If you have even a passing interest in children’s literature, sooner or later you’re going to end up in western Massachusetts. A disproportionate number of children’s book authors and illustrators have made their homes here: Micha Archer, Holly Black, Eric Carle, Mike Curato, Tony DiTerlizzi, Mordicai Gerstein, Hollie Hobbie, Norton Juster, Jarrett Krosoczka, Julius Lester, Patricia MacLachlan, Dr. Seuss, Mo Willems, Jane Yolen, and a bunch more. If you want to cross paths with movie stars, go to L.A., but if you want to run into your kid lit favorites, you need go no further west than Amherst.
Start your day at the epicenter, the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst. The film Eric Carle, Picture Writer, shown daily at 11:30, gives a good introduction to the artist’s life and work. From there, you can take in the exhibits, currently featuring Claire A. Nivola, Christian Robinson, Eric Carle in Japan, and the connection between picture books and letter writing. If you’re lucky enough to have some kids with you, enjoy a story time and/or art project, and be sure to visit the bookstore and library. To learn about Carle’s life and art before you go, read The Art of Eric Carle (The World of Eric Carle, 2021).
A logical next step is the Yiddish Book Center, just half a mile away. I learned about the center when I read The Book Rescuer: How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come by Sue Macy (Paula Wiseman Books, 2019), which gives a history of the center and its founder, Aaron Lansky. It’s a fascinating story, and if you have any interest in Judaism, Yiddish, preserving languages, or archives, you will undoubtedly find much to enjoy here. As a librarian, I tend to weed any collection with ruthless abandon, so this visit made me (briefly) reconsider my minimalist tendencies.
Drive a few miles up the road, and you’ll be in downtown Amherst, home to the main campus of the University of Massachusetts as well as the Emily Dickinson Museum. If you want a guided tour, buy your tickets online in advance (or call to get the teacher discount). You can also wander through the house on your own. If your impression of Emily Dickinson is (as mine was) the reclusive woman dressed all in white, I recommend the guided tour to get a more fleshed-out picture of the poet.
I’d read a few children’s books about Dickinson: On Wings of Words by Jennifer Berne (Chronicle, 2020), a biography that weaves in a lot of Emily’s poetry; Emily and Carlo by Marty Rhodes Figley (Charlesbridge, 2012) about Emily’s relationship with her beloved dog Carlo, and Emily by Michael Bedard (Doubleday, 1992), a historical fiction story told by one of Emily’s young neighbors, and beautifully illustrated by Barbara Cooney. A visit to the museum gift shop led me to discover a few more: Emily Writes by Jane Yolen (Henry Holt, 2020), recounts scenes from Emily’s early childhood and her first attempts at writing and Becoming Emily by Krystyna Poray Goddu (Chicago Review Press, 2019), is a longer biography for older elementary kids and young adults. For child-friendly poetry collections, try Poetry for Young People: Emily Dickinson edited by Frances Schoonmaker Bolin (Sterling, 1994) and Poetry for Kids: Emily Dickinson edited by Susan Snively (MoonDance, 2016).
A two-minute drive or eight-minute walk will get you to the Beneski Museum of Natural History at the University of Massachusetts. You may want to keep your car in downtown Amherst and walk, as campus parking can be a bit of a dicey proposition, especially on weekdays. Museum admission is free. This is a university museum, so kids should be old enough to treat the exhibits with respect, but anyone with an interest in paleontology or geology will find plenty to keep them interested. I’m sure all paleontology fans have their favorite books, so I’ll just mention a few of mine here: Prehistoric Actual Size by Steve Jenkins (Clarion, 2015), Mammoths on the Move by Lisa Wheeler (Clarion, 2006), and the Science Comics entry Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers by MK Reed (First Second, 2016)
By the time you’re through the Beneski, you’ll undoubtedly be ready for lunch, dinner, or a snack, so get back in the car and head to Northampton. The E.J. Gare parking garage is centrally located and cheap (the sign at the entrance says it all: “Where the coffee is strong and so are the women…and the first hour in this garage is always free!”). There are plenty of cafes and restaurants in downtown Northampton: Jake’s, Woodstar, and Haymarket are three of my favorites. You’ll exit the garage through Thorne’s which has some good shopping, including coffee and a bookstore.
Right next door to Thorne’s, you’ll find R. Michelson Galleries, which, in my opinion, gives the Eric Carle Museum a run for its money if you want to see original artwork from children’s literature. There’s an abundance of it on display and for sale by such luminaries as Mo Willems, Jason Chin, Carson Ellis, Mark Teague, Emily Arnold McCully, Dr. Seuss, Grace Lin, Brian Pinkney, and Maurice Sendak. It’s an art gallery, so no charge, and be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to take it all in.
Finally, Dr. Seuss fans can drive 25 minutes south to Springfield, where they can visit The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum. With its mix of Seuss-inspired exhibits for kids and Ted Geisel memorabilia, there’s something for everyone. Adult admission is $25, which covers all five of the Springfield museums, featuring art, history, and science. A ten-minute drive gets you to the Zoo in Forest Park, where Ted Geisel’s father worked as Superintendent, which may have inspired Dr. Seuss’s zany animal creations. En route, you can drive past 74 Fairfield Street where young Ted lived. You might recognize the address from the picture book biography, The Boy on Fairfield Street: How Ted Geisel Grew Up to Become Dr. Seuss by Kathleen Krull (Random House, 2004). Be sure to have some actual cash on hand, as the cash-only admission to the park is $3.00 for Massachusetts residents and $5.00 for out-of-staters. There’s an additional fee for the zoo.