As I recently visited the Mo Willems exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, and then the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (where the exhibit originated), and enjoyed them both immensely, I began an e-mail correspondence with the Carle’s Marketing Manager, Sandy Soderberg, who then kindly put in me in touch with their Executive Director, Alexandra Kennedy.
She, in turn, was kind enough to agree to answer some of my questions about her work.
Due to various travel plans this summer and our not being in the same place at the same time, we conducted this interview via e-mail. Here’s what she had to say.
The NewsWhistle Q&A with Alexandra Kennedy, Executive Director, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
I enjoyed visiting your museum, and so did my family. Is this a unique institution, or are there other museums dedicated to children’s books and their art?
There are a number of picture book art museums abroad—most notably in Japan and England. In the United States, the closest museum to the Carle is probably the Mazza Museum in Ohio, which is part of the University of Findlay, and has a large collection of picture book art. There are a number of other museums we work with that collect picture book art—but not solely.
Is Eric Carle very active in the management of the museum to this day? It was such a treat to meet him while he was there signing books.
No, Eric really isn’t. He officially retired from his publishing work a number of years ago—he just turned 87—and though he and his late wife Barbara were very involved in the building and launch of the museum in 2002, they stepped back soon after to let our trustees provide oversight of what we’re doing. Eric is still our biggest champion though—an amazingly generous and kind supporter.
Photo of Eric Carle by Kristin Angel © The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.
I do love my Kindle, especially when traveling. And the instant gratification of “click!” and having a book to read is wonderful. But I’ve found that picture books do not translate very well to e-books, at least not in my experience. It may be a limitation of the technology that will be improved down the line, but I also find that there is a tactile pleasure in reading a book to a child that isn’t the same in an electronic medium. What are your thoughts about books and technology for children?
I agree that printed books offer something powerful, and that it is in great part because of how tactile they are. It’s hard, too, to get away from the fact that picture books are simply beautiful objects to read and hold—something that is certainly not lost on kids. As we all know as adults, too, the greatly beloved books of childhood wear in a way that makes them deeply personal and evocative (the chewed corners, the ear-marked pages, the doodled margins). Perhaps one day there will be devices that offer a compelling platform for picture books, but I think there will always be a place of prominence for the real paper-and-cardboard version.
What has been surprising to you about working at the Carle?
Until I was here, I did not completely understand just what a unique community of people create and publish picture books. It is such an inspiring group of men and women—playful, supportive, funny, kind, and endlessly ingenious. We’re so grateful to them for giving the Carle and our guests so much of their time.
What has been the best experience you’ve had there?
In 2012, we celebrated our tenth anniversary with a huge party here for our members and donors. It was a total ball. My favorite part was standing next to Chris Milne, our board chair, listening to Eric and Barbara give speeches about the founding of the museum and the pride they feel in seeing it thrive. Chris and I were beaming.
Stock Photo by Seth Kaye Photography © The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.
Do you have a favorite children’s book (or a few favorites)? I imagine in your line of work it is hard to pick just one or two!
My favorite novel of all time is Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. Several years ago we had the honor of exhibiting the book’s drawings (by Garth Williams). I have favorite picture books from my childhood, like Blueberries for Sal (now on display here in our Robert McCloskey exhibition!), and new favorites I’ve discovered since I started here, like This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen (which is terribly cheeky and marvelously illustrated). Klassen—and so many other artists—are constantly breaking new ground. I truly think we are living in another golden age for picture books.
We’re all familiar with some of the classics: The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Where the Wild Things Are, Goodnight Moon, The Cat in the Hat, etc. Do you have some recommendations that aren’t as well known, but should be?
One of my favorite artists is hard to find in the US (but is very popular in Europe)—Lisbeth Zwerger. Try to find her books! Her watercolors make me swoon.
What future plans are there for the Carle? Do you see the institution growing?
In the last few years, we have begun loaning exhibitions to really big museums like the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan, and they’ve been drawing record crowds. These museums are very excited to showcase picture book art because it is 1) great art and 2) it attracts families. And museums need more young people! Next up: our McCloskey exhibition is going to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (quack quack).
Someone I went to law school with, Jonathan Todres, has been doing some work in the area of children’s literature and human rights. So besides educating children in how to read and entertaining them, he believes that children’s books can teach children something about their legal rights. What are your thoughts on moral issues and children’s books?
A couple of hundred years ago, children’s books were ONLY about teaching moral and religious lessons (or basic skills, like the ABCs). Children’s literature, after all, is always a clear reflection of our society’s values. They have evolved, and are so complex and rich now, touching on every conceivable topic. I agree that children can learn about their legal rights—or any other important topic—by reading and being read to. The challenge of course for parents and teachers is deciding which books match the values they want to impart (but that’s the beauty of having so many books to choose from in this country).
On to adult literature…do you have a book recommendation for us?
I was a little late to the game but I just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and it left me speechless. The book takes the form of a letter Coates writes to his teenage son, all about his own experience growing up black in America. It is raw and real and full of boundless love.
Photo by Paul Shoul © The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.
Do you have a favorite movie?
I probably answer this question differently every time I get asked. Like books, there are just too many! Okay, today I will say The 400 Blows by Francois Truffaut. My husband took me to see it when we were dating—and we’re now trying to get our sons (19 and 20) to watch it with us, so it’s been on my mind. It’s a staggeringly beautiful portrait of a young teenager.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
My father always encouraged me to say yes to opportunities and invitations, even when they scared me (and maybe especially when they scared me). As a result, I’ve had a much more interesting life than I ever could have hoped for.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I was a debutante.
If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would you do?
I probably wouldn’t be a debutante.
Last, but not least, is there anything you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss?
I hope your readers will visit us at the Carle—or see one of our exhibitions as they travel around the country. Picture books are such a positive force—they inspired us as kids to love art and literature. Revisiting them as an adult is such magic!
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Images Courtesy of the Carle Museum of Picture Book Art; Lead-In Photo by Seth Kaye Photography.
Other Q&As by Laura LaVelle
* Alexi Auld, author
* Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council
* Eric Bennett, author
* Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts
* Mark Cheever, Friends of Hudson River Park
*Sarah Cox, Write A House
* Betsy Crapps, founder of Mom Prom
* Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist
* Mamady Doumbouya, Jonathan Halloran, & Robert Hornsby, founders of American Homebuilders of West Africa
* Kinsey Dyckman, Board Member, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Rhonda Eleish & Edie van Breems, interior designers
* Leslie Green Guilbault, artist, potter
* Garnet Heraman, brand strategist for Karina Dresses, serial entrepreneur
* Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Camilla Huey, artist, designer
*Dr. Brett Jarrell & Dr. Walter Neto, founders of Biovita
* Beth Johnson, Townsend Press editor
* Mahanth Joishy, founder of United States – India Monitor
* Jim Knable, playwright and musician
* Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for NYC Parks Department
* Elizabeth Larison, apexart Program Director
* Ann Lawrence, Co-Founder of Pink51
* Jessica Lee, dancer, Sable Project Administrator
* Najaam Lee, artist and sickle cell advocate
*Anthony Monaghan, documentary filmmaker
*Ellie Montazeri, Tunisian towel manufacturer
* Heather-Marie Montilla, Executive Director, Pequot Library
* Yurika Nakazono, rainwear designer, Terra New York
* Jibrail Nor, drummer
* Alice Quinn, Executive Director, Poetry Society of America
* Ryan Ringholz, children’s shoe designer, Plae Shoes
* Alanna Rutherford, Board Member, Andrew Glover Youth Program
* Deborah Ryan & Frank Vagnone, Historic House Anarchists
* Lawrence Schwartzwald, photographer
* Peter Sís, writer and illustrator
* Patrick Smith, author and pilot
* Jeffrey Sumber, psychotherapist and author
* Rich Tafel, life coach and Swedenborgian minister
*Jonathan Todres, law professor
* Andra Tomsa, creator of SPARE app
* Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher
* Carol Ward, Executive Director, Morris-Jumel Mansion
* Adamu Waziri, creator of children’s television program Bino and Fino
* Ekow Yankah, law professor