One of the most famous children’s books in the world, The Very Hungry Caterpillar celebrates its 40th birthday this year. Joanna Carey went to meet its creator, Eric Carle, and discover more about the genesis of his work and his creation of The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.
A warm March day in Key Largo, Florida – the temperature is in the 80s, an iguana basks in the sun and a group of pelicans flap by like picture book pterodactyls. It is five years since Eric Carle and his wife Bobbie moved here to escape the ferocious winters in Massachusetts, where they had lived since their marriage in 1973. With its clean lines and dramatic angles, their newly converted hurricane-proof house has vast windows overlooking the ocean and a pool set in a terrace of white brain coral.
Over the dining table there hangs a huge paper lantern whose familiar hand-painted colours instantly recall the luminosity and the distinctive textures of Carle’s collage illustrations.
In conversation he has a gentle contemplative manner that is punctuated by periods of sudden quizzical intensity. He’s an engaging raconteur and with a great line in deadpan delivery, he can be very funny. He loves living here. ‘Yes it’s a nice neighbourhood,’ he says. And when the locals found out that they had the creator of the very hungry caterpillar amongst them – did it cause a stir? ‘Yes! I signed a few books. I was famous for fifteen minutes. But then…’ – and here he makes a mock gesture of defeat – ‘then Gene Hackman moved into the area. So now I’m just a nobody.’
The Very Hungry Caterpillar has now sold almost 30 million copies – ‘“so much from so little!” as one of my friends once put it,’ says Carle. Add to this his numerous other titles, and the total is around 88 million. And he gets 10,000 letters a year… the numbers are too much for me, suffice it to say that Carle (80 this year) has a worldwide following, and with a new pop-up edition, board books, audio books with celebrity narrators, not to mention jigsaw puzzles, stationery, crockery and clothing (my baby grandson even has a VHC bathing suit) a lot has been written about him, especially this year – it being the caterpillar’s 40th birthday. Carle is quietly delighted to see Google celebrating this event with the caterpillar striking a heraldic pose on their search page for the whole day.
The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
But while it seems that the whole world knows about Eric Carle’s hungry caterpillar, not everyone knows about The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, in Amherst, Massachusetts, close to where the Carles used to live.
The museum is the glorious result of a project that began in the 1980s when Carle’s publisher took him and Bobbie to Japan. They were intrigued by Japanese people’s attitude to illustration, and by the way Japanese children from an early age are encouraged to develop visual literacy. They were also astonished by the number of galleries celebrating the picture book as an art form. The seed of an idea was planted, and back home Bobbie suggested that they might create a museum themselves.
Bobbie, wise, warm and reassuringly practical, had worked for many years in education; she had started a school for children with special needs and knew only too well the value of picture books both for children and their parents. ‘They are vital from the start: they not only represent a child’s first ever encounter with art, but they can also offer a first experience of words and pictures together – a natural step towards reading.’
It would obviously be a costly business, but as Carle told me ten years ago when I first met him, the caterpillar had brought him considerable wealth, and he and Bobbie both felt that a museum would be a way of ‘giving something back’.
‘There was nothing comparable in the US,’ says Bobbie, and another advantage was that Eric had never sold anything, so they had 2,000 original illustrations. It was just a dream at that stage but, armed with artworks and royalties, they set out to turn that dream into a reality.
It was clearly a massive commitment – a colossal risk, and it required a huge leap of the imagination. And it was hard work. They had no idea of the pitfalls and the problems that lay ahead. ‘We were so naïve!’ says Carle, incredulous now, in retrospect. A generous gift of land enabled them to start building but, like the caterpillar, the museum soon turned out to have a voracious appetite, gobbling its way through millions of dollars. So apart from the help they got from publishers and certain individuals, how did they keep up with the rising costs?
‘We had some good luck,’ says Carle, with an enigmatic smile. Around that time, he had received an unusually large advance on a new book; so with good advice, they made a very bold investment on the stock market which yielded a vast sum of money just when it was needed – ‘it was a gamble, but we got the money just before the bubble burst.’ The Carles still look slightly stunned as they remember those awesome events… and suddenly I notice the handwritten Goethe quotation that is pinned up on the paper lantern, ‘Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.’ There’s a silence round the table, and then Carle says, very quietly, ‘It was the caterpillar who built the museum.’
The importance of art for children
The museum opened in 2002, a 40,000 square foot building set in the comfortable embrace of the surrounding countryside. There are three galleries, an auditorium, a studio/workshop, a café, a reading library and a superbly comprehensive bookshop. It is an airy, welcoming place to visit, with pictures hung at a child friendly level. The galleries show work by a wide variety of international artists. As well as seeing the original illustrations, young visitors soon acquire a vocabulary for ciritcal discussion. They learn about editors, designers and the whole process of making a book. And with some of the mixed exhibitions, there’s an opportunity to see a vast range of different styles and techniques – from pen and wash, and coloured crayon, to laser cut vinyl over inkjet print, and digital animation on DVD. And of course, collage – a selection of Carle’s work is always on display.
Art and design have always been an integral part of Carle’s life, and his own vividly remembered experiences as a child are an important key to the easy affinity he has with children, and the respect he shows them.
Carle was born in Syracuse New York, to German immigrant parents. He speaks movingly about the joy he felt as a small child in his sun-filled American kindergarten, with large sheets of paper, colourful paints, a fat brush, and a kind teacher, Miss Fricky. But when he was six, because his mother was so homesick, the family made an ill-timed move back to Germany – ‘most people with any choice in the matter were going the other way.’ So he grew up in Nazi Germany in a repressive regime with a dark, cramped classroom and the constant fear of corporal punishment. He still remembers the resentment he felt at having to draw with hard pencils on small, mean sheets of paper. He hated school. There were happy times though, with his father, in the countryside where he discovered what was to be an abiding interest in nature study – frogs, toads, salamanders – and caterpillars, no doubt. And later, at high school, he remembers with gratitude an enlightened art teacher: ‘under the Nazis, teachers had to teach strictly naturalistic drawing, but Herr Krauss liked my loose style, and risked his job by secretly showing me reproductions of officially forbidden works, by the so called “degenerate” artists – people like Kandinsky, Chagall and Klee. I was shocked by those images, but my eyes were opened to new ways of seeing.’
Wartime brought unspeakable horrors. He saw his home town bombed to smithereens, his father was missing in action and Carle, only 15, was shipped off to dig trenches on the Siegfried line.
After all that, art school brought his life back on course. Because of his precocious talent he admits that he got a bit above himself, but that was thoughtfully dealt with by his insightful teacher, Ernst Schneidler – a brilliant designer whom Carle came to idolize. After graduating he worked as a poster designer, before returning to New York. ‘I felt I’d come home,’ he says, and he embarked on a distinguished career as a graphic designer. ‘I loved that work. Unlike many of my colleagues, I was never resentful that I wasn’t working in the world of fine art. It was an important job, and I’d always rather see a good bit of graphic design than a mediocre painting.’
The influence of graphic design
In 1966 the writer Bill Martin Jnr saw a collage he’d done for an advertisement, and asked him to illustrate his picture book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Carle was 38 – it was a turning point, and soon he was illustrating his own texts. (The caterpillar appeared in 1969.)
So how much did those years in advertising influence his work with children’s books? ‘Enormously! The rules that govern good graphic design can easily apply to children’s books. Each page in a child’s book is, in effect, a mini poster. Advertising teaches you to convey complex ideas economically, but with maximum impact, and children need pictures that they can read and understand immediately. It’s all to do with composition. It’s just a matter of moving things around until they are in the right place.’
In his studio at the top of the house, Carle sits at a vast computer screen – and as we talk about his life, his work and his memories, he conjures up myriad images on the screen. We look at his early drawings, his posters, paintings and prints, and of course his collages…
Is he still making collages? By way of reply, he opens a large chest to reveal an infinite supply of prepared tissue paper, all graded in colour, like a huge palette. His most recent book – and the only one he’s done in this very new studio – is Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See? It’s the fourth in the bear series that he’s done with the author Bill Martin Jnr.
‘Bill died five years ago,’ says Carle, ‘leaving this manuscript… it’s interesting, isn’t it, that I worked with Bill Martin on both my first and my last picture book.’ What does he mean, his last picture book? He sighs, ‘I’ve finished now. I’m a happy man, but I haven’t any more to give. I won’t be doing any more books.’
‘Oh, don’t listen to him,’ says Bobbie, cheerfully. ‘He always does that; whenever he’s finished a book he always says it’s the last… but there’s usually something up his sleeve…’
Sure enough, a little later Carle opens a large folder and shows me a collage picture of a cat playing a clarinet… ‘You know,’ he says confidentially, ‘I’ve always wanted to do something that involved a little music.’
Joanna Carey is a writer and illustrator.