A Tribute to Eric Carle

Today, June 25, is the birthday of celebrated children’s book writer and illustrator Eric Carle, who passed away in 2021. The author of 70 children’s books that have enchanted readers, young and old alike, for decades, Carle’s work was pitch-perfect in the way it introduces the natural world to children through bright, colorful collages of animals and insects as well as poignant stories about their character and struggles. Who among us will ever forget reading The Grouchy LadybugThe Very Lonely Firefly, The Very Clumsy Click Beetle or Slowly, Slowly, Said the Sloth for the first—or the 50th—time to our children?

The secret of the books’ appeal lies in Carle’s intuitive understanding of and respect for children, who instinctively sense in him someone who shares their most cherished thoughts and emotions. The themes of his stories are usually drawn from his extensive knowledge and love of nature—an interest shared by most small children. Besides being beautiful and entertaining, his books always offer the child the opportunity to learn something about the world around them. It is his concern for children, their feelings and their inquisitiveness, their creativity and intellectual growth, that, in addition to his beautiful artwork, makes reading his books such a stimulating and lasting experience.

Carle speaks movingly about the creative spark behind many of his books in a 30-minute documentary, “Picture Writer,” including his childhood memories of exploring the woods and hunting for interesting insects with his father, his admiration for the work of Franz Marc and Matisse as a student in Germany, and the principles of graphic design he absorbed while working in advertising in New York City. He shares how creating pictures makes him feel “at peace, in another world,” the pleasure of working like a “cat’s purr.” In his modest and encouraging way, he demonstrates how he creates his illustrations, first painting tissue paper in radiant colors and then cutting out shapes to create a collage. (“It’s easy. Anyone can do it. I can do it. You can do it.”) Believing that “it’s very important to bring art and paintings to young children,” Eric and his wife, Bobbie, created the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, envisioning it as a place for children to make their first visit to a museum and possibly discover an abiding passion for art.

Carle’s most beloved book is The Very Hungry Caterpillar, with over 50 million copies sold worldwide in 62 languages. Part of its undying appeal for readers is its tactile, almost sculptural design, with delightful die-cut “nibble holes” made by the chomping caterpillar and pages that grow in size with the caterpillar’s voracious appetite. The story’s interactive quality was an innovative concept when it was first published in 1969. Carle added sensory components, like concertina folds, transparent plastic pages, motion-activated lights, and sounds to several of his entrancing picture books.

The more resounding theme in the deceptively simple storyline of The Very Hungry Caterpillar is the idea that all the changes that transform a little egg to—pop!—a tiny caterpillar, then a bulging cocoon, and finally a ravishing butterfly, can be exciting and an opening to new adventures. As Carle said: “With many of my books, I attempt to bridge the gap between the home and school. To me, home represents, or should represent, warmth, security, toys, holding hands, and being held. School is a strange and new place for a child. Will it be a happy place? There are new people, teachers, classmates—will they be friendly?” The caterpillar’s surprising metamorphosis helps children prepare to leave the warmth and safety of home for school and to see their leave-taking as a positive step.

Reflecting on why this book has become a classic across the globe, Carle concluded, “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.” The story answers, “Will I ever be able to do that? Yes, you will. I think that is the appeal of that book. Well, I should know! I did the book, after all.”

Indeed, you did, Eric Carle, and we, the readers who have been touched by your artistry, imagination, and profound understanding of children, are forever indebted to you.