One rainy day in May, I gathered my umbrella and ventured into the Massachusetts countryside. My destination was not the charming farms nor the region’s myriad historic towns; instead, I went to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, which resides on quiet West Bay Road in Amherst.
The museum itself was quiet, too, the afternoon I arrived. It is a large space, clearly designed to accommodate many young energetic children and their guardians. At the same time that the museum is spacious, it also adapts itself to even its smallest visitors. There are brightly colored rubber footstools at every drinking fountain, and tiny chairs as well as ones designed to hold adults. One barely post-toddler boy quickly demonstrated that even the rough-hewn stone floor was selected with the proclivities of children in mind, as he was able to run through the main hall without the least danger of sliding.
There was more to do than trod the slip-proof hallways though, and the first place I went was the art studio, which held at least a half-dozen activity tables. Lots of windows let in natural lighting. One corner contained a toddler-oriented table and toys, and another held a small drawing resource center, full of books and magazines. An assistant explained to me that though it was possible to draw or play in the space, the studio’s featured activities corresponded to the exhibits. She offered to let me do art, even though I’d brought no children along. This spring and summer, one gallery contains Antonio Frasconi’s woodcut prints. In the art studio, then, visitors can learn to make prints, too.
Librarians looking to engage younger readers might see ideas to borrow at this museum. In addition to the pint-sized furnishings and content, there were clever handouts that accompanied the exhibitions. I picked up a flier, expecting to see the usual background about an artist’s life, technique, and style. Instead, there were short lists of themes that children could look for in the artwork on the walls, squares where they could try drawing images modeled on ones in the exhibition, and a challenge to find quirky objects, like a “building hiding in a box.” Another handout had an A–Z checklist, beginning with Ape and ending with Zebra, to guide exploration of the museum’s varied canvases and photographs.
As one might expect in a museum dedicated to picture-book art, there is a little library. When I was there, a young woman conducted a storytime for a handful of little girls gathered at her feet. At the end of the session, some parents continued reading with their children, while one little girl clad in a robin’s-egg-blue dress perused the books on her own. I scanned the new bookshelves—a collection contributed by a major publisher—and found many good titles.
Everyone’s favorite caterpillar—well, aside from the 19th-century, hookah-smoking one known to readers of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—was much in evidence. The star of The Very Hungry Caterpillar could be found on signs, rugs, books, and furniture. A great favorite place for the children exploring the museum was a tall, wooden caterpillar whose arch concealed tot-sized seats. Parents had to persuade their young readers to set books aside and leave this protected little place.
The part of the museum I found it hard to tear myself away from, though, was the museum bookstore. One magazine has touted this shop as an unequaled place for purchasing kids’ books. Although the museum’s library collection doesn’t circulate, an assortment of new books from its store came home with me, to while away another rainy day.
Jennifer Burek Pierce is assistant professor of library and information science at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Contact her at jennifer-burek-pierce[at]uiowa.edu.