AMHERST - On the spring day that my 3-year-old daughter and I made the drive across central Massachusetts to visit The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, I asked her why she likes books so much.
"Because," she said, "my favorite stories are in them."
She already knew the power of well-illustrated tales, as my wife and I are strong believers in a sentiment I heard many years ago from Ben Muse, proprietor of Parnassus Book Service on Cape Cod.
I was in Muse's shop buying a copy of Margaret Wise Brown's "Goodnight Moon," the first book I would read to Colette's older brother, and Muse told me, in words I can only paraphrase now: Hold him in your lap, hug him and read, and he will learn to love books.
How, though, to capture the magic and optimism of first words and pictures in a museum?
Arriving just before noon, Colette and I grabbed a quick nap in the museum parking lot. It was perfect preparation for entering what would prove to be a masterpiece. The museum's main hallway has high glass windows on one side, playful portraits of color on an opposite white wall. Angles of rooms are sharp and spare. All around us was quiet, and calm. There were no pandering distractions, luring kids with bright lights or flashy video. Only simple whimsies: In a small box for donations, a stuffed version of Carle's "very hungry caterpillar" snuggled beneath the deposited bills.
We headed into a theater for an introductory video. In it, Carle takes blank pieces of paper and slowly draws creatures in vivid color: a rooster, a sea horse, a grouchy ladybug, a caterpillar.
"Slowly," he says, "the page begins to fill up."
He welcomes visitors to the museum, and explains: "You like colors; I like colors. You have ideas, and I have ideas. . . . I want you to be inspired to make your own art."
And, perhaps to remind adults as much as children, Carle says, "The museum is for looking and dreaming."
From a table near the museum's three galleries, Colette picked up a clipboard and sketching paper, then wandered into an exhibit of the works of Arnold Lobel, creator of the Frog and Toad series, and more. (The Lobel exhibit closed June 15. Another, featuring Pat the Bunny, runs through the fall. Other ongoing exhibits feature works by Carle, and a fantastical collection of children's illustration.)
The Lobel exhibit, like his work, appealed to all ages, with studious examples of how he took his creations from early concept to completion. A quotation captured his philosophy: Picture books, Lobel said, are "capable of suggesting everything that is good about feeling well and having positive thoughts about being alive."
Though Colette was an avid absorber of Lobel's tales during her bedtime routine, she barely looked up at framed sketches and drawings. Instead, she crouched on a bench and began her own creations, mixing muses of Carle and Lobel.
She drew the outline of a flower and the sun.
"It's spring," she said.
Then, on a second piece of paper, a caterpillar. And another. And another.
"I was going to make a story about caterpillars," she told me, without looking up. "These are my two friends the caterpillars. Slurpy . . . and Crawly. That's that guy's name. And this guy is Pat. Uh-huh. This guy is Pat."
What do the caterpillars do, I asked.
"They do what their names are."
So one slurps, one crawls, and one pats?
On one end of the bench, a box held copies of Lobel's books, and we paged through "Frog and Toad Together," and "Grasshopper on the Road."
Colette squirmed off my lap to draw again, this time choosing something that was not a caterpillar.
"A moose!" she said. "Rhymes with 'snoose.' Do you see how it's not like a moose?"
On a nearby wall, a framed paper offered another quote from Lobel:
"The little stories just poured out of me and . . . somehow in writing Frog and Toad, I was, for the first time, writing about myself."
Colette was ready for a change, so we strolled back to the main hall and played in front of Carle's giant color portraits: swaths of red, green, blue, and yellow dancing on canvases.
There is a library next door, with shelves of children's books, but Colette opted for a snack - applesauce and milk - from the cafeteria. There, another wall of windows opened toward a lawn and apple trees, their branches thick with white blossoms: another picture.
It was a weekday, and we had the museum to ourselves. Yet I imagine that even on a busy day the museum is an oasis of quiet contemplation and eager imagination.
Colette jogged through the main hall to an art room, where a young woman helped her pick scraps of paper, scissors, and glue to make a collage.
The museum continues its mission with programs and events throughout the year, including several this summer. Carle, who will be 80 next summer, will visit July 26. Tanglewood Marionettes perform Aug. 9, and then more music and story-telling with King By the Wayward Sea on Aug. 16. But come on a slow day, too, when you and your young friends can steep in the stillness of the place.
As we walked out of the art room, my daughter told me of an idea for a book she may publish one day. She would call it "Burpa Boy."
"And this boy burps every time he says 'spurp' ," she said. "That's what he always says, day and morning!"
At the gift shop, she chose a stuffed teal elephant as a souvenir (and a caterpillar for her brother), then was ready to head home.
Back in the car, she played a game with her new elephant friend.
"I put his trunk in my toes and I swing him around," she said.
The first time the elephant dropped to the car's floor.
I picked it up, and Colette tried again. Her toes held on.
"You did it, elephant!" she cried. "Hooray for you!"
Tom Haines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.