Eric Carle's "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" is a beloved classic and one of the most successful children's books ever. Carle's world is on show at TAM.

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Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” is a beloved classic and one of the most successful children’s books ever.

The iconic caterpillar — but no dramatic butterfly — shows up in just three illustrations from the book in the Tacoma Art Museum’s new traveling exhibition, “The Art of Eric Carle.” Instead, the collection of 49 original works helps visitors appreciate his colorful collages, drawn from 15 other books (out of more than 70 Carle has written and illustrated).

Framed and out of context, it’s easier to see the actual art: brushstrokes of paint on tissue paper (Carle wanted more texture and color than the limited palette plain tissue paper allowed), vibrant colors and the seemingly simple images that still impart emotion. Dark scenes from “The Very Lonely Firefly” are particularly intricate and dramatic.

It’s a fine, easy hook to introduce museum art to children, though my 5-year-old soon headed for the reading area stocked with his books, preferring stories to isolated pictures.

An interesting video shows how Carle creates his illustrations; sketches for “10 Little Rubber Ducks,” his most recent book, show the transformation from idea to finished collage.

Families can try his techniques in the museum’s not-to-be-missed open art studio (on the second floor). Boxes hold art supplies so children can paint templates to make bug shapes or layer colors with toothbrushes or sponges.

Carle, 77, will come out of semi-retirement for two appearances in Seattle and Tacoma later this month. The Children’s Museum of Tacoma also offers related art activities for families on a day-trip outing.

Eric Carle events

Tacoma Art Museum: “The Art of Eric Carle,” 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and noon-5 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 21, 2007; $7.50 adults, $6.50 students, free age 5 and under, $25 family admission; 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, or 253-272-4258.

A Tahoma Audubon Society educator will lead workshops for ages 3 to 5 about animals in Carle’s books, 10:30-11:45 a.m. Nov. 7 and Dec. 12; $8/session; preregistration required; 253-272-4258, ext. 3030.

During the exhibition, the museum’s Untitled Cafe will offer a kids meal with star-shaped sandwiches, carrot sticks and a cookie.

Parking near the museum is $2/hour; below the Washington State History Museum (under the pedestrian bridge to the Museum of Glass), it’s $2 for up to three hours.

Children’s Museum of Tacoma: The museum’s art studio offers free Carle-related activities, such as creating a collage creature, through May 11, 2007. (Note: The studio also serves as a birthday party room, so call ahead on weekends to make sure it’s open to the public.) Special events include an Eric Carle story time and guided art activity at 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Mondays; and artist-led, hands-on art lessons 2-4 p.m. Tuesdays. Both free with admission; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday; $5, free under age 1; 936 Broadway, Tacoma, or 253-627-6031.

Town Hall: Carle will have an onstage conversation with Nick Clark, director of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Massachusetts, at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21 at Town Hall Seattle, Eighth Avenue and Seneca Street. A book signing will follow in the lobby; $9-$18; 206-621-2230 or

Rialto Theater: At 2 p.m. Oct. 22, Carle will speak at the Rialto Theater, 310 S. Ninth St., Tacoma; $5-$20; 253-272-4258, ext. 3030. After the talk, Carle will sign books at the Tacoma Art Museum; admission is free to those who present their Rialto ticket stub.

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A former graphic designer, Carle illustrated his first children’s book at the request of author Bill Martin Jr. for the 1967 classic “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” Carle’s first book on his own was the simple “1, 2, 3 to the Zoo,” followed by “Hungry Caterpillar” in 1969. (As Carle relates, his first idea was a worm eating through the pages; his editor suggested a more appealing creature.) Now, his books have sold more than 71 million copies.

The Carle exhibition is part of the museum’s fall literacy theme, which continues in “Symphonic Poem” and “Telling Stories: Selections from the Permanent Collection.” “Symphonic Poem,” with mixed-media works by Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, is challenging and thought provoking. The bright colors, three-dimensional fabric works (often with hundreds of buttons) and interesting figures will appeal to kids, even if they don’t exactly understand what they’re seeing.

The one discordant note is “Conloninpurple,” a sound sculpture by Seattle sound artist Trimpin with a room-size instrument visitors can help play. It’s interesting while you’re in the room, but the music isn’t contained. It’s so loud, it can distract from the other exhibits.

Stephanie Dunnewind: or 206-464-2091