Iconic and groundbreaking author, illustrator, and fine artist Eric Carle, whose vibrant tissue-paper collage The Very Hungry Caterpillar memorably chomped its way through the pages of a new style of children’s book design, died on May 23 in Northampton, Mass. He was 91.
Carle was born on June 25, 1929 in Syracuse, N.Y., to Erich and Johanna Carle, who were both German immigrants. By kindergarten, Carle told Something About the Author, “I remember happy days with large sheets of paper, bright colors, and wide brushes!” But that experience stood in stark contrast to the strict schooling Carle found in first grade, after his family had moved back to his parents’ hometown of Stuttgart, Germany.
The family remained in Germany through World War II during which Carle’s father served in the German Army and was imprisoned in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp before finally returning home in 1947. One of the bright spots of those dark and colorless wartime years, Carle said, was the “dedicated and courageous” art teacher who “secretly introduced me… to the beauty of abstract, modern, and expressionistic art.” Carle’s passion for art only grew after high school when he studied at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart (Akademie der bildenden Künste), earning his degree in 1950.
Following graduation, Carle longed to return to the United States and arrived in New York City in 1952, with a portfolio of his artwork and $40 in his pocket, according to his family. Noted illustrator and children’s book creator Leo Lionni, who was an art director at the time, and would become a mentor, helped Carle secure a position as a graphic designer at the New York Times. Shortly thereafter, Carle was drafted by the U.S. Army and served in the Korean War. He returned to the Times in 1954, then in 1956 moved to the medical advertising agency L.W. Frolich as an art director. In 1963, he decided to leave the corporate world behind and became a freelance illustrator and designer.
Serendipity played a role in kickstarting Carle’s career in children’s books when author Bill Martin Jr. happened to see one of Carle’s illustrations—depicting a big red lobster—in an advertisement in one of the medical journals in a doctor’s waiting room. The two men connected and soon teamed up for If You Can Count to Ten (Holt, 1964). Carle illustrated a few additional picture books with other authors and then Martin proposed that they collaborate on what became the classic Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (Holt, 1967). Carle later commented that this kind of illustration work—free of the discipline and rigidity of school or advertising—reawakened and newly inspired him. “The child inside me—who had been so suddenly and sharply uprooted and repressed—was beginning to come joyfully back to life,” he said in a 1977 Language Arts profile.
Also in 1967, Carle published the first of many books that he both wrote and illustrated, The Say-with-Me ABC Book (Holt). That title was soon followed by 1,2,3, to the Zoo (World, 1968), which was edited by the late Ann K. Beneduce, who would go on to work with Carle for the next 50 years. Carle has long credited Beneduce with helping to launch his success. It was she who talked him out of calling one of his characters Willi Worm, suggesting instead the project that became The Very Hungry Caterpillar in 1969. Beneduce was also instrumental in finding a Japanese printer who could handle the manufacture of the book’s varying page lengths and die-cut holes. She died in March at the age of 102.
Carle’s books largely depict animals and other creatures for whom he developed a fondness while taking childhood walks in the countryside with his father. He refined his illustration techniques over the years and typically used hand-painted textured tissue paper at the heart of his collage work, often pairing it with additional watercolor accents. Numerous Carle titles incorporate inventive design elements or even novelties like a sound chip for The Very Quiet Cricket (Philomel, 1990) or a flickering light in The Very Lonely Firefly (Philomel, 1995). In 2003 he received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (now the Children’s Literature Legacy Award), which recognizes creators who have made a substantial and lasting contribution to children’s literature. And in 2018, Penguin Young Readers established The World of Eric Carle, an imprint dedicated to Carle’s work.
In all, Carle created more than 70 books for young readers, and his titles have sold more than 170 million copies around the world. In addition to being a prolific artist himself, Carle was a tireless champion for the picture book artform, and for introducing young children to the world of art, passions he shared with his late wife Bobbie. The couple co-founded the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass. in 2002. Last summer the museum presented an exhibition called Eric Carle’s Angels: An Homage to Paul Klee, for which Carle produced 20 abstract 3-D “Angels” composed of painted cardboard and found objects—pieces he requested be allowed to naturally disintegrate.
Jen Loja, president of Penguin Young Readers, offered this reflection: “As we see the astounding number of tributes to Eric, there are many common themes, but perhaps the most used word is ‘joy.’ I think that Eric looms so large in children’s literature for the art that he created—it was so bold, so new and fresh, but still so simple as to be accessible—but also the completely unfettered joy that he brought to so many children. He demonstrated that your art can be a perfect reflection of the way you see the world and he inspired endless picture book artists to do the same. People love to mention the twinkle in his eye, his mischievous take on the world, his love of fun and a quick joke. There will never be another Eric Carle, that’s certain, but his passion for creating joyful picture books for young readers lives on in the many creators he mentored and inspired.”
Jon Yaged, president of Macmillan Publishers, said, "Eric Carle’s legacy extends beyond a Brown Bear, beyond the pages of a book, and beyond the walls of a museum—he inspired millions of children (and adults) to create. That is his enduring gift to us."
And Anita Silvey, children’s book author, editor, and critic, fondly recalled time spent with Carle. “One of my happiest memories about Eric involves yellow construction hats,” she said. “A group of us wore them, as he showed us around his new project. Set in an apple orchard, with mountains in the background, the piles of dirt and emerging walls would one day become the Eric Carle Picture Book Museum of Art. At that time, it existed in Eric’s mind and in the architectural plans that he so enjoyed showing us. Aware that other countries had museums that honored children’s book artists, Eric decided to create such a museum in the United States. ‘I owe this country so much,’ he said. ‘I simply want to give back.’ His infectious enthusiasm that day reminded me of a four- or five-year old boy, engaged in a massive Lego project.
When one of our great creators dies, I always comfort myself by saying, ‘At least we still have the books.’ In the case of Eric, we also still have his museum—which exists because of Eric’s lifetime of generosity.”
Carle is survived by his two children, Rolf Carle and Cirsten Carle, from his first marriage to Dorothea Carle, whom he married in 1953, and a sister. Barbara “Bobbie” Carle, his wife of 42 years, died in 2015.
This article has been updated.