Eric Carle: life, books and art of Very Hungry Caterpillar author remembered as he dies aged 91

Carle was also known for his children’s picture book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

Thursday, 27th May 2021, 11:32 am

Eric Carle the author and illustrator of the iconic children’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar, has passed away at age 91.

Carle died on Sunday 23 May, and a statement from his family said: “In the light of the moon, holding on to a good star, a painter of rainbows, is now traveling across the night sky.”

The Eric Carle Twitter account also wrote: “From the Eric Carle Team: it is with heavy hearts that we share that Eric Carle, author & illustrator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and many other beloved classics , passed away on 23rd at the age of 91.

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Eric Carle attending Jumpstart's "Read for the Record" at The New York Public Library, 2009, in New York City. (Photo : Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Jumpstart)

“Thank you for sharing your talent with generations of young readers.”

When did he write The Very Hungry Caterpillar?

The Very Hungry Caterpillar was published in 1969, and has since become one of the best selling children’s books of all time, with over 55 million copies sold.

Originally, getting The Very Hungry Caterpillar published proved difficult, as U.S printers wouldn’t take on the book due to the differently shaped pages with holes, but eventually a printing company in Japan was found.

Since being published in 1969, the book has been translated into more than 40 languages, including French, Spanish, German and Japanese.

Speaking to the BBC in 2019, on the 50th anniversary of The Very Hungry Caterpillar’s publication, Carle spoke about why he thought the book was still so popular after so many years.

He said: “For many years, my publisher and editor and I did not know the reason for The Very Hungry Caterpillar being so popular.

“But over time, I’ve come to feel that it is a book of hope. And it is this hopeful feeling that has made it a book readers of all ages enjoy and remember. For this I am very touched.

“I have been sent many letters and drawings from children. Some letters are profound.

“My all-time favourite was, “Our teacher, Ms Smith, made us read all your books. Will you ever retire?””

What other books did Eric Carle write?

As well as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Carle has also written and illustrated a number of other bestselling books.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? marked Carle’s debut as an illustrator, which was a book that he collaborated on with Bill Martin Jr, who is also known for his children's books.

Carle’s first book as both writer and illustrator was 1, 2, 3 to the Zoo, published in 1968, and of course The Very Hungry Caterpillar, published in 1969.

Other notable books from Carle include The Grouchy Ladybug, The Mixed-Up Chameleon, The Very Busy Spider, Pancakes, Pancakes!, Do You Want to be My Friend?, and Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me.

Over the course of his career, Carle wrote and illustrated more than 70 books, selling more than 170 million copies around the world.

In 2002, Carle and his wife, Barbara Morrison, founded The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, a museum dedicated to the art of children’s books.

The museum is situated in Amherst, Massachusetts, and houses more than 12,000 objects, including 8,500 permanent collection illustrations, three art galleries, an art studio, theatre, picture book and scholarly libraries and educational programmes for families, scholars, educators and school kids.

What was his life like?

Carle was born on 25 June 1929, in Syracuse, New York, to mother Johanna Oelschlaeger and father Erich W. Carle, a civil servant.

At six years old, the family moved to Stuttgart after his mother became homesick for Germany. It was here that Carle was educated and graduated from the local art school, the State Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart, in 1950.

After graduating, Carle returned to America, where he landed a job as a graphic designer for The New York Times, thanks to the help of illustrator and art director Leo Lionni.

During the Korean War, Carle was drafted into the U.S Army. After the war, he returned to The New York Times, where he later became an art director of a medical advertising agency, L. W. Frolich.

He was then later promoted to oversee International Hiring, recruiting art directors for the agency’s international offices in London, Mexico City and Frankfurt - however, this was a position that led Carle away from designing himself.

Carle soon after left and instead pursued his career as a freelancer designing book jackets, album covers and eventually children’s books.

His career as a picture book illustrator occurred by chance in 1967, when author Bill Martin Jr saw a picture that Carle had drawn of a big red lobster in a medical advertisement for antihistamines. Martin then invited Carle to illustrate Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

Carle is survived by his two children from his first marriage to Dorothea Wohlenberg, Rolf Carle and Cirsten Carle.