Eric Carle, artist, illustrator and writer, died on May 23. He was 91. As his family said, he was "a true creator... renowned for his multi-dimensional practice, spanning a large body of fine art works in collage, painting, works on paper and fabric, and sculpture; theater and furniture design; and the stories he envisioned in over 70 brilliantly illustrated and designed children's picture books."
The best known of these is The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which focuses on a ravenous week in a caterpillar's life followed by a metamorphosis into a beautiful butterfly. First published in 1969, it has been translated into more than 70 languages and sold more than 55 million copies. It's also one of the New York Public Library's top checkouts of all time and is featured on multiple Library recommendation lists, including last year's 125 Books We Love for Kids. Carle's other titles, which altogether have sold more than 170 million copies, include Do You Want to Be My Friend? (1971), The Grouchy Ladybug (1977), Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me (1986), "Slowly, Slowly, Slowly," Said the Sloth (2002) and The Very Clumsy Cricket (2017).
Carle was born in 1929 to German parents in the United States. At age six, Carle's homesick mother moved the family back to Germany, where his father was drafted into the German army at the outbreak of World War II (in 1947 he returned from Soviet captivity weighing 85 pounds). Near the end of the war, at age 15, Carle was forced to dig trenches on the Siegfried Line. In 1952, he returned to New York to work and was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War and stationed in Germany.
After working as a graphic designer at the New York Times, art director at a medical ad agency and as a freelance artist, his picture book career began in 1967 when author Bill Martin Jr., while in a doctor's office waiting room, saw a medical advertisement in a medical journal for antihistamines with an illustration Carle had done of a big red lobster. Soon after, Martin invited him to illustrate Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
His own first title, 1,2,3 to the Zoo, was published that year by Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers; it was edited by the late Ann Beneduce, with whom Carle worked for the next 50 years.
Carle won the 2003 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (now called Children's Literature Legacy Award) and held eight honorary degrees, including from Williams College and Amherst College.
In 2002, Carle and his wife, Barbara, opened the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., near their longtime home in Northampton. With the aim of inspiring "a love of art and reading through picture books," the museum has more than 12,000 objects, including 8,500 permanent collection illustrations, and has a theater, libraries and educational programs.
In 2018, Penguin Young Readers created The World of Eric Carle imprint, dedicated to his work. He is also published by Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins Children's Books and Macmillan.
Carle's artwork was vibrant. His family wrote: "Drawing on his formal training and ongoing practice as an artist (which Eric fondly referred to as his 'art art'), Eric quickly developed a distinctive, personal style that he continued to explore and refine in his books, illustrations, and fine art. Numerous artistic influences came together in Eric's creative output. His art took root in the long tradition of collage, an artistic technique tracing back to the 1900s Dadaist movement, combined with his hand-painted, colorful, and textured tissue papers, which recall the work of abstract artists associated with the Academy of Fine Art Stuttgart (the so-called Stuttgart avantgardists), from where he earned his fine art degree."
Asked why The Very Hungry Caterpillar has been so popular, Carle said in a 2019 interview, quoted by the New York Times, "It took me a long time, but I think it is a book of hope. Children need hope. You--little insignificant caterpillar--can grow up into a beautiful butterfly and fly into the world with your talent."
In the light of the moon,
holding on to a good star,
a painter of rainbows
is now traveling across the night sky.