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A Children's Book Legacy

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This fall, The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, will celebrate its tenth anniversary with an exhibition of classic work from our growing collection of more than 10,000 original children's book illustrations. At heart, Iconic Images: Ten Years of Collecting for The Carle is an exhibition of the first art you probably ever loved. It's also a who's who of imaginary friends -- familiar characters like Madeline, Babar, Shrek, Frog and Toad, and The Little Fur Family.

Viewed in their original forms -- gouache or ink, watercolor or pencil, collage or oil -- the illustrations are testaments to craftsmanship, a rival to any art form. And though picture book art might still represent a niche in the museum world, it is arguably the most democratic of all art forms, appreciated and handed down by millions of us each generation. Our stars are household names -- from Beatrix Potter to Dr. Seuss to Maurice Sendak to living masters like our museum's founder, Eric Carle. No other form of art can rival the intimate connection that viewers make to picture book art -- a feeling that transports us as swiftly as a photograph of a childhood bedroom.

For children lucky enough to grow up with the ritual of bedtime reading, picture books are a toddler-sized introduction to art and literature, a seed their parents plant in hopes it might grow into a lifelong love of the arts. There's a lot of evidence that reading to your child -- a simple and often desperate act performed by bleary-eyed parents -- combines the perfect ingredients for learning. Kids get a trusted partner as a guide, physical affection, focused time, and an immersion into vocabulary, narrative and imagery. (Could we have set out more than 100 years ago, when the modern picture book first started taking shape, to invent such a complex and enduring thing? A zoetrope for the ages?)

Picture book geeks like me refer to "the theater of the page" -- the delicious anticipation that comes with every turn of the book's 32 pages. You can hear the child's synapses firing! Will the man with the yellow hat find Curious George? Will Ferdinand be allowed to remain his passively sweet self? Can Harold and his magic crayon draw a home to return to?

As children, we eventually leave picture books behind as we graduate to illustrated chapter books, then (more reluctantly) to novels with no pictures at all. Those first picture books, however, are always with us. Howard Pyle, the great illustrator from the turn of the (last) century, puts it simply and best: "The stories of childhood leave an indelible impression." Many of us only recognize that years later when we dust off our favorite childhood picture book to read to our firstborn, and re-enter the wonder of its alternate world.

For ten years at The Carle we have made it our work to promote the intrinsic value of picture books and picture book art -- artistically, culturally, historically, educationally. We are a young museum finding new opportunities every day to meet that mission -- by getting children's books into the hands of children who can't afford them; by training teachers to take advantage of the many ways picture books and art-making can be at the center of their classroom studies; by encouraging art museums around the world to exhibit picture book art so young families everywhere can experience that "delight in recognition" that we see at our museum every day. Our permanent collection exhibition in the fall will be our latest effort, a testament to the picture book as the most humble of art forms -- which makes it, for us, the most important of all.

To learn more about The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, visit www.carlemuseum.org.