The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Reading Pictures, Seeing Art

 Picture Book Theatre presents Eric Carle’s The Very Lonely Firefly in the museum’s auditorium. Photo courtesy of The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

Everyone recognizes that picture books are generally a child’s first introduction to reading. What is less often considered is how they also serve as an introduction to art in general. “Picture book art is the first art we’re exposed to as young children,” said Rosemary Agoglia, curator of education at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. Open since November 2002, it was the country's first full-scale museum devoted to the colorful, lyrical world of picture books.

The museum was founded by its namesake, Eric Carle, who has written and illustrated more than 70 books, including the iconic 1969 The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Agoglia described Carle’s frustration at the dichotomy that existed between how fine art and commercial art were perceived. “Picture book art was seen as commercial art because it was designed in service to the text and to sell books,” Agoglia said. Illustrators too were considered to be “second-class artists.”

She partially understands how this misconception evolved, particularly when looking at the early days of image reproduction technology. “There is this difference between looking at the original and looking at the image in a book,” she said. “It’s the same as looking at a Monet in an art history book. You only know it’s great because you’ve been told it’s great.”

A family looks at pieces in the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Photo by Damia Stewart © 2007 The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art/Damia Stewart

To help rectify this, Carle and his wife Barbara filled their museum with original picture book art and packed its calendar with events for children and educators. Tomorrow, the museum will be hosting a “Big Read for Little Readers,” because as Agoglia said, “If you want Big Readers, you have to start young.” The event will take place at 9:30 a.m. in conjunction with the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, which has chosen The Joy Luck Club as its Big Read book. Inspired by the novel, tomorrow’s program will feature an Asian-themed family cooking class led by food writer T. Susan Chang, author of A Spoonful of Promises: Stories and Recipes from a Well-Tempered Table. As they cook, parents and children will discuss their favorite foods and food memories, culminating in the creation of a book describing their conversation.

The museum also regularly hosts educational programs designed to enhance a child’s visual literacy. Story time at the museum involves not only reading a book, but studying its design, which includes everything from the illustrations to the gutters, bleeds, and end papers. “Young children just love reading the pictures, and reading the art and design of the book,” Agoglia said. “It’s so empowering for them, because they know it’s something they can do.” Although they may not yet understand the patterns of written letters, children are “simultaneously making sense of the pictures as you make sense of the words.”

Of course, picture books can bring as much joy to parents as to children, as any adult who has marveled at the beautiful collages in The Very Hungry Caterpillar, or delighted in Dr. Seuss’s rhymes, can tell you. “You’re never too old for picture books,” Agoglia said. “They’re just amazing.”

“The Big Read for Little Readers” Cooking Up Memories will take place tomorrow, March 10, 2012 from 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Registration is required. Please visit the museum website for more information.

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