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Let's Talk: Animals from the Collection

“Someone’s been eating my porridge and they ate it all up!”  —Baby bear

For centuries writers and artists have told stories about animals. From ancient legends, fables, and fairy tales to picture books and modern children’s literature, animals have always been fundamental to storytelling. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art examines the longstanding tradition in children’s literature of anthropomorphism—bestowing human characteristics to animals—with a new exhibition highlighting its world-class illustration collection. Frog and Toad, Stuart Little, Peter Rabbit, and Noisy Nora are some of the beloved picture book characters guests will meet in Let’s Talk! Animals from the Collection, which opens April 19 and runs through October 4, 2020.

Featured are E. H. Shepard’s watercolors of Winnie-the-Pooh, ditties from Mother Goose, curiosities from Alice in Wonderland, and familiar faces from Aesop’s Fables and Little Red Riding Hood. Historical gems by Leo Lionni, Arnold Lobel, James Marshall, William Steig, and Garth Williams are featured alongside contemporary illustrators such as Ashley Bryan, Petra Mathers, Jerry Pinkney, Kadir Nelson, Rosemary Wells, and Mo Willems. The selection, representing a century of illustration, explores a fundamental question: Why are so many storytellers for children drawn to animal characters and how has the practice evolved over time?

Let’s Talk! considers the animal character as subject and the ideological slippages that occur when animals serve as substitutes for humans. Four thematic sections shape the exhibition, with art dating from the late 19th century to the present:

Tales of Tails follows familiar animals from classic texts and asks viewers to consider the multiple roles that anthropomorphic animals play in telling stories to young people. Featured artworks include Maryjane Begin’s The Wind in the Willows (2002), James Marshall’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears (1988), Jerry Pinkney’s The Little Red Hen (2006), and Trina Shart Hyman’s Little Red Riding Hood (1983).

Home and Away explores our natural roaming instincts in seeking adventures afar and returning to the comforts of home. Featured artworks include Garth Williams’s Little Fur Family, R. W. Alley’s Paddington Bear (2019), Petra Mather’s Lottie’s New Friend (1999), Michael Hague’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit (2001), and William Steig’s Roland the Minstrel Pig (1968).

A Circus of Performers celebrates the anthropomorphic feat of performing as a human for a human audience. Featured artworks include José Aruego and Ariane Dewey’s Owliver (1974), Jon Agee’s Milo’s Hat Trick (2001), and David Hyde Costello’s Little Pig Joins the Band (2011).

Unlikely Friendships marvels at the unexpected comradery between presumed foes when they meet in the pages of a picture book. Featured artworks include Leo Lionni’s An Extraordinary Egg (1994), Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad All Year (1976), Betsy Lewin’s Ferlie Cat (1986), and Don Freeman’s Gregory’s Shadow (2000).

“We are fortunate to have a depth and variety of artwork in the permanent collection from which to organize thought-provoking exhibitions,” says Ellen Keiter, The Carle’s chief curator. “This show features humanized animals, indelible literary characters like Peter Rabbit and Paddington who comprise our earliest childhood memories and continue to live in our adult imaginations. Children have an emotional connection to animals, and there are several examples of classic stories retold by different illustrators in different eras.”

Let’s Talk! continues Keiter, “examines a plethora of motivations for authors and artists who use animals, whether to expose human foibles, to teach us how to behave, to help simplify a scary and complex world, or for sheer entertainment purposes. However, with the long-standing tradition of anthropomorphism in children’s literature also comes a distortion of reality and problematic issues of exaggeration, stereotyping, and dehumanization.”   

In its short seventeen-year history, The Carle has welcomed into its permanent collection more than 8,500 objects ranging from vintage picture-book art to modern day illustrations. Several local artists have generously gifted work to the Museum, including David Hyde Costello, Tony DiTerlizzi, Barry Moser, Astrid Sheckels, and Mo Willems. Let’s Talk! includes 80 artworks and is co-curated by Keiter and Cathryn Mercier, director of graduate programs in Children’s Literature and director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons University. Mercier is a member of The Carle’s Board of Trustees and brings a wealth of knowledge and scholarship to the exhibition.

“I loved combing through the Carle’s permanent collection to discover these engaging illustrations of animals. As I look at these artworks, I’m reminded of cuddling with a kitten to read a book aloud, of the rabbits cotton-tailing into my father’s garden, of field mice who seemed to have their own parades, of riotous birds and squealing pigs. More than anything, these images invite us to celebrate the special bond between human and animals that rewards us so deeply,” said Mercier.    

 About The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

The mission of The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, a non-profit organization in Amherst, MA, is to inspire a love of art and reading through picture books. A leading advocate in its field, The Carle collects, preserves, presents, and celebrates picture books and picture-book illustrations from around the world. In addition to underscoring the cultural, historical, and artistic significance of picture books and their art form, The Carle offers educational programs that provide a foundation for arts integration and literacy.

Eric Carle and his wife, the late Barbara Carle, co-founded the Museum in November 2002. Carle is the renowned author and illustrator of more than 70 books, including the 1969 classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Since opening, the 43,000-square foot facility has served more than 750,000 visitors, including 50,000 schoolchildren. The Carle houses more than 11,000 objects, including 7,300 permanent collection illustrations. The Carle has three art galleries, an art studio, a theater, picture book and scholarly libraries, and educational programs for families, scholars, educators, and schoolchildren. Bobbie’s Meadow is an outdoor space that combines art and nature. Educational offerings include professional training for educators around the country and Master’s degree programs in children’s literature with Simmons University. Museum hours are Tuesday through Friday 10 am to 4 pm, Saturday 10 am to 5 pm, and Sunday 12 pm to 5 pm. Open Mondays in July and August and during MA school vacation weeks. Admission is $9 for adults, $6 for children under 18, and $22.50 for a family of four. For further information and directions, call (413) 559-6300 or visit the Museum’s website at www.carlemuseum.org

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