Eric Carle obituary

Illustrator and author of classic children’s books including The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

Eric Carle, who has died aged 91, was best known as the author-illustrator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a deceptively simple 16-page picture book whose original production and story not only entranced very young children with the most arresting “pop!” in literature but also provided entertainment and satisfaction for their parents.

Like many who have an exceptional success, Carle did not like to be acknowledged for the one title only. He was quick and sometimes testy in pointing out that he had created many other books, too – more than 70. But with its adaptability to different formats and the slew of merchandising that sees his character on everything from a pencil to a tea service, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a “modern classic” that has sold more than 55m copies around the world, remains his biggest legacy. As Carle himself quite happily recalled in an interview, “So much from so little, as one of my friends once put it.”

Before writing and illustrating his own books, Carle worked as a graphic designer and illustrator in advertising and as a poster artist. He had illustrated books by different authors, including, most successfully, Bill Martin Jr, who had spotted Carle’s work and invited him to illustrate Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (1967). With its bold illustrations and repetitive and interrogative text, this was an immediate success. Working on Martin’s few but skilfully chosen words was a fortunate starting point for Carle. He later credited Martin with showing him the value of a rhythmic text.

With its adaptability to different formats, The Very Hungry Caterpillar has sold more than 55m copies around the world.
With its adaptability to different formats, The Very Hungry Caterpillar has sold more than 55m copies around the world. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) was Carle’s second solo book. For it, he worked in collage, overlaying layers of tissue paper, so creating images in near transparency as well as in deep and multi-layered colours. Stylistically, he drew on his graphic design training and advertising experience to create bold images that made their points simply. From its eloquent opening of a tiny egg alone on a leaf in the moonlight, the story succinctly captures metamorphosis as the caterpillar determinedly eats its way through every child’s dream food before making a cocoon then emerging as a beautiful butterfly.

The idea for the format of the book came from playing around with a hole punch and thinking of a worm eating its way through a book; an editor suggested a caterpillar would be a more attractive creature for children. Carle’s deep love and close observation of nature inspired the storyline. Much later, when the book became a bedrock of early learning and even symbolic of it, Carle had to inform parents and teachers that he did know that caterpillars come from chrysalises and not cocoons to prevent an avalanche of correcting correspondence.

Structurally, with its cut-away pages playing a part in telling the story, and the tiny holes tempting very small fingers to physically engage with the pictures, it was an early “interactive” book at a time when their possibilities had been little explored.

Carle’s love of nature and the small creatures in it was given expression in four further titles, The Mixed-Up Chameleon (1975), The Grouchy Ladybug (1977, known in the UK as The Bad-Tempered Ladybird), The Very Busy Spider (1984) and The Very Quiet Cricket (1990). Each uses a different artistic technique and all reflect Carle’s interest in early learning and in developing children’s creativity alongside providing entertainment.

By the end of the 20th century, producing almost a book a year, Carle had become a worldwide household name and a major influence on pre-school learning. In 2002, following a visit to Japan, where illustration for children is more highly regarded, and as a payback to the world of the very young, which had feted him and made him wealthy, Carle and his wife, Barbara, established the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts.

A selection of Eric Carle’s books. He worked in collage, overlaying layers of tissue paper, so creating images in near transparency as well as in deep and multi-layered colours.
A selection of Eric Carle’s books. He worked in collage, overlaying layers of tissue paper. Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters

Carle had never sold or given away his work so at the heart of the collection are more than 10,000 original illustrations. The museum is also an education centre, providing professional training for teachers, and has both a picture book and a scholarly library.

For his books and his museum, Carle was awarded the American Library Association’s Laura Ingalls Wilder award, the most prestigious lifetime achievement award for children’s books in the US, for his “substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children”, in 2003.

Carle was born in Syracuse, New York, the son of Erich Carle, a factory worker, and his wife, Johanna (nee Oelschläger). Eric’s earliest memories were of a creative kindergarten education to which he always longed to return. After his parents, on account of his mother’s homesickness, took him back to their native Germany in 1935, when he was six, his dream was to build a bridge back to the US.

In Stuttgart he endured a far more formal and restrictive education with just a few glimmers of light, such as an enlightened art teacher who secretly showed Carle the work of Nazi-designated “degenerate” artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall and Paul Klee. At 15, with his father missing in action during the second world war (he later returned “a broken man”, his son told the New York Times), Carle was conscripted to dig trenches on the Siegfried Line.

Later, he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart, where he studied graphic design. On graduating, he moved to the US in 1952 and secured himself a job in the promotion department of the New York Times before becoming art director of an advertising agency. He remained in the US for the rest of his life, living for more than 30 years in Northampton, Massachusetts, before retiring to the more favourable climate of Florida.

His second wife, Barbara (nee Morrison), whom he married in 1973, died in 2015. He is survived by a son, Rolf, and a daughter, Cirsten, from his first marriage, to Dorothea Wohlenberg, which ended in divorce, and a sister, Christa.

• Eric Carle, author and illustrator, born 25 June 1929; died 23 May 2021

• This article was amended on 28 May 2021. Carle’s mother’s birth name was Oelschläger, not Öelschlager; and he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart, not Vienna.


Julia Eccleshare

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Milton Glaser obituary
Graphic designer and creator of the I ❤️ NY logo, whose work was full of colour and wit

Deyan Sudjic

10, Jul, 2020 @4:59 PM

Article image
Jerry Pinkney obituary
Award-winning US illustrator whose prolific output of contemporary and traditional tales charmed readers of all ages

Julia Eccleshare

05, Nov, 2021 @6:04 PM

Article image
Norton Juster obituary
Author who created a world of wordplay in the children’s classic The Phantom Tollbooth

Michael Carlson

11, Mar, 2021 @6:42 PM

Article image
John Burningham obituary
Children’s author and illustrator who enjoyed success with Borka, Mr Gumpy’s Outing, Avocado Baby and Granpa

Martin Salisbury

07, Jan, 2019 @5:33 PM

Article image
Tomi Ungerer obituary
Author and illustrator of witty books for children who described himself as an archivist of human absurdity

Joanna Carey

28, Feb, 2019 @11:22 AM

Article image
Judith Kerr obituary | Julia Eccleshare
The author and illustrator best known for the classic children’s book The Tiger Who Came to Tea

Julia Eccleshare

23, May, 2019 @2:36 PM

Article image
Paul Birkbeck obituary
Other lives: Prolific artist and illustrator for BBC children’s television

Polly Birkbeck

10, Oct, 2019 @12:48 PM

Article image
Tom Adams obituary
Artist who designed much admired symbolist covers for Agatha Christie novels

Steve Holland

03, Feb, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
Tomie dePaola obituary
Children’s author and illustrator whose Strega Nona books delighted generations of readers

Julia Eccleshare

15, Apr, 2020 @3:11 PM

Article image
Jill Murphy obituary
Author and illustrator of relatable yet magical children’s books, including The Worst Witch and Whatever Next!

Julia Eccleshare

22, Aug, 2021 @4:38 PM