Eric Carle survived conscription into the German war effort as a 15-year-old towards the end of the Second World War and subsequently carved out a career as an illustrator in advertising in the United States when one day he was idly punching holes in a stack of paper and he had an idea.
He thought it would be a great wheeze to create a book in which a bookworm eats its way through the pages from beginning to end, leaving a trail of holes behind it.
Carle had already provided illustrations for one children’s book and written and illustrated another, so he took his idea for a book called A Week with Will the Worm to his publishers, who suggested that perhaps a caterpillar would be more appealing. “I said ‘Butterfly!’ – that’s how it all began,” Carle recalled.
The switch from bookworm to caterpillar enabled Carle to trace his protagonist’s journey from egg to caterpillar, through one apple on Monday, two pears on Tuesday, three plums on Wednesday, four strawberries on Thursday, five oranges on Friday, a piece of chocolate cake, an ice-cream cone, a pickle, Swiss cheese, salami, a lollipop, a piece of cherry pie, a sausage, a cupcake, a slice of watermelon and indigestion on Saturday and a green leaf on Sunday before the creature’s final transformation into a beautiful butterfly.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar was published in 1969, featuring a very colourful caterpillar with a segmented body of different shades of green, a red head and big yellow and green eyes, influenced by the psychedelia of the times.
It was as much a design classic, as a literary one, printed on irregularly shaped card pages with holes, just 22 of them, and it was only 224 words long. It was translated into more than 40 languages and sold around 50 million copies.
It was ranked No 2 in an American poll of the most popular children’s books in 2012, behind Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and adapted into an animated television programme in the UK. The second President Bush cited it as his favourite book as a child, even though he was in his twenties when it first appeared.
Carle wrote and illustrated dozens more books, which regularly featured insects, for which he had a fondness dating back to nature walks with his father in pre-war Germany, and just as regularly presented specific publishing challenges.
Every time a page was turned in The Very Quiet Cricket the book chirped and The Very Lonely Firefly lit up. But none of his later books matched the phenomenal success of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
The son of a clerk, Eric Carle was born in the city of Syracuse in New York State in 1929. His parents were German and his mother was homesick. So while thousands headed out of Germany in the 1930s, the Carle family went the other way and settled in Stuttgart.
Carle showed little academic promise, except in art, though his free-spirited sketches were out of step with official German thinking. A sympathetic teacher fired his imagination with pictures by such “degenerate” artists as Matisse and Picasso. He said: “I was used to art being flag-waving, gun-toting Aryans, super-realistic Aryan farmers, the women with their brute arms ”
His father was sent to fight on the Eastern Front and taken prisoner by the Soviets, while Carle was conscripted by the increasingly desperate Nazi regime to dig defensive trenches, under enemy fire, on the famous Siegfried Line. He was left traumatised by the experience and the deaths of several of those around him. “The first day three people were killed a few feet away,” he recalled.
His father came home two years after the war ended, but he was a shell of the man he had been, physically and psychologically, and never recovered from his wartime experiences.
Carle trained as a graphic artist in Germany and in 1952 he returned to the United States and found work firstly in the promotions department at the New York Times and then in advertising, though he also had a spell in the US Army, serving in Germany. Attracted by Carle’s work in advertising, writer Bill Martin Jr asked him to illustrate his book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, which came out in 1967 and was a bestseller.
Carle then wrote and illustrated 1, 2, 3 to the Zoo, followed by his famous caterpillar tale, a simple narrative, with collage illustrations. The bright colours, thick pages with holes in them and uplifting story of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly proved hugely popular. It won numerous awards and an endorsement from the Royal Entomological Society.
Carle explained his approach to painting on his website: “I begin with plain tissue paper and paint it with different colours, using acrylic paint. Sometimes I paint with a wide brush, sometimes with a narrow brush. Sometimes my strokes are straight, and sometimes they’re wavy. Sometimes I paint with my fingers. Or I put paint on a piece of carpet, sponge, or burlap and then use that like a stamp on my tissue papers to create different textures. These papers are my palette and after they have dried I store them in colour-coded drawers.
“Let’s say I want to create a caterpillar: I cut out a circle for the head from a red tissue paper and many ovals for the body from green tissue papers; and then I paste them with wallpaper glue onto an illustration board to make the picture.”
An early marriage lasted only a few years and ended in divorce. He remarried in 1973. With second wife Barbara Morrison he set up the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. She died in 2015. Carle is survived by two children from his first marriage.
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