany, Carle has done rather nicely (it seems) and wished to repay his host country; at the same time, he wished that the special genre he works in–where visual and verbal interact–might receive the attention it deserves. Those wishes built this museum. And with the help of the likes of Maurice Sendak and Jules Feiffer and dozens of other well known artists, this unique place came to be. And, yes, it’s worth the drive–though you will also find directions on their website about how to arrive via train, plane, and bus.
This is not a place dedicated solely to the work of Eric Carle, though you will often find exhibits of his work there. Instead, the three main galleries feature the work of celebrated artists like Margot Zemach, James Marshall, Arnold Lobel, and others.
That’s not to suggest the 40,000 square-foot museum is a stuffy place suitable only for connoisseurs of childhood. When I was there, busloads of schoolchildren scampered about. Out of the house and out of their cars, young mothers, infants strapped to them, passed the afternoon in interesting ways. And at other times, schoolteachers and professionals take classes there. Some nights, performances are staged in the auditorium.
Not just a museum, there is also a hands-on art studio where kids can make things and where (if the truth be known) grown-ups can also work with scissors, paste, and scraps of material or paper. In another, library-like area, stories are told and books shared. The brightly lit museum café features healthy foods, from apples and soup to organic chocolate-chip cookies.
My favorite locale, however, was the bookstore. While you can shop at the store online, I suggest you go to the museum and bring lots of money. This is the very best bookstore for picture books in the entire world and, by itself, a reason to visit.
Information on hours and admission prices, as well as directions to the museum, may be found at http://carlemuseum.org/content/hours-admission
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The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. 125 West Bay Road. Amherst, Massachusetts. 413-658-1100
The Very Hungry Caterpillar. By Eric Carle. Philomel (boardbook): $10.99.
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? By Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle. Henry Holt (boardbook): $7.95.
The Art of Eric Carle. By Eric Carle. Philomel (paperback): $16.99. Akin to an autobiography but also accompanied by essays about Carle, this book is perhaps the best overview of Carle’s career and contains 60 illustrations.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (June 2008).