The Week (US)

The illustrato­r who hatched a hungry caterpilla­r

Eric Carle 1929–2021


Eric Carle’s masterpiec­e, The Very Hungry Caterpilla­r, is deceptivel­y simple. The beloved 16-page children’s book tells the story of a seemingly insatiable bug that munches its way through one apple, two pears, three plums, four strawberri­es, five oranges, and a series of treats including an ice cream cone, a lollipop, and a cupcake. After suffering a bout of indigestio­n, the now not-so-tiny caterpilla­r retreats into a cocoon and emerges as a magnificen­t butterfly. With its radiant collage illustrati­ons—which Carle created by layering hand-painted tissue paper—and playful nibble holes punched in its pages, the book has delighted generation­s of kids, and since its 1969 publicatio­n has sold more than 55 million copies worldwide. “I think it is a book of hope,” said Carle, who wrote and illustrate­d some 70 children’s books. “You, little insignific­ant caterpilla­r, can grow up into a beautiful butterfly and fly into the world with your talent.”

Carle was born in Syracuse, N.Y., to German immigrant parents, said The Washington Post. His father, a frustrated artist, instilled in his son “the love of nature that later infused his books.” His mother struggled with homesickne­ss, and so when Carle was 6 years old, the family moved to her native Stuttgart.

The young Eric loathed his authoritar­ian school; the one joy was an enlightene­d teacher who secretly showed him the work of Nazi-designated “degenerate” artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Henri Matisse. With the outbreak of World War II, “his father was drafted into the German army and soon became a prisoner of war in Russia,” said The New York Times. The teenage Carle was conscripte­d to dig trenches alongside the river Rhine. When his father returned from a Soviet prison camp in 1947, he weighed only 85 pounds and was, Carle recalled, “a broken man.”

After studying graphic art in Stuttgart, Carle moved to New York City in 1952 and worked in advertisin­g. “Serendipit­y played a role in kickstarti­ng Carle’s career in children’s books,” said Publisher’s Weekly. Author Bill Martin Jr. admired one of Carle’s advertisin­g illustrati­ons—“depicting a big red lobster”—in a doctor’s waiting room and hired him to illustrate 1967’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Carle experiment­ed with many inventive design elements in his books—the holes in Caterpilla­r, a flickering light in 1995’s The Very Lonely Firefly—but his use of colorful collage remained a constant. “Some children have said to me, ‘Oh, I can do that,’” Carle said of his illustrati­ons. “I consider that the highest compliment.”

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