What can Abilene, Tex., and Tsuwano, Japan, possibly have in common? Both are homes to new galleries devoted exclusively to art created for children's picture books—the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature and the Mitsumasa Anno Museum, respectively—and both offer signs that picture book art is achieving greater recognition. And construction is set to begin this month on another venue for displaying children's book art: the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass.
How the Texas venture came to be is a tale of serendipity worthy of any fictional plot. In December 1993, Abilene's then mayor, Gary McCaleb, was asked to read a book to students at a local elementary school. When McCaleb opened the designated book—William Joyce's Santa Calls—he was tickled to discover that the tale is set in Abilene (an appropriately alliterative abode for protagonist Art Atchinson Ainsworth). He was so impressed with Joyce's work that he immediately phoned the author and invited him to visit Abilene, where Joyce had never been.
The following March, Joyce spoke at a luncheon sponsored by the town's cultural affairs council and, accompanied by the mayor, visited schools in the Abilene area. Becky McDonald, a board member of the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature (NCCIL), reported that, in the course of conversation between McCaleb and Joyce, the latter mentioned that he felt that historically children's book art hadn't received the respect that it deserves. "The two of them there and then conceived of the idea to create a center to honor children's illustrated literature," McDonald recalled.
After years of work on the parts of many Abilene residents—including the mayor, the cultural affairs council and the members of the Abilene Junior League—that dream came true. In 1997 NCCIL received a state charter and, with funding from the Junior League, later that year debuted its first show, an exhibit of the work of Caldecott Medalist David Diaz. This and subsequent exhibits were held at the Grace Museum or at the local civic center until a successful $2-million capital campaign and the donation of a 9,700-square-foot former garage enabled the NCCIL to move into its very own space last fall.
The inaugural exhibit held last September in its new home featured the art of Brian and Jerry Pinkney. Other artists whose work has been the focus of NCCIL shows include Kevin Henkes, David Wiesner, Paul Zelinsky and Janet Stevens. The current exhibit features the art of David Small, whose Caldecott Medal for So You Want to Be President?, in yet another serendipitous stroke of good fortune for the center, was bestowed just prior to the show's opening.
In addition to its paid memberships, which now total some 350, NCCIL's funding has relied on the rental of its exhibits to fine art and children's museums throughout the country. "We've seen expanding interest from museums," remarked Kim Snyder, director of the center. "We currently have eight exhibits traveling, including our very first show, of David Diaz's work. We initially signed two-year contracts with our illustrators, but we are extending some of them to as long as four years. We are going to focus on sending our exhibits into a greater number of larger markets; our shows have already traveled to museums in Dallas, New York, Omaha and Portland, Oregon."
Snyder noted that she is very pleased with the results of the center's efforts to sell books by the showcased artist at each of its home shows—520 of David Small's books sold in the first three days of his exhibit—and expressed gratitude to publishers for their support of the venture. In her words, "We have developed great relationships with publishers, who have been so generous in sending us marketing materials, posters and the like, as well as making donations of books. We provide a softcover book for each class that tours the museum, and like to give a hardcover book to each school library." In addition to hosting students, the center (to which admission is free for all) holds Saturday art classes and will initiate an "art summer camp" when school lets out. The educational programming, McDonald commented, "is really the heart of this center. Teaching children about art and inspiring them to want to read—these are the most important things."
A Jewel Sparkles in Japan
Half a world away from the Lone Star State, the doors of another treasure trove of children's book art opened in March. This is the Mitsumasa Anno Museum, built as a tribute to this author and artist by the officials of his hometown of Tsuwano, in western Japan. Last year, Ann Beneduce, Anno's longtime editor at Philomel who continues to edit his books on a freelance basis, visited the construction site of the museum—designed by Anno—for which she had high praise. "Tsuwano is a small, historic city sprinkled with wonderful medieval buildings," she recounted. "Those in charge of the project asked Anno to design the museum as a modern building, but he held out for a traditional Japanese style. It ended up being a combination of old and new—and very beautiful."
Beneduce observed that it is not unusual for Japanese communities to erect such monuments to honor native artists, who, in her words "are often considered national treasures." In his homeland, she noted, Anno is "as popular as a pop star. People from all over the country will travel to this museum."
The art of the creator of such books as Anno's Journey and Anno's Magic Seeds will be the primary focus of the museum's galleries, but Beneduce expects that these walls will display the work of other children's artists as well. She emphasized the key role that interactive activities will play in the new undertaking. "Anno was an art teacher before he was an author," she commented, "and he really wants his museum to be a place where children can come in and try things. He has always been very interested in science and math and in introducing these subjects to kids in an enjoyable way. He sees his museum as an opportunity to do just that, and has even included a planetarium as part of the building." Anno also involved children in the construction of the museum, Beneduce reported: "The building has a ceramic tile roof, and he had children from the town come and press their hands into a wet tile, so that each tile now represents a different child. What better way to make youngsters feel a part of this venture?"
A Gem in the Making
What Beneduce described as a "parallel project" to Anno's is an endeavor hatched by another well-respected and bestselling author whose books she edits: Eric Carle. In 1995, Carle and his wife, Barbara, launched a foundation to establish a museum devoted to the art of the picture book—a museum, writes the couple in their brochure announcing the project, "to delight, entertain, surprise and educate." Scheduled to open in fall 2002, this contemporary building will be situated on more than seven acres on the edge of the campus of Hampshire College. The site is currently an apple orchard, "a tempting location for a hungry caterpillar," states the press materials.
Nick Clark, who is formerly a chair of education at Atlanta's High Museum of Art and is author of Myth, Magic and Mystery: One Hundred Years of American Children's Book Illustration, is the founding director of the museum. He noted that the museum has sought sponsors for the $18-million project (this figure includes construction and equipment costs as well as the establishment of an endowment) from throughout the publishing community as well as beyond the industry.
Describing the physical layout of the 40,000-square-foot structure, Clark explained that it will house two galleries, one devoted to Carle's work and the other to rotating exhibits of the work of picture book artists from across the world; its inaugural show will spotlight the art of Maurice Sendak. An auditorium will provide a setting for lectures, presentations, book readings, storytelling sessions and the like. The museum will also include a library, café, bookstore and gift shop.
A component that Clark described as "very significant, and almost as important as the galleries themselves," is a studio where visitors can participate in hands-on art activities. "We want both children and adults to be able to step into the shoes of the artists and to appreciate what goes into the process of creating this work," he said. "We hope they will then go back into the galleries and look at the material there with fresh eyes. In this world of sound and sight bites, it is important to recognize that the more we contemplate something, the deeper, richer and more complex it becomes."
Clark emphasized that the Eric Carle Museum will aim to improve the "visual literacy" of visitors of all ages: "We recognize that children learn to read through picture books, where there is a marriage of text and image. But eventually the literacy becomes primarily textual and the visual literacy gets left behind. So one of the missions of the museum is to give people the tools and opportunity to reinstate it."
And another primary goal of this venture—a goal that can certainly be applied to the museums in Abilene and Tsuwano as well—is, in Clark's words, "to prove that if we take the art out of a children's book and display it on a wall, it will stand on its own as a true work of art." No one familiar with the best of children's book illustration could argue otherwise.