The waist-high bookshelves that line the reading room at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art are crammed with stories that span a lifetime. When a child tugs loose one of the colorful spines and brings it back to her grandmother to read, there’s no telling what treasure she’ll hand her. Maybe it’s a brand-new Caldecott or Newbery Medal winner, maybe a classic she once read to the child’s mother, or maybe it’s a book her own parents put her to bed with so many years ago.
When the Carle opened in 2002, promising to “celebrate the art we know first,” it instantly became an oddity in the museum world, not just because it’s the first to focus on the art of picture books, but also because the collection hanging in its three small galleries is arguably its least important aspect. The Carle shares the same simple mission as the books it promotes–getting children to think–so the paintings are only the beginning. After children go through the galleries, someone may ask them for their two cents at an interactive book reading, or they may see a play or a movie based on the book in the museum’s auditorium. And no child’s trip through the Carle is complete without stopping at the craft room–overflowing with paper, glue sticks, and opportunities–to make some art of one’s own.
In a time when schools are forced to weed libraries and art classes out of their budgets, the Carle is a bastion for anyone who sees the merit in things “not on the test.” Staff members routinely hold professional-development workshops for educators and even do outreach programs at schools that have lost their art curricula. It’s a dynamism not seen in many museums, but when the Carle’s curators see a child clasping an open book, wrapped up in the adventure of some hungry caterpillar, they understand which of the two is the true piece of art.