Author-illustrator Eric Carle kicked off a lively night of reminiscence and celebration at the 13th annual Carle Honors, held on September 27 in New York City. The event is a gala and auction that benefits the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass. Each year, honors are presented to individuals whose work has helped to foster and enrich the picture book art form. Awards are given in four categories: “Artist” (for an exceptional picture book creator), “Mentor” (presented to editors, educators, and designers), “Angel” (for an individual who has supported and advocated for picture book writers and artists), and “Bridge” (presented to individuals who have taken innovative approaches to broadening picture book audiences).
Carle began the evening’s presentations by recounting a recent dream he had. In the dream, he and Bobbie, his late wife and co-founder of the museum, “were broke,” and traveling in Germany, where Carle had spent much of his youth. While at a trolley station, a familiar face appeared: Jerry Pinkney, who came down the road in a BMW. “He stopped for me,” Carle said. While he wasn’t entirely sure what the dream was attempting to tell him, it got Carle thinking about the artists, advocates, and friends who have meant so much to his own development as an artist and entrepreneur. Among Carle’s earliest mentors were his father, “who drew pictures for me,” and an art teacher in Nazi Germany who, in secret, showed Carle reproductions of modern art, which was considered to be “degenerate” at that time. Carle expressed gratitude to that teacher, who “encouraged my loose style.” He also offered thanks to his longtime editor, Ann Beneduce, who suggested that his titular “very hungry” character, be a caterpillar rather than a green worm, as he had originally planned. Finally, he thanked Motoko Inoue, his assistant for 25 years and current creative director of Eric Carle Studio.
A rousing performance by the Brooklyn-based Funkrust Brass Band followed Carle’s presentation (“I’m usually a Beethoven or Mozart guy, but tonight I’m in the mood for funk,” he said), with several of the musicians donning Very Hungry Caterpillar accessories.
Alix Kennedy, executive director of the Eric Carle Museum, took the podium next. Kennedy praised Eric Carle and the museum for being instrumental in the “sharing of picture books across cultures and oceans.” This year marks a big anniversary for The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Kennedy said, and the museum is celebrating with “The Very Hungry Caterpillar Turns 50” exhibition. At 50, the caterpillar’s global appeal is as strong as ever. In fact, Kennedy shared, “every 30 seconds, a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar is sold” (50 million copies have been sold in all). Next to speak was Leonard Marcus, chair of the committee that selects the winners each year. Quoting Ezra Pound, Marcus called children’s literature “news that stays news.” He added that fostering “an early love of reading [is] an indispensable prerequisite for success.”
The evening’s master of ceremonies, author Andrea Davis Pinkney—whom Kennedy announced is a new trustee of the Eric Carle museum—delivered exultant praise of Eric Carle and his work, saying that his books gratify children who are “ravenous for discovery” and “play a rhythm all their own,” inviting: “Come child, fly!”
Pinkney introduced the recipient of the Bridge Award: the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. Elena Pasoli, director of the fair, accepted the honor on the fair’s behalf. Calling the Bologna Book Fair “an enchanted place,” she commented on the appropriateness of the bridge metaphor, as the book fair has always advocated for building connections between individuals and cultures. Given the world’s contentious political and social climates, Pasoli fears that these connections are in “great danger.” Rather than be discouraged, however, Pasoli expressed that she, and those who embrace the mission of the book fair, “are all the more committed” to bridging nations and cultures through children’s literature. She thanked Bologna attendees who “come from corners all over the world, and dedicated the award to publishers and “children who suffer because of the violence and stupidity of adults.”
The Angel Award was presented to the Sendak Fellowship and Workshop, a four-week retreat for illustrators (held on a farm in Cambridge, N.Y.), that was founded by the late Maurice Sendak. Accepting the honor was Lynn Caponera, head of the Sendak Foundation, and Dona Ann McAdams, director of the Sendak Fellowship. Caponera spoke about the impact of the Sendak fellowship on artists, emphasizing how the retreat and workshop allow illustrators the time to “build, create, and foster lasting connections” with one another. McAdams thanked “our 28 fellows” and expressed her appreciation for “artists who tell stories with illustration.”
Next up, Pinkney introduced the winner of the Mentor Award, educator and author Rudine Sims Bishop, calling her “Fairy God Scholar.” Pinkney praised Bishop’s commitment to promoting literature that allows “children to see themselves reflected,” and to realize, looking into a magic mirror on the wall, “that black is beautiful.”
Bishop spoke about teachers as mentors and the powerful and pivotal role that picture books have played in broadening the diversity of children’s literature. She ended by describing her elation at “joining this illustrious list” of honorees.
Finally, Pinkney gave a lyrical introduction to the winner of the Artist Award, Paul O. Zelinsky—who, incidentally, is also Pinkney’s neighbor in Brooklyn. Pinkney praised the “meticulous care” that Zelinsky brings to his art and the “golden chain of picture book treasure” he has created, saying, “Oh Paul, you do it all so brilliantly.”
Zelinsky spoke about his early development as an artist, from the drawings of geishas he created as a child living with his family in Japan, to his rather satirical depictions of life at his high school. From the time he was very young, Zelinsky said, he was creating images that “told stories.” After becoming a professional illustrator, Zelinsky realized that the field was ideal for someone prone to both “self-absorption and the desire to withdraw.” An illustrator’s work is a reflection of the artist—but it doesn’t have to be: “It’s me but not me. But it is,” Zelinsky said. The illustrator shared that his euphoria (and occasional anxiety) at having his own art looked at has evolved to looking in wonder at the work of other artists and writers: “Look at Beverly Cleary’s story!”
Zelinsky concluded the ceremonies with a sentiment shared by many of the evening’s speakers and audience members: “I feel so lucky to have ended up in the best world in the world,” he said.