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.”