Sylvester and the Magic Pebble Turns 50 at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art


William Steig is one of my favorite author/illustrators.  I have most of his books.  I’ve been reading his books to children since I started teaching thirty-five years ago.  Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, one of his best, turned 50 years old this year.  It is as good today as it was 50 years ago.  The Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts is celebrating this Golden Anniversary with an outstanding exhibit.

I was there.

Do you know what if feels like to see, up close, the original artwork of beloved books?  I do.


The brush strokes of the sun are clear.


A true starry night with many different blues.


The book was actually banned for using pigs to represent police.


This is my collection of William Steig’s books.

It happened like this… Second grade.  I’ll never forget the parent teacher conference that year.  Our daughter loved the book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.  Her teacher was concerned that the book and level of reading was too young.  “You should introduce her to books with more meaningful text.”

I was speechless.  The story encompassed everything – life and death, family, worry and joy – in language-rich prose.  There was more to this book than many other chapter books.  I wonder if the teacher had read the book.  If so, she might have had a different opinion.  Perhaps an epiphany.

There is much I have said about my visits to this remarkable museum. Please read below to get the big picture, the ‘meat and potatoes’, and some of what has happened on my visits.

 ************************************************************************

I wrote this post about The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art a few years ago.  Every visit is a joy.  There is always something new.  If you are an art lover and children’s book lover, this is the museum for you!  

People think of an art museum as… art, single standing pieces on their own right. Imagine masterful, award winning art combined with the best literature, in one museum. Exciting? You bet!  A hidden gem in Amherst, Massachusetts.

img_2522

What is your favorite childhood book?  Madeline?  Perhaps it is  Make Way For Ducklings.  There are so many.  The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is dedicated to the art of children’s book illustrators.  I thought this was interesting, then I visited the museum.  Oh, my!

The exhibit way back then featured Ezra Jack Keats, author of The Snowy Day.   I am a preschool teacher and have read this wonderful book to my class hundreds of times.  Yet, I never expected to come face-to-face with his art.  I did.  To my great surprise it was made from cut-out linoleum.  I couldn’t walk away or let that go.  I was witnessing the real art of his award winning book.

Much like seeing the ocean for the first time, I was stunned.

I love and appreciate art, and I’m passionate about reading children’s books. There I was, staring at both.  Every visit to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art has been equally powerful.  Yesterday was no exception.  But first, let me back up and tell you about Eric Carle.

One of the staples in children’s books is Brown Bear, Brown Bear.  No, Eric Carle did not write this book; it was the first book he illustrated, his big break into the world of children’s book illustration.  At the time Eric Carle was the art director for an advertising agency in New York.  His life, before then, is the most powerful story of an artist.  Ever!

He was born in New York in 1929 and moved with his family to Stuttgart, Germany in 1936 to be with relatives.  1936 in Germany?  Not good.  His father was drafted into the German army, and Eric and his family fled to Stollen in the Black Forest.

His schooling is fragmented, but he continues to draw and paint and looks forward to an occasional class with his high school art teacher Fridolin Krauss.

Aware of Carle’s promise as a young artist, Herr Krauss invites him to his home one day.  He shows Carle a box of “forbidden art” by so-called degenerate artists like Picasso, Klee, Matisse, and Kandinsky. “Their strange beauty almost blinded me,” recalls Carle.  His teacher warns him not to tell anyone what he has seen.  “But, for his act of defiance,” says Carle, “Herr Krauss…opened my eyes to the beauty of German Expressionism and abstract art.”

Eric Carle saw modern art, “forbidden art” of the great masters, for the first time in his life.  His teacher risked his own life to show Carle the art.  The seed was planted.  Every time I look at a Kandinsky or a Picasso, I think of that moment.  Art can change the world.  It did for Eric Carle.

That first book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, is fifty years old.  It is a beloved classic throughout the world, having been translated into 31 different languages with 16 million copies sold.  Happy anniversary!  Here are world-wide covers of the book:

img_2511

My preschoolers made a Brown Bear that we gave to the museum (which they displayed).

img_1684

Fast forward to the museum.  They have displayed the original art of Robert McCloskey and Make Way For Ducklings, and the original art of Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline.  Up close, very close.  Every pencil line and brush stroke were visible.  I was inches away from the pictures I had only seen in picture books.  For a book lover, this is as good as it gets.

img_0108

I recently saw the art of Hilary Knight’s Eloise, a beloved book from my childhood written by Kay Thompson.  As a child, every Sunday afternoon I would act out Eloise.  She was my first introduction to New York, and to bravery.  Eloise was brave.  She was a bit of a hero.

img_2507

When real, award winning art is combined with the best literature, it is win-win, a grand slam.  Reading the picture books, time and time again, and seeing the pictures ‘live’ is grand, indeed.

There is more!  The best bookstore by far (coming from me- someone who knows good children’s literature) is right there in the museum.  A piece of heaven.

The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts is a treasure.

Jennie

About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I am highlighted in the the new edition of Jim Trelease's bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at both the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital.
This entry was posted in art, Book Review, books, children's books, Early Education, Eric Carle, Inspiration, museums, picture books, reading aloud, The Arts and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

79 Responses to Sylvester and the Magic Pebble Turns 50 at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

  1. beth says:

    I would love, love to visit this museum !

  2. beetleypete says:

    Lovely post, Jennie. I have never heard of the Sylvester book, but I will seek out a copy for our grandson.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Jennie says:

      It’s a winner, Pete. So is Doctor De Soto. The fox masquerades as quite the well-spoken gentleman. I read that with a British accent 🙂. Pete’s a Pizza is really fun for younger children, 3 and 4. Best to you, Pete.

  3. Norah says:

    Oh, my, Jennie. I love it when you write about the Eric Carle Museum. I would love to visit there. I think I would be totally overcome with emotion. I have seen the original artworks of many picture books up close, but not of the old masters, and not in one place. It would be amazing. I get emotional just reading about it, let alone experiencing it. One day …

  4. quiall says:

    I don’t know most of those books but I am in my sixties. My favourite children’s books was ‘Pyewacket’ by Rosemary Weir in 1967. Think of ‘Robin Hood’ meets ‘Erin Brockovich’, using cats.

    • Jennie says:

      Sylvester was written in 1969. The others were written in the 70’s and 80’s. I’m in my 60’s, too, and I was reading the picture books to my children and my preschool class, starting in the 80’s. I don’t know Pyewacket. I must check it out! Thanks, Pam.

  5. I would love to visit this museum. there is so much value in children’s literature and the illustrations that bring these books to life

    • Jennie says:

      Yes, there definitely is so much value in children’s literature and illustrations. And this museum does it all. I hope you can visit one day. Amherst, Massachusetts is in the western part of the state, close to New York. Beautiful country.

  6. Ritu says:

    You are so lucky to have this so close to you Jennie!

  7. 50 years? Wow. Very nice tribute, Jenny. I like the artwork, too.

  8. Opher says:

    I have never seen artwork up close. I would love to visit that museum.
    I know many teachers who simply do not get it when dealing with books, ideas or what excites children. They are too hung up on rules.
    We do have to turn kids on and expand their minds with imagination, beauty and a love of nature. Dealing with real issues such as love, death, friendship, belief and even politics is also so important.
    Children need empathy, compassion and thought-provoking ideas. That is education for me.
    It’s what you do Jennie!

    • Jennie says:

      You have never seen artwork up close… do you mean the original illustrations from children’s books? Any artwork up close is wonderful. When it is the illustration from a beloved book, one you have read hundreds of times, it makes me want to drop to my knees.

      Like you, I know the teachers who don’t ‘get it’ with books and ideas. They are ruled by their own rules. Robots. They can’t let go and listen to children or stop when something wonderful happens. Fill the heart first, and the mind will follow. That’s how it works with children. In teacher language that means the social/emotional development is most important, and has to develop before cognitive development. Dealing with real issues is far more important when you’re four-years-old than practicing writing your name.

      I love you education trilogy- empathy, compassion, and thought-provoking ideas. Reading aloud really good books opens that door!

  9. kevin cooper says:

    What a lovely reminder of a children’s classic. 🙂

  10. I don’t know that book. The artwork looks wonderful and your narrative of your trip there is fantastic and riveting!
    I didn’t know he created Shrek! I love that movie.

    I’m going to look up Sylvester and the magic pebble.

  11. Another wonderful experience, Jennie! I enjoyed sharing many of William Steig’s books with my students in the past.

  12. Alien Resort says:

    Kay Thompson also composed and performed the Top 40 song “Eloise”.

  13. What beautiful books. Everyone’s mad about something, aren’t they (banning the book with pigs as police). Sigh.

    • Jennie says:

      Yes! It kind of made me think that was a complement on a roundabout way. The banned books are the popular ones. I guess when you’re good, someone will have a gripe. Sigh!

  14. Amazing museum, Jeannie. I would love to visit there. My favorite book as a kid was Babar the elephant series

  15. frenchc1955 says:

    Jennie, thank you for sharing this wonderful place!

  16. Darlene says:

    This museum would be right up my alley! My favourite picture book was Madeline. I just loved the illustrations and of course wanted to visit Paris. It only took over 60 years to get there, but I did!

    • Jennie says:

      Darlene, one of my first visits was to see the original Madeline illustrations. I had to go. It was one of my favorite books! As I told John Howell, my husband said to me with clenched teeth, “Please don’t cry. I know that look. There are people here.” It was that wonderful! Yes, this museum would be right up your alley. How wonderful that this beloved childhood book inspired you to go to Paris one day! The power of books. Surely there must be Madeline illustrations at a museum in Paris. Thank you, Darlene. 😀

  17. Elizabeth says:

    We have visited there a number of times. Our grandkids liked the open art studio where they could happily make their own creations. I have loved the chance to see the original illustrations for many books.

    • Jennie says:

      I’m so glad you have been there, Elizabeth! That art studio is a dream. What a place for exploring and creating art! Did you get to the bookstore? I always find something great, far better than what is on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. And of course, seeing that original artwork… sigh❤️

      • Elizabeth says:

        Yes of course. I love the bookstores attached to museums. We installed Eric Carle tiles in our bathroom after seeing them there.

      • Jennie says:

        That is wonderful! Since we’re renovating our school building, this would be just perfect. Did you get the tiles from the museum?

      • Elizabeth says:

        The tiles were the ones they had in the bathroom. I have just had a cursory search and didn’t turn any up on line. They were intermittent on the bathroom wall. Yes. I bought them at the shop.

      • Jennie says:

        Oh! Of course I’ve seen them in the bathroom many times. I should have realized that they were sold at the shop. Thank you so much, Elizabeth!

  18. I’m ready to jump in the car and drive on down to the museum to see the artwork!

    I first became aware of the museum a couple of years ago when I had to grade final presentations for an art appreciation course that the instructor was unable to finish. One of the students featured the Eric Carle Museum for her presentation, which she’d visited with her son.

    • Jennie says:

      You must have been intrigued by the museum when grading that student’s final presentation, as it has stuck with you. And now you read one of my posts on this wonderful museum. No wonder you want to jump in the car and go! There are always three exhibits on display, one of which is the art of Eric Carle. This current exhibit hits every one of my bones, as the books span from my children to my preschoolers today. So, go. It feels good to be swallowed up in art and literature.

  19. One of my very favorite children’s authors! I especially loved his book Amos and Boris. Wish I could see this.
    And… a wonderful museum!! I visited there many times when I lived in upstate New York and my son went to school in Amherst, right nearby. They have hosted many wonderful Reggio Emilia-inspired conferences and events, and the early childhood center right across the parking lot is a treasure!

    • Jennie says:

      I loved Amos and Boris, too. How wonderful that you have visited this wonderful museum! Amherst is a fabulous college, and I’m all about Reggio Emilia in my preschool classroom. Their early childhood center would be my dream! Thank you so much!

  20. I feel your enthusiasm! How lucky to be close enough to be able to get there and see the real wonder. Thank you for sharing it.

  21. How, marvelous, Jennie. I also enjoyed your insights on the book, and of course all the artwork. Hugs on the wing!

  22. How wonderful, Jennie! Having dabbled in illustration myself, I love and appreciate the work that goes into designing, drawing, and publishing an art picture book, especially those for children.

  23. This is a delightful post, Jennie. I do enjoy The Hungry Caterpillar, but my favourite children’s picture books are Richard Scarry’s. I have such lovely memories of those books.

  24. What a fascinating read Jennie, I love museums and art especially, to combine the two of both seeing the art first hand from your favourite books must have been a very memorable experience..
    There is nothing better than reading to young children and exploring the wonderful illustrations that accompany the story.. And spending quality time exploring the pictures within the books..
    Thank you for sharing your passion.. ❤

  25. I would love to visit that museum. It seems like a trip into the imagination. Fun and beautiful post, Jennie. Thanks for sharing.

  26. Dan Antion says:

    I need to visit this museum after I retire, Jennie.

  27. Thank you for the wonderful tipps, Jannie! The museum seems to be a gem, and the picture books from Mr. Steig i will recommend to some friends too. Michael

  28. srbottch says:

    What a wonderful place, Jennie. Your story, here, makes it a very appealing place to visit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s