Picture book stars were out in force last Thursday evening for the seventh annual Carle Honors, held at Guastavino’s in New York City. Four awards are given each year to individuals who have made significant contributions to children’s literature and literacy, with an award presented in each of the following categories: Bridge (“individuals who have found inspired ways to bring the art of the picture book to larger audiences through work in other fields”), Angel (“whose generous financial support is crucial to making picture book art exhibitions, education programs, and related projects a reality”), Mentor (“editors, designers, and educators who champion the art form”), and Artist (“for lifelong innovation in the field”).
It was a big night for this year’s four honorees – Christopher Cerf, Kent L. Brown, Jr., Frances Foster, and Lane Smith – but also for the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, which will be celebrating its 10th anniversary this November.
“[The museum] is thriving in so many wonderful and different ways,” said museum chair Christopher B. Milne in his opening remarks, speaking of the museum’s enduring success and continuing evolution after 10 years. After recognizing the contributions of the museum’s executive director Alexandra Kennedy, he and Kennedy introduced Jeanne Juster, wife of author Norton Juster, who reminisced about the birth of the Carle museum from Eric and Barbara Carle’s earliest notions.
After many conversations and theorizing with their friends about what a museum devoted to the picture book might look like, “things began to happen,” Juster recalled, and one day “a beautiful white building appeared in the apple orchard.”
Author Kate Feiffer, daughter of illustrator Jules Feiffer, summed up her relationship with the Carle museum in a few words: “I love it.” She also described visiting the museum for the first time and seeing images of her own family – “my husband, dog, daughter” – featured on a purple wall. It was that moment, she said, when she realized that the Carle is a home for her, and that it would become a home for many others over years to come.
Collaborators (and former Brooklyn Heights roommates) Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer then took the podium to discuss the joys of being part of a picture book community, the significance of the Carle museum and, as Juster cheekily noted, the “heart-tugging stories of emotionally challenged insects.”
After being only lightly roasted by his friend and colleagues, Carle had his turn at the mic, and expressed his appreciation for those who have helped to build and sustain the museum. He cited art teachers, parents, publishers, friends, museum guests – all 225,000 of them – and, of course, a certain ravenous caterpillar.
Calling the art of picture books “life-changing, joy-expanding, and way harder than it looks,” critic and author Leonard S. Marcus introduced the Bridge award presenter, Mo Willems, who acknowledged the contributions of Christopher Cerf. Willems didn’t get very far in his remarks, however, before he was interrupted by a well-meaning but very drunken sock puppet, Socky the Sock (played by Sesame Street writer and performer Joey Mazzarino). “I love Japanese rice wine,” Socky said, by way of explaining his homophonic name. “I’m so wasted right now.” Not one to be derailed by belligerent puppets, Willems salvaged the moment and heralded Cerf to the stage.
“I thought Socky was very heartfelt. I still have no work for him,” Cerf said, in an admission that was met with laughter. As co-creator and executive producer of the PBS children’s program Between the Lions, and musical contributor to Sesame Street, Cerf has played a major role in promoting literacy for children. His passion for children’s literature began as it does for many pioneers in the field – when he was a child. “I grew up with picture books... the books we’re celebrating tonight.” He referenced Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat as being a source of inspiration for his later work, in that it “made learning fun” (Cerf’s father, Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf, was Dr. Seuss’s longtime publisher). Between the Lions, Cerf explained, introduces a picture book in each episode and crafts a lesson around it, enhancing the experience of reading for viewers who are often thrilled to get their hands on the books that they’ve seen featured: “TV can help preserve a book, but not replace it,” he concluded.
Educator and artist Floyd Cooper next introduced Kent L. Brown, Jr., recipient of the Angel award. Cooper described how Brown has cultivated children’s literacy through his work as a teacher and currently as executive director of the Highlights Foundation.
Brown expressed his love for teaching and those who teach, as well as his enduring faith in the Highlights mission. Through collaborations with the Carle Museum and his own teaching efforts at the Barn, a conference center opened by the Highlights Foundation that hosts annual writing conferences and retreats, he has continued to promote “teachers teaching teachers,” he said. “I care about readers, learners, and kids.”
Singer-songwriter Nathalie Merchant joined Barbara McClintock to introduce the award for Mentor, given to Frances Foster, who launched her own children’s imprint at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1995. Merchant and McClintock recently collaborated on the picture book Leave Your Sleep (Nov.) under Foster’s editorial guidance. And who better to describe her talents than those who have benefited from them? The pair quoted individuals who have worked directly with Foster. Among the comments: “[I learned from Frances that] the collaborative process between a writer and editor can be a joy,” and “Oh Frances, without you, where would I be?”
Foster, in turn, thanked Eric Carle for his “vision and generosity,” as well as her own mentors, the artists and writers she has known, and her family – “my mentors-in-chief.” She explained that mentoring has been closely tied to her identity, elaborating that there were no mentoring workshops when she was getting started: “Who you were was how you mentored.” She noted that the concept of mentorship has its origins in literature – specifically, from The Odyssey, when Odysseus leaves his household in care of Mentor.
Finally, Anita Silvey welcomed Lane Smith, recipient of the Artist award. Calling Smith “the most exciting illustrator to grace children’s books since Chris Van Allsburg,” she described Smith’s Caldecott Honor book Grandpa Green as “a gentle, even sweet vision of the life of an old man.” She added that, for an illustrator so young, “the best is still yet to come.”
Addressing the assembled guests, Smith related how a child had recently told him that he acts just like a nine-year-old, which Smith took as a compliment. He explained how his close affinity for – even obsession with – childhood things has helped to shape his career as an illustrator, and how being in tune with a child’s vision of the world is a very good thing. He offered a nod of solidarity to all those other individuals who are, as he put it, “blessed with arrested development.”
The description seemed especially appropriate when, at the end of the evening, elegantly dressed departing guests eagerly claimed their gift bags containing picture books and other treats for... er... children.