This year’s Carle Honors, an autumnal celebration of children’s books and benefit for the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, took place at Guastavino’s in New York City on September 28. Each year, the Carle Honors celebrate the contributions of four individuals to the vibrant world of children’s literature. This year’s awards went to Dr. John Y. Cole for the “Angel” honor; Bank Street Writers Lab, for the “Mentor” honor; Anthea Bell for the “Bridge” honor; and Ed Young, for the “Artist” honor. Author Jack Gantos served as the evening’s master of ceremonies.
Among the speakers to offer opening remarks was Eric Carle, who looked out at the enthusiastic crowd of faces—many familiar, many not—and said, “The crowd is getting bigger here. That’s a good sign”. After thanking the audience members for their ongoing support of the Amherst, Mass., museum, he added that his own admiration for the institution and its exhibitions has only increased with the years; “I’m so impressed with my museum,” he kidded. One of the reasons he has been visiting the museum so often: this summer, the museum broke ground on “Bobbie’s Garden,” a space created as a tribute to Carle’s late wife and cofounder of the museum, Barbara Carle. The opening of the space enables “her spirit to be visible” to museum visitors, said Carle. He’s also betting that “she’ll look from above and check it out.”
In more “good signs,” Leonard S. Marcus—children’s literature scholar, museum trustee, and founder of the Honors—next spoke about growing children’s book markets worldwide. Notably, he shared how China is “rising to the challenge” of embracing and proliferating the writing, illustrating, and production of picture books. As Chinese publishers work to build their own distinctive body of children’s literature, “they are turning to American picture books as models,” he said. As evidence of China’s burgeoning awareness of how picture books matter, individuals are opening private libraries in their homes to compensate for the country’s lack of public libraries, Marcus said.
After being introduced by Alix Kennedy (“I’m struck by the depths of his heart”), Jack Gantos spoke about the Eric Carle Museum and its cofounder’s ability to unite illustrators and writers in their common purpose. “No one person goes it alone,” Gantos said. “We depend on one another to renew the vitality of the children’s book field.” Gantos described his experience of first meeting Eric Carle at the museum, following the publication of “my youthful drug-running memoir,” he joked. Gantos recalled that, as he watched the creator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar interact with children, he became mordantly aware that his own story (Hole in My Life) was that of a “hashish-eating, self-involved, unholy, unrepentant drug smuggler,” Gantos said. Later that day when he formally met Carle and accidentally called him Carl Jung, he was struck by “the generosity of a man of great insights but not harsh judgments,” he said.
Gantos introduced the winner of the Mentor honor, given to individuals or an institution devoted to championing children’s books. This year, the Bank Street Writers Lab was recognized, with Dr. Cynthia Weill, director of the Center for Children’s Literature at Bank Street, accepting the honor. Gantos remarked on how the lab gives writers the encouragement and tools to craft work that brings the sense of “a child’s eye, heart, and wonderment to literature.”
Weill spoke about the history of the Bank Street Writers Lab, which she noted was founded by educator Lucy Sprague Mitchell in 1937. She noted the significance of the lab in terms of how it fostered a central philosophy of children’s literature that is concerned with “the work children do and the here and now,” an approach that was “best embodied by Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon.” Today the Writers Lab continues to do the work of its forebears, she added, giving writers the chance to receive intensive critiques, while advocating for stories that reach children as they live today.
Next, Gantos introduced Dr. John Y. Cole, librarian, historian, and reading advocate at the Library of Congress, for the Angel honor. The honor is given to individuals “whose generous resources are crucial to making picture book art exhibitions, education programs, and related projects a reality.”
Gantos thanked Cole for, among other feats, creating the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature honor. In so doing, Gantos credited him with protecting the integrity of children’s literature: “He is an angel who shines his literary light on children and the children in all of us,” he said.
Cole spoke about his goals in helping the Library of Congress to “overcome our slightly stuffy reputation,” and to “continue the momentum of reading and literacy promotion” through the library’s programming and outreach, including the Center for the Book, the National Book Festival, the National Ambassadorship, and more.
The Bridge honor, given to “individuals who have found inspired ways to bring the art of the picture book to larger audiences through work in other fields,” went to translator Anthea Bell. Though she was unable to attend the event, Gantos noted, “we are thinking of her in very positive ways… and you can think of her in any language you would like.” He added that Bell’s talents resulted in “invisible, seamless translation” and has been instrumental in forging a transatlantic market for children’s books from Europe.
Accepting Bell’s honor was her son, journalist and writer Oliver Kamm, who explained that his mother is quite ill. Of the honor, he said: “We have told her and will continue to tell her.” He described the pain of witnessing “a brilliant mind reduced and departed,” as Bell’s has been, but he added that there is much to celebrate in his mother’s long career. Kamm referred to the “dark times” unfolding on both sides of the Atlantic, noting “the drawing in of national boundaries” and the proliferation of xenophobic worldviews. Because of these circumstances, he views his mother’s work of “introducing children to the literature of other countries” to be as critical as ever before. Though Bell had been honored for her work by “the Queen,” among others, he noted that “nothing means more to her than appreciation from readers young and old—particularly those young.”
Finally, Gantos introduced Ed Young, the honoree for Artist, given for innovative work in the field of children’s illustration. “I have a few thousand words to say, but will distill them in his honor,” Gantos said. He commented on Young’s “well-paced and dignified” books that “unfold moment by moment.” He also advised readers that, after reading one of Young’s books, it might behoove them to “take a nap, so what is not revealed in the books is revealed in their dreams.”
Young, who had on stage with him a piece of his sculptural artwork, said, “I had no idea what I would talk about, except to thank the people who brought me here.” The artist went on to speak about his feelings of isolation when he first came to the United States from China in 1951: “I felt I don’t belong to China anymore and not the United States either.” Yet, through what he considers to be the fire of enthusiasm, emotion, and the heart that enables him to “make books,” he has since been able to forge a connection “to both China and the U.S.”
Using the analogy of an iceberg’s peak, Young spoke about how those who are seemingly isolated from the surface, are also shaped and influenced through the strength and cooperation of others. He concluded by wishing to “celebrate all the people here connected in ways we don’t know,” and by expressing how, with each book that he created with the support of those many others, “I became somebody new,” he said.
In closing, Kennedy gave Gantos a gift on behalf of the Eric Carle Museum: a rare first edition of Squirrel Hotel by William Pène du Bois, which Gantos had let slip was his favorite book from childhood. It was an example in action of how—as Young had said—children’s book authors and illustrators “give heart, and receive heart,” right back.