The Very Creative Children’s Book Author: A Conversation with Eric Carle

By Cathy Elcik

Eric CarleMention Eric Carle and most people think his career as one of the most recognizable children’s-book illustrators all started with one very hungry caterpillar. But Carle didn’t hit the children’s illustration scene until educator and author Bill Martin Jr. noticed a very red lobster that Carle had created for an advertisement during his tenure as a graphic designer.

Martin engaged the illustrator for his 1967 classic, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Carle then went on to publish 1,2,3 to the Zoo in 1968 before leaving his indelible mark on children’s literature with The Very Hungry Caterpillar in 1969.

From this start, Carle moved on to a career that has included more than 75 picture books and that last year expanded to include co-founding the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., the first full-size museum in the United States devoted to picture book art.

Now, 36 years after his first book, Carle has collaborated with Bill Martin Jr. again in his 2003 release, Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See? Though Carle doesn’t like to talk about works-in-progress, he will say that he has no intention to stop producing books for children.

“I am currently working on new projects and I have no plans to retire from making books,” he says. “Although one child wrote me and said, ‘Our teacher makes us read all of your books. Could you retire soon?’”

We recently had a chance to ask the famed author and artist about his illustrious career. Here are a few highlights from the conversation:

Can you share a few anecdotes about fans you’ve met, either in person or through letters?

Carle: Receiving letters from children, as well as adults (teachers, librarians, students, parents, etc.), is certainly an enjoyable part of my work. A child in Texas once wrote to me: “I would like to visit you, but I’m not allowed to cross the street.” Another child wrote: “Your book The Very Hungry Caterpillar is like a little poem.” Another wrote: “You and I are alike. You love color and I love color.”

Why do you think that books such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar are still so beloved by children today?

When people ask me about the popularity of my work, I tell them, honestly, I don’t know the determining factor for The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I believe most children can identify with the helpless, small, insignificant caterpillar, and they rejoice with it when it turns into a beautiful butterfly. I think it’s a message of hope. It says, ‘I too can grow up. I too can unfold my wings and fly into the world.’ This is a universal concern that children have: Will I grow up? Will I be able to function as an adult?

You champion age-appropriate material, and showcase it in your own works by using simple images and words to convey complex concepts. On your Web site, you even talk about the current trend toward bombarding kids with too much too soon. As a writer who has focused so much of his career on books for the budding reader, how would you suggest that parents and teachers introduce kids to more difficult material once they’ve graduated from the basic readers and picture books?

My background is not in education and child development, so I tend to refrain from commenting on questions related to this large and diverse field. But I can say that each child is an individual and I would suggest that parents and teachers should approach them as such. I tend not to think of children as a group, or in groups, but rather as a child, and a child, and a child.

You go into your childhood in World War II Germany with a fairly gentle touch in Flora and Tiger, but have said that you do not feel qualified to write about this period. Yet you’ve also indicated that your thoughts return to those times more and more as the years have passed. Given that, yet again, this country finds itself in a time of war, do you have any plans to tackle this subject?

I don’t have any plans to write about growing up during the war in Germany; however, there is always the possibility that I will return to the subject. Also, I tend not to write books about “issues” or specific events. I was asked to illustrate a book about the tragedy of 9-11 and, after much soul-searching, I turned the project down. I’m not sure exactly why; perhaps it was too soon to respond in a direct way to such an overwhelmingly painful situation. But for whatever the reason, it didn’t feel right. 

Visual and verbal literacy are so linked in childhood literature – why do you think we move away from that kind of linked learning as we grow older?

Part of the mission of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is to promote picture book illustration as a valid art form and to recognize visual literacy as equally important as verbal literacy. Hopefully, there will not always be such a divide between the two.

We all anticipated that the Eric Carle Museum would fill a void both in children’s literature and museums for kids, but by all reports the museum has been deluged with visits in numbers that far exceeded expectations. Why has the museum struck such a strong chord and how do you feel about that? What are the plans for the museum moving forward?

We did not anticipate that the museum would be such a tremendous success. We expect to have welcomed more than 100,000 visitors by the first anniversary in November. Of course, my wife Barbara and I are thrilled that it has been such an exceptional beginning.

I think some of the interest and enthusiasm about the museum may be due to the fact that it’s a unique institution in this country. And I think it is a place that visitors of all ages can enjoy. Also, just this year we have held numerous exhibits, including work by Maurice Sendak, Nancy Eckholm Burkert, Mitsumasa Anno, Leo Lionni, Robert Ingpen, Ashley Bryan and myself.

The building itself is a beautiful, spacious and light-filled space with a large main hall, three galleries, a café, an art studio, an auditorium and a museum shop. There are a number of exhibits planned for 2004, including the work of William Steig, Dr. Seuss, Robert McCloskey and Margaret Wise Brown, among others.

What is it about this work that grabbed your heart all those years ago and still refuses to let go?

I have always loved to make pictures. And I am still a child at heart.


Eric Carle Books

Do You Want to Be My Friend?, HarperCollins, 1971.

Does a Kangaroo Have a Mother, Too?, HarperCollins, 2000.

Dream Snow, Philomel Books, 2000.

Flora and Tiger; 19 Very Short Stories From My Life, Philomel Books, 1997.

The Grouchy Ladybug, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1987.

Little Cloud Philomel Books, 1996.

The Very Busy Spider, Philomel Books, 1984.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Penguin, 1969.

The Very Quiet Cricket, Philomel Books, 1990.

Where Are You Going? To See My Friend!, with Kazuo Iwamura, Orchard Books, 2001. 

Books with Bill Martin

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, Henry Holt and Co., 1967.

Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?, Scholastic, 1991.

Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See?, Henry Holt and Co., 2003. 

On the Web

Eric Carle’s official site, features quite a lot of information about Carle, his life and his work, straight from the source. You can even find out how to write to the author and illustrator.

The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, 125 West Bay Road, Amherst, Mass.; The museum is the first full-scale museum in the country devoted to picture book art. Its goal is to foster connections between visual and verbal literacy and to provide visitors of all ages and backgrounds with the confidence to appreciate and enjoy art of every kind. The museum features three galleries dedicated to rotating exhibitions, a hands-on art studio, an auditorium for performances and lectures, a library for reading and storytelling, a café and a museum shop.

Click for a more detailed list of the great works from the desk of Eric Carle.