The Ladies Take a Field Trip: The Eric Carle Museum

As you know, the Ladies recently celebrated our first blog-birthday; for over a year now, we’ve been entertaining and informing you with our musings. We decided that a celebration was in order. Since few things say “party!” like a museum, we chose to hit the road and take a trip to visit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art!

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One of Carle’s most popular creations, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Careful readers of this blog will figure out pretty quickly that this was a trip I proposed – while all four Ladies share an appreciation for kids lit, I have a particular fascination for it. Some of that is due to my job, which involves trying impart a love of reading on to impressionable youth, and some of it comes from having a niece and two nephews who all love reading. But beyond my interest in kids books for kids, I’m really interested in what adults like me get out of the experience of reading them. The best of these books work on multiple levels, often disguising the complexity of their ideas behind the simplicity of their story telling.

One of the masters of this is Mo Willems. Those of you with small children are probably familiar with Mo – he’s the author of several popular children’s book series, including Knuffle Bunny, Elephant and Piggy, and my personal favorite, The Pigeon.

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The Pigeon and I are a little upset.

Just like the tots reading him, the Pigeon is a raging little ball of id, yelling about how he wants to stay up late or get a puppy or, in his excellent debut, drive the bus. Beyond the obvious absurdity of a bus-driving pigeon,the book is brilliant because it lets kids be the rule enforcers for once. The prose is entirely dialogue, with the child as the Pigeon’s interlocutor, delivering an emphatic “NO!” to whatever insane demand The Pigeon has dreamed up, he in turn becoming more and more comically outraged. That to me is the treat for adults – watching children interact, getting to be, as the reader, the one yelling and whining and generally raising a ruckus. They’re great books, and when I found out that the Carle was doing a retrospective on Willems’ work (celebrating 10 years in children’s literature), I knew I had to go. Since anything you love is better shared, I was delighted that the other Ladies thought it sounded a good time too. Along with Mr. Menace and The Goog, we set off for Amherst, MA and adventure!

The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art sits on the campus of Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts – a part of the state that is stunning, especially in the fall. It’s full of mountains and farms and apple orchards – things that I find a bit dull, truthfully, when I have to live around them all the time (and I did, for the first 21 years of my life) but which I enjoy when I get to visit them only occasionally.

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The majestic clouds of Western Mass.

Inside, the museum is big. REALLY big. Maybe a little TOO big. I tend to like museum curation in the style of the Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston, where every corner is filled with some glorious object on which to rest your gaze. I am terribly Victorian that way. The Carle is much more spartan in its approach to art – huge rooms and walls, none of them totally filled, with lots of room for stepping back in appreciation.  I suspect that in part this is because the museum hosts numerous events – signings and workshops and performances – but unfortunately, if you visit, as we did, when none of this is going on, the effect is a little stark. They do have a movie theater and an art studio for kids that seem like a lot of fun!

What art there was, however, was brilliant. While I would have liked to see more of Mo’s early works (I know this is a museum dedicated to picture book art but his previous history working on Sesame Street and Sheep in the Big City feel relevant to me), there were plenty of cool process pieces to keep me entertained. Our entire party particularly enjoyed the small collection of Mo’s influences (original comics from his collection) – it included an original Peanuts strip that was both stunning and showed the direct correlation of the Pigeon to Lucy Van Pelt. The other other exhibits were cool, too, especially the gallery devoted to Eric Carle himself – seeing his original art in person gives you a real feel for the depth and dimension that a collages provides – depth that gets lost when reproduced as a print. His painting technique is also fascinating – he hand-paints all of those pieces of tissue paper!

We did move through all of the galleries far too quickly – and since the only Willems film they were showing was Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed (the one story I’m just not as fond of) and we didn’t have any kids as an excuse to do any of the art projects in the studio, it was time to wrap up our tour. We stop by the gift shop and paid a visit to the elephant sculpture in the courtyard, which is also a Willems piece!

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Ladies with elephant.

In order to keep the celebration going we grabbed some lunch at Atkins Farm – a big, upscale sort of grocery store/farmstand/ice cream stand hybrid. Fancy deli sandwiches, homemade doughnuts and ice cream helped us have a festive atmosphere, and we had the chance to talk over some big ideas for the next year with Mr. Menace, who is one of our blog patrons. With the perfect early fall weather it was a lovely end to our field trip. Here’s to the great year behind us and an even better one ahead!

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