Eric Carle tells a story about working with young children, a story which illustrates both the attention he pays to children’s needs and the delight with which the young respond to his work. At home in the United States he was on a visit to a school to talk about his books, to read them to the children and to draw for them. He had taken with him a copy of his most famous book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but found on his arrival that it was a Japanese edition. One small boy, however, decided that he wanted to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to its creator, picked up the Japanese copy and proceeded to do just that. ‘He was word perfect,’ says Eric Carle with a warm smile of memory.
That little boy was probably one of the millions of children all over the world who have had The Very Hungry Caterpillar read to them – and who have demanded to have it read – over and over again. It was first published in 1969, and has already achieved the status of a classic children’s book. At the time of writing it has sold over four million copies and has been translated into 15 languages.
Eric Carle was a late starter in children’s books; his first book was published in 1968, when he was 39. But he made up for this late start by producing The Very Hungry Caterpillar next, and by then going on to produce books such as The Bad-Tempered Ladybird, The Mixed-Up Chameleon and the pop-up The Honeybee and the Robber. His work has been characterised by two things, originality and simplicity, which is probably why the books have been so successful. One way to show children how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, for example, is just to draw the pictures and tell them what happens. The original way is to have holes in the page to show that the caterpillar is eating his way through the fruit he encounters. Add a dash of humour, plenty of bold, bright colour and a perfect ending – and you have a recipe for delight.
When Eric Carle was born, in 1929, his parents had only recently emigrated from Germany to the United States. In 1935 the family left Massachusetts and returned to their original homeland. ‘My grandmother came over on a visit, and she said that everything was terrific in Germany under the Nazis. My parents were apolitical, but my mother was very homesick – so we went back.’ For the young Eric this was ‘a big mistake’. He had already started school in America, where he had a good teacher and a positive experience of education. In Germany in the 1930s, however, things were different.
‘It was very traumatic for a six-year-old suddenly to find himself between two languages, two cultures, two approaches to school. I hated school in Germany. In fact, I got a severe beating in my first week there. I was supposed to have a physical examination, and at one point the doctor had to go out of the room. While he was out, the phone rang and, naturally, I answered it.’
‘I cheerfully admitted I’d done it too, so I was sent along to the principal. I’m sure he thought that he had to beat some sense into this little American kid, and he probably thought that he was doing the right thing – putting me in my place as it were. It was his duty. But it was a terrible start for me, and I’ve never forgotten it; indeed, as I’ve got older, I’ve felt less and less forgiving to that man.’
A more positive side to his life in Germany was his relationship with his father: ‘My father was that rare specimen, a non-competitive man. We used to go for long walks in the countryside together, and he would peel back tree bark to show me what was underneath it, lift rocks to reveal the insects. As a result, I have an abiding love and affection for small, insignificant animals.’
‘My father was a civil servant, but he was also a very artistically talented man. He had wanted to be a painter, but his father – my grandfather – wouldn’t let him. My father let me become a commercial artist, and now my son is actually a painter. What’s most interesting to me about this link across the generations is something that I discovered as a teenager. I met a friend of my grandfather’s, who asked me if my grandfather was still a painter… it turned out that my father’s father had had an artistic talent, but that he had wanted my father to be a civil servant so that he would have a secure income. It’s taken three generations for that talent to resurface and be properly acknowledged in our family.’
Just how big a mistake the family’s return to Germany was became apparent in 1939, when the second world war began. At the time, the Carles were living in Stuttgart, and Eric remembers the severe bombing. Towards the end of the war, he was evacuated to the small town of Schweningen where he stayed with a ‘wonderful family’. His father was drafted and despatched to the Russian front, where he was captured.
‘He was held for three years after the war ended, and when he came back he only weighed 80 lbs. In fact he was a broken man and lived only a few more years. We hadn’t seen each other for eight years, and although we both wanted to talk to each other, there was nothing to talk about; contact between us had broken down. But I did love him, and as I get older I think more that he was a very positive influence on my childhood.’
After the war came art college, and work as a commercial artist. ‘But I had always wanted to go back to the United States, and I’d kept my US citizenship. I finally went back in 1952, and settled there.’ He began to build a career. A friend sent him to a special ‘art director’s show’ where he met Leo Lionni, who at that time was an art director of Fortune magazine (the same Leo Lionni who went on to produce some classic picture books of his own). The result was a job on the the New York Times; from there he moved on to work for an agency and then eventually took the plunge into life as a freelance. To begin with, he made a living from advertising work, but he ‘slowly drifted’ into other areas.
One result of trying out new things was a picture book: Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? with a text provided by a writer friend, Bill Martin. Next came The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and almost overnight Eric Carle was a highly successful children’s book author/illustrator.
When it comes to talking about what he does, Eric Carle focuses on three E’s – education, emotion and entertainment. ‘I am very interested in education,’ he says. ‘I think that’s got a lot to do with my own experience of school. There are two major traumas in anyone’s life, being born and going to school for the first time. These days we’re trying to make birth easier and more natural, we’re having relaxed Leboyer-style births instead of gleaming, technological operating theatres. I have always wondered if we couldn’t do the same when it comes to children starting school.’
‘The transition for me from home to school was horrible, and I want to make that transition better and easier for children by providing them with books which help to ‘sweeten’ the educational process. I make things which are half book and half toy, things a child can touch and feel as well as look at.’
‘But there is something else. So many “learning” books for the young leave out the emotional side of life. I want to keep it in. There is a feeling, an emotional level quite consciously in each of my books. The emotion and feeling were all left out of my education in Germany, and that’s why I think it’s so important for me now. I also think of myself as an entertainer now. I didn’t use to, I concentrated more on the educational aspect of my work. But entertainment is an important part of books for the young.’
Eric Carle’s feelings about his work are very much tied to his childhood experiences of being caught between two nations, two cultures. He talks about the need to build a ‘bridge’ between home and school, and also about the difference between America and Germany in this context. ‘I like America. It’s a crazy country but a tolerant one. In Germany life was very Puritan, very rigid.’ Though, his books sell very well in Germany, and his son – the painter – is living and working in West Berlin at the moment. He also has a daughter, who is a photographer and silk screen artist.
He describes the work of doing a book for children as ‘pretty lonely’, which is probably part of the reason he visits schools and talks to children so frequently. ‘I don’t test or research my books with children. I don’t know where it all comes from, but once a month or every six weeks or so I go to a school and talk and read and draw for the children. I try to explain to them what I do and how I do it. I also talk to librarians and teachers and students at college level, something I enjoy.’
At these talks he gets his audience to work with him creating huge, colourful drawings of composite animals. He starts with one animal and adds various bits of any other creature his audience suggests by calling out in quick succession. These lively occasions were the inspiration for The Mixed-Up Chameleon in which the chameleon changes colour and shape as he wishes he were like the other animals he sees.
At home in Western Massachusetts he works in his studio at a wide desk which runs the length of one wall and is lit by a huge north-facing window. The most important component of much of his work – apart from his imagination – is tissue paper, of which he has drawer after drawer filled with forty shades of all colours. He starts with a sketch and then cuts or tears paper into the shapes he wants. He uses rubber solution to stick these down, adds acrylic paint or coloured crayon to add detail or interest – and there is a picture.
There seems little chance of Eric Carle’s creativity and originality drying up, either. His latest book is The Very Busy Spider, and in it he uses a technique which was developed by Virginia Jensen in a series of books for the visually handicapped. The very busy spider builds a web – a web that children can feel with their fingers as well as see with their eyes. It’s done by a special process called Thermography which uses non-toxic, chip proof ink to produce the finished result. At the time of writing his publishers were already arranging a reprint – before the date of publication – as demand for the book has been so high.
When we met Eric Carle at his publishers’ offices, he was unveiling to them a new idea which looked even more remarkable than The Very Busy Spider. What was most interesting, however, was his intense enthusiasm that was very infectious. Even after the success of his other books with all their millions of copies, he still seemed able to lose himself in the originality of a new idea. Perhaps that’s the secret of his books; perhaps they’re attractive to children because there’s a truly child-like enthusiasm behind them. At the very least, it was obvious to us that Eric Carle puts his heart and soul into his books for children, and that he understands what children want and need. And what better qualification is there for a children’s author?
The Very Busy Spider, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 11430 6, £6.95
The Mixed-Up Chameleon, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 11389 X, £5.95
The Bad-Tempered Ladybird, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 89768 8, £5.50
The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 01798 X, £4.95; Puffin, 0 14 050.087 1, £1.50
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 11292 3, £4.50
Watch Out, A Giant, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10077 1, £5.50
The Honeybee and the Robber, Julia MacRae Books, o.p.
Catch the Ball, Play and Read Books, Collins, 0 00 140186 6, £2.50
Let’s Paint a Rainbow, Play and Read Books, Collins, 0 00 140187 4, £2.50