On a brisk early autumn evening, the Eric Carle Honors celebrated its 11th year of recognizing instrumental figures in children’s literature. The annual gala, which benefits the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., was held on September 28 at Guastavino’s in New York City. Each year, individuals are awarded in four categories: Mentor, Bridge, Angel, and Artist.

This year, the honorees were Regina Hayes for Mentor; Steven Heller for Bridge; Jason Low for Angel; and Allen Say for Artist. Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, served as the evening’s master of ceremonies. But first, museum chair Christopher B. Milne opened with reflections on the profound impact the museum has had since its development. He also spoke about the legacy of the late Barbara Morrison, wife of Eric Carle and cofounder of the Eric Carle Museum, who died last year. In keeping with the museum’s integration of “nature, children’s books, and art,” Milne noted that the museum will be opening up an outdoor space in honor of Barbara, which will be named “Bobbie’s Garden.”

Next, Eric Carle shared some words, thanking guests and donors for their ongoing support of the museum, and noting that he was visited by Bobbie two days previously: “Bobbie came in the door, smiling ear to ear,” he said. She had some sort of an envelope with her, which Carle joked, “must have been the speech for tonight.” He credited his late wife with running with the idea of creating a picture book museum in the United States, following their time spent in Japan. Meanwhile, he joked, “I did nothing. Clever, isn’t it?”

Carle reminisced about his early career as an artist and the day he pitched his idea for a picture book featuring a “green worm” to his long-time editor, Ann Beneduce (at Beneduce’s suggestion, that worm would become a caterpillar). As with Bobbie, he considers Beneduce to be one of the most important figures in his life. He also acknowledged the influence of his mother and his first grade teacher who praised his artistic talents. Meanwhile, he modestly proclaimed, “I’m essentially a cave painter who wrote a few words.”

Alexandra Kennedy, executive director of the Carle Museum, briefly discussed the ongoing work of the Carle Museum, particularly its commitment to serving as a “teaching institution,” and one that continues to find “new and innovative ways to bring and picture books into classrooms.” She also touched on the joys of working for a museum that is “so focused on families – including our own.”

Leonard Marcus, who heads the committee that selects the winners, took the stage to thank artists, writers, editors, librarians, reviewers, philanthropists, pediatricians, plush toy makers, and a great many others who share “the glorious goal of putting picture books in children’s hands.”

Taking the stage to introduce the award recipients was Maguire, who spoke about how children’s spaces in libraries have changed significantly over the years, from being located in “basements or in airless attics” to the playfully designed centers of exploration that they have become today. He noted the significance of “celebrating picture books in such an elegant venue,” saying that “it shows we have grown up and we found matching socks. Our overdue library fines are paid – or at least forgiven.” He also spoke about the “wide pan of picture books that teach us from a great and scrutinizing height” not just to read but to read ourselves and each other.

Maguire then introduced the recipient for the Mentor award, given to “editors, designers, and educators who champion the art form.” He applauded Regina Hayes’s ability to guide and nurture artists and authors by finding the graceful balance between taking the lead and allowing her mentees to seek their own solutions: “Regina knows,” he said.

Hayes offered her thanks to the many art directors she has worked with throughout her career as well as the “dear, generous, gracious colleagues,” who have made her professional life “such a happy one.”

Next up was the Bridge Award, given to “individuals who have found inspired ways to bring the art of the picture book to larger audiences through work in other fields.” Maguire described Steven Heller’s multifaceted career as a graphic designer, illustrator, and author whose work has opened many bridges for others in the field of design and children’s literature.

Heller recalled that when Marcus informed him he would be receiving the award, he was “thrilled but perplexed.... What have I done that is so deserving?” He thanked his colleagues and noted the books, authors, and artists who have influenced him, including former New York Times children’s books editor Eden Ross Lipson and cartoonist Art Spiegelman, whose Maus Heller credited with helping to “close the gap” between the picture book and comic book art forms. He concluded by giving thanks to those mentors and colleagues who have given him “the opportunity to be a bridge.”

Accepting the Angel Award, given to individuals “whose generous resources are crucial to making picture book art exhibitions, education programs, and related projects a reality,” was Jason Low, publisher and co-owner of Lee & Low Books. Maguire praised Lee & Low for its Diversity Baseline Survey, which measured the diversity of staff within the publishing industry, as well as the publisher’s ongoing work to publish diverse books: “bringing the invisible to light is angelic work indeed,” he said.

Low, who wished to include his brother and coworker Craig in his acceptance of the award, spoke about Lee & Low’s mission to “publish books about everyone for everyone” and its commitment to provide children with “inclusive depictions of a world that they will inherit one day.” Going forward, Low said he hopes that diversity will be increasingly understood as an issue of essential “human rights,” rather than as an issue that should be set apart from that category.

Finally, Maguire introduced the award winner for Artist, Allen Say, saying that an artist plays the role of “seer,” and that this gift of vision is particularly evident in Say’s illuminating body of work. Say joked that Nick Clark “persuaded me to accept this award” and that having to make a public appearance “insured the guarantee that he would protect me. I haven’t seen him yet.” Among the colleagues thanked by Say was former children’s publisher Walter Lorraine, whom he described as being “the man most responsible for my being here,” adding that “to him I owe almost everything I know about picture books.”

In closing, Maguire wished the audience well, saying, “May we all fly more closely to being bridges, mentors, angels, and artists ourselves.”