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At the Eric Carle Museum, the draw of animals

An illustration by Lucy Cousins and Lane Smith, part of “The Art of Eric Carle & Friends: What’s Your Favorite Animal?” exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst.

Lucy Cousins

An illustration by Lucy Cousins and Lane Smith, part of “The Art of Eric Carle & Friends: What’s Your Favorite Animal?” exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst.

From Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog to “Pat the Bunny” and the obstreperous pigeon in “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus,” animals often dominate the pages of children’s books. So what better way to celebrate the inventiveness of illustrators than to ask, “What’s your favorite animal?”

“The Art of Eric Carle & Friends: What’s Your Favorite Animal,” an exhibition opening this spring at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, spotlights the responses of 14 well-known children’s book artists to that question. Henry Holt and Co., Carle’s publisher, spearheaded the project with a book of the same name. Royalties from book sales will go to the museum.

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Carle, founder of the museum and author of scores of children’s books, including “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” turns 85 in June.

Every artwork reveals a different creative approach, in technique and imagination. Peter Sís, who was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2005 and has written and illustrated three Caldecott Honor books, drew a giant flying carp with three royal cats bearing gifts astride its back.

“Ask ‘what’s your favorite animal’ in a classroom, and you get the usual suspects: bunny, elephant,” Sís says. “I was trying to come up with something else.”

When Sís was a child in the Czech Republic, live carp were brought home to eat on Christmas Eve, and left in the bathtub before the meal. When it came time to cook, the children, who befriended the fish, objected. The family would take it to the river and throw it back in. “So my favorite creature of hope is the blue carp,” he writes in the text that accompanies the illustration.

“So many animals are cuddly and cute,” he says, “and I ended up with a cold, cold fish.”

Carle, a collage artist, chose a wily black cat named Fiffi he once lived with in Greenwich Village. Many artists tapped animals they’ve known personally. Mo Willems made one up, and had it eaten by a snake. Other artists contributing to “What’s Your Favorite Animal” include Jon Klassen, Erin Stead, and Lucy Cousins.

Steven Kellogg, who has illustrated more than 100 children’s books, including two about a cow named Clorinda, chose the cow as his favorite. In a drawing depicting his childhood bedroom, the walls are papered with his cow pictures, and a fond bovine licks his sleepy head — which might be how he developed a cowlick.

“The variety of contributions is lots of fun. It underlines the individuality of every artist, and every kid,” Kellogg says. “Traveling to schools, I get the question, did I know this is what I wanted to do? You can sense the anxiety in their voices. It’s important for kids to see that each artist is unique, yet they all share this common passion.”

Anyone can contribute an illustration to the exhibition’s online component, which will be available in the gallery on a touch screen. (Submission guidelines at www.picturebook
art.org) Chief Curator Nick Clark calls it “an opportunity to create a global classroom.”

“It’s a way to gather a broad spectrum of what people respond to,” he says. “We’re hoping to get different kinds of animals from different nationalities.”

Visitors can also make their own drawing in the museum’s dedicated artist’s studio. The museum will stage an all-day “What’s Your Favorite Animal” Children’s Book Festival on June 7.

Kellogg says he jumped at the chance to support the museum.

“It’s a wonderful institution, one of the few first-rate art-related children’s book museums in the country,” he says. “In Japan, there are many museums devoted to picture book art. Very few here.”

Sís points out that institutions such as the Eric Carle Museum are especially vital at a time when children are putting down books and picking up iPads to play computer games.

“I recently saw a book I had as a child,” he says. “It was amazing to see those pictures again. Every illustration had such magic for me.”

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com.
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