Eric Carle, 1929-2021

The author of beloved children's books is gone at 91.

NPR (“Eric Carle, Creator Of ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar,’ Has Died“):

Eric Carle’s picture books were often about insects. Spiders, lady bugs, crickets and of course, that famous caterpillar, all as colorful and friendly as Carle himself. The Very Hungry Caterpillar — probably Carle’s best-known work — came out in 1969 and became one of the bestselling children’s books of all time.

According to a family statement, Carle “passed away peacefully and surrounded by family members on May 23, 2021 at his summer studio in Northampton, Massachusetts.” He was 91 years old.

Over the course of his career, Carle illustrated more than 70 books for kids. He didn’t get started on that path until he was nearly 40, but he found great inspiration in his own childhood. Born in Syracuse, N.Y., Carle remembered an early life filled with art, light and walking through nature holding his father’s hand.

“I think it started with my father. He took me for long walks and explained things to me,” he told NPR in 2007. The elder Carle pointed out foxholes, spiderwebs and bird nests, opening his son’s eyes to the beauties and mysteries in a child’s landscape. But Carle’s immigrant parents decided to return home to Germany — his mother was homesick — and they arrived just in time for World War II.

“All of us regretted it,” he remembered. “During the war, there were no colors. Everything was gray and brown and the cities were all camouflaged with grays and greens and brown greens and gray greens or brown greens, and … there was no color.”

Carle was beaten by teachers and shot at by soldiers, and his beloved father disappeared into a Russian prisoner-of-war camp for years after being drafted to fight for the Nazis. The man who wrote The Very Hungry Caterpillar experienced hunger firsthand.

Carle headed straight back to the U.S. after graduating from art school at age 23 and was immediately hired by The New York Times. He fell in love with the impressionists (“color, color, color!”), served in the U.S. military during the Korean War, and, upon his return, moved into advertising.

Perhaps that career helped him prepare for using the simple, resonant language of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. For the book’s 50th anniversary in 2019, professor Michelle H. Martin told NPR that The Very Hungry Caterpillar‘s writing helps little kids grasp concepts such as numbers and the days of the week. (“On Monday he ate through one apple. But he was still hungry. On Tuesday he ate through two pears, but he was still hungry.”)

Martin, the Beverly Cleary Endowed Professor for Children and Youth Services at the University of Washington, told NPR the book builds literacy by gently guiding toddlers toward unfamiliar words. For example, when Saturday comes around and the hungry caterpillar binges on “one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon,” words such as salami and Swiss cheese might be new to 3-year-olds already familiar with ice cream and lollipops.

Carle, who first illustrated the 1967 children’s book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by his friend Bill Martin Jr., wanted The Very Hungry Caterpillar to serve as a literary cocoon for children getting ready for kindergarten. As little kids prepare to leave the warmth and safety of home for school, they’re meant to identify with beautiful, soaring butterflies.

“I think it is a book of hope,” Carle said in a commemorative video released by Penguin Random House in 2019. Then 89 and retired at his Florida home, he was wearing black suspenders and a blue shirt matching his lively eyes. “Children need hope. You, little insignificant caterpillar, can grow up into a beautiful butterfly and fly into the world with your talent. Will I ever be able to do that? Yes, you will. I think that is the appeal of that book.

WSJ/AP (“Eric Carle, ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ Author, Dies at 91“) adds:

Through books like “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” “Do You Want to Be My Friend?” and “From Head to Toe,” Carle introduced universal themes in simple words and bright colors.

“The unknown often brings fear with it,” he once observed. “In my books I try to counteract this fear, to replace it with a positive message. I believe that children are naturally creative and eager to learn. I want to show them that learning is really both fascinating and fun.”

“The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” published in 1969, was welcomed by parents and delighted children with its story of the metamorphosis of a green and red caterpillar with a touch of blue and brown to a proudly multicolored butterfly.

Originally conceived as a book about a bookworm—called “A Week with Willi the Worm”—the hero, who eats through 26 different foods, was changed to a caterpillar on the advice of his editor. It has sold some 40 million copies and has been translated into 60 languages, spawned stuffed animal caterpillars and has been turned into a stage play.

My girls loved The Very Hungry Caterpillar (they even had one of the aforementioned plush toys) and several books in the Brown Bear, Brown Bear series. It’s been a few years since we read them now.

Here’s Carle reading his most famous creation:

FILED UNDER: Obituaries, Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    This hits home. I have a sibling one of whose oldest friends is Carle’s financial advisor (Carle is his sole client), and who met him numerous times. My parents were introduced to him and chatted with him at a party; he and my mother exchanged pleasantries in German (not her native language). I’ve been in the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art on several occasions. It’s a great place to take little kids.

    I gather Carle had been in rocky shape for a while. RIP. Ninety-one is a good age.

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  2. Scott says:

    I read many of these books to my kids. Now another generation is coming and looking forward to reading them again.

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  3. Monala says:

    What a beautiful tribute to a man who created beauty and hope for kids despite his own bleak childhood experiences.

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  4. Not the IT Dept. says:

    May his memory be a blessing – not only to his family but to his fans of all ages. A life worth living.

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  5. CSK says:

    Over 170 million copies of his books were sold. That’s a lot of children he entertained and educated.

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  6. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    I used some Eric Carle materials when I was teaching toddlers in Korea. When I moved to Woosong, I gave them to my orientation mentor because he was teaching in a program for ECE teachers and didn’t have many materials. They were very good materials for teaching English to Kindergarteners and lower elementary, too. Kids loved the stories and the artwork.

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  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    I so want to make a joke about hungry worms. . . But I’m too mature for that. Carle is one of those guys who won the kidlit lottery. Good book. But great? Nah. Lucky,