The roster of contributors to Eric Carle’s newest offering reads like a who’s-who of current children’s book illustrators. In What’s Your Favorite Animal?, Carle and 13 other artists answer the title question with pictures of a variety of creatures rendered in their diverse, signature styles. Royalties from the book, due out from Henry Holt on January 21, will be donated to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., which Carle and his wife, Barbara, founded in 2002.

The book, along with a forthcoming companion title, What’s Your Favorite Color?, was inspired by Carle’s response to an interviewer’s question a number of years ago. Asked about his favorite color, the artist immediately answered “yellow.” Laura Godwin, v-p and publisher of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, recalled how Carle’s response resonated with her. “I found his response so intriguing and energizing,” she said. “He went on to explain that yellow is a difficult color to do as a painter. It’s the color of sunshine and a very joyful color, but it’s hard to find the right shade. Of course I had the standard editor’s response: that should be a book.”

But Godwin didn’t act on that instinctive reaction until about a year ago, when that idea “popped back into my head,” she explained. Godwin, who has been Carle’s editor at Holt for some 15 years, sent the author an e-mail suggesting that he create a pair of picture books, along with some of his artist friends, about their favorite animals and colors. “Eric wrote me back 12 minutes later, saying simply, ‘Let’s do it,’ and an hour and a half later he had a rough sketch of the jacket,” she said. “He jumped right on it.”

According to Carle, he gave an immediate nod to the projects for several reasons. “A picture book is really one idea in 32 pages,” he said. “I am always thinking to myself when I am working on a book, ‘Simplify, simplify, simplify.’ I think part of what appealed to me is the idea that one question would be enough to make a book. I also liked that each contributor would have their own interesting answer, and that the question would also be an invitation to the reader to engage in answering as well.”

After consulting with Carle, Godwin contacted illustrators, and their responses to the project were as quick and as positive as Carle’s had been. Nick Bruel, Lucy Cousins, Susan Jeffers, Steven Kellogg, Jon Klassen, Tom Lichtenheld, Peter McCarty, Chris Raschka, Peter Sís, Lane Smith, Erin Stead, Rosemary Wells, and Mo Willems all signed on. “Everyone was so eager to participate and so enthusiastic about the book,” said Godwin. “I asked the illustrators on Friday and by Sunday I received completed artwork from several of them.”

A Spectrum of Species Surfaces

Carle, who knows about half of the book’s contributors personally but is familiar with the work of all of them, appreciated the eclectic array of animals they selected, as well as the personal flair each brought to the book. “Fish, giraffe, horses, bunnies, ducks, penguins – I love the variety of the animals in this book, and how each page is a different style,” he said. “Each artist has their own approach, their own way of answering the same question. To me, this is what makes this book so rewarding to work on.”

Godwin was a bit surprised that each of the contributing illustrators selected a different animal to draw and write about. Carle, who said he has always loved animals and is “especially fond of cats,” chose to focus on his pet Fiffi, a feline who once played fetch with a string bean. Other favorite animal choices are less conventional: Sís spotlights the blue carp, Raschka the snail, and Bruel the octopus (much to the chagrin of a certain jealous Kitty). “Amazingly, there was no overlap in the artist’s choices,” Godwin said. “And the responses are so different. Some are funny, some sincere, and some sweet. But they are all thoughtful, and each reflects the artist’s personalities.”

Just prior to What’s Your Favorite Animal?, Carle worked on another project that sprang from a topic close to his heart. In November, Philomel published Friends, which features art created with his signature hand-painted tissue papers. “I can still remember my strong attachments and feelings for my friends when I was a boy,” he said. “It is the memory of my early friendships, as well as meaningful friendships with special people in my adult life, that inspired my new book.”

Carle has already given Godwin his contribution to fall 2015’s What’s Your Favorite Color? (As expected, his is yellow.) As with the first book, all the illustrators contributing to this compilation – an entirely new roster, except for Carle – will donate their royalties to the Carle Museum. “Many of the contributors to [these books] have exhibited work at the museum and have been involved in other supportive ways,” Carle said, “which has been so wonderful for the museum and so gratifying to me.”

What’s next on Carle’s docket? “While I try to be retired, there is always a project that occupies my mind,” he said. “And I think Laura has something up her sleeve.” He’s right, his editor confirmed. “I’m hoping we might pick a third topic for the Favorites line,” Godwin said. “We’ll see if anything strikes Eric’s fancy.”

What’s Your Favorite Animal? by Eric Carle and Friends. Holt, $17.99 Jan. ISBN 978-0-8050-9641-5

Friends by Eric Carle. Philomel, $17.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-399-16533-7