One Saturday morning I couldn’t easily stand up after the morning cartoons ended. I was four. I announced to my mother that I had appendicitis. She said something along the lines of “Nonsense.” But I did have a fever. So, she took me to the doctor and he sent us to the hospital for an x-ray immediately. Appendicitis it was. I knew this, obviously, because of Madeline. That literary diagnosis confirmed picture books’ value going forward.
I started to collect picture books before I had children—in anticipation. I couldn’t wait for the read aloud. Due to luck or because we doggedly exposed him to books, our first son became a book lover nearly as soon as he was born. His babyhood included many hours on our laps with board books open. When he was a toddler, we’d dump a pile of books into his crib early in the morning, and he’d look at them for up to an hour (while we slept—gratefully). Books were his favorite toys (still are).
During those toddler days, I ran into my neighbor, Barbara Carle one spring afternoon. With her May-bright smile and gentle, North Carolina drawl, she confided that she and her husband Eric might establish a picture book museum. Her husband Eric is Eric Carle, as in the Eric Carle. Although the first conversation took place on her corner, other more intentional conversations ensued, and I ended up in the midst of the early days when their dream began to inch toward reality. Fueled by my love of picture books and my neighbor crush on Barbara Carle, I tagged along on what became a grand adventure to build a picture book museum in a stretch of dormant apple orchard at the edge of the Hampshire College campus in Amherst, Massachusetts. It would seem an unlikely place for a museum of international stature, except for that fact that any self-respecting caterpillar would insist upon the spot.
From the days it was merely a compelling idea, The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art has been, for me, a family affair. That firstborn tot stood between two other children with ceremonial shovels at the groundbreaking and later weighed in on which chairs he liked for the auditorium. To this day, when I walk into that room for a performance or lecture, I finger the wooden cutouts and remember that little boy, who explained to the founding director Nick Clark why he preferred them and how red was a happy color for chairs. These days, I most often walk into the auditorium with my youngest; she recently turned five. This year alone we’ve enjoyed puppet shows, movies, concerts and a rollicking author and illustrator demonstration by author/illustrators Jarrett Krosoczka and Jef Czekaj that pitted punk music against hip-hop. When the grand kickoff weekend for the museum occurred a decade ago, my third boy, barely six weeks old, accompanied me to the grand gala curled up in a blue sling. He slept through nearly the entire party.
The story of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is more The Carrot Seed than The Very Hungry Caterpillar. There was gigantic belief—followed by careful tending. What guided all those founders was this understanding—that art can bring gentle miracles to life. The Museum’s mission, always implicit, reads: “The Eric Carle Museum inspires a love of art and reading through picture books.”
By now, my firstborn son is long past picture book reader age. And still that teenager vets every picture book that comes into the house. The last picture book he received, Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late, was a 14th birthday gift. It was given in an attempt by his harried parents to make a point with humor. Although it did nothing to accomplish an earlier bedtime, he loved it all the same. It feels like a lovely flourish that the capstone show to this tenth anniversary year at the Carle is Seriously Silly: A Decade of Art and Whimsy by Mo Willems.
As a four year-old girl with a bellyache, I needed no explanation that picture books matter. To be sure picture books have guided us as parents of young children. That bowl of mush, that familiar hush, the love echoed through Nutbrown Hare’s to the moon and back for our little bunnies, Olivia’s mother’s exasperated love for her exuberant daughter, the way old dog Rosy radiated good intentions when Kate went to get a pup and on and on—those brush strokes within the stories we made ours. As we read and reread our favorite and our best books, the pages developed emotional patina. Images and the rhythms of the words all became touchstones. To open certain tomes still recall our exhaustion at day’s end. The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day might have let us journey to Australia—for a moment. We understood even as we indulged in the fantasy of harrumphed exodus that we’d return; we’d always, always return. Picture books can remind you of the essential and obvious first truths you learn as parents: “Love them,” “Sleep when you can,” and “You get to try again tomorrow.” Even though you may reach those two words right before good night—The End—you know you’re at the beginning and in the middle, always and no matter what.
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer and blogger whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Brain Child Magazine and Salon the Huffington Post, Babble and Ceramics Monthly. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies including The Maternal is Political and Wait a Minute, I Have to Take Off My Bra. A writer for Preview Massachusetts Magazine, she keeps a personal blog, Standing in the Shadows at the publication’s news site, the Valley Advocate and a tumblr Refractions. She is a sometime contributor to Momfilter. Follow her on twitter–@standshadows or Pinterest.
Photo courtesy of Lisa Rubisch