Arts & Culture

For the children

4 min read

Acclaimed illustrator Eric Carle discusses his life spent creating picture books

Since it was first published 41 years ago, a copy of acclaimed author and illustrator Eric Carle’s children’s book “A Very Hungry Caterpillar” has been sold every minute somewhere in the world. Carle, 81, is still surprised and humbled that his work has become so accepted and well-loved by readers and educators.

Carle shared his story of becoming a “good picture writer” at a packed Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) Askwith Forum last Thursday (April 22). Since “Caterpillar” was published, Carle has illustrated more than 70 books — many of them best-sellers and most of which he also wrote. More than 90 million copies of his books have sold around the world. His work is even in a museum, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Books, in Amherst, Mass., which aims to inspire children and families to appreciate and understand picture book art.

“As an educator, you can appreciate Eric Carle’s great work on so many levels,” said HGSE Dean Kathleen McCartney. “These books are perfect teaching tools. They utilize predictions, patterns, and picture cues … and they foster emotional development.”

However, for many at HGSE — including McCartney — the fondness for Carle’s books goes beyond the educational and into the personal. McCartney talked about Carle’s “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” and recalled that “My daughter Kimberly’s first word was not ‘mama’ — it was ‘bear.’ ”

HGSE was the first school of education that Carle has addressed, and he said he was in awe of speaking to a roomful of educators. “I know so little about education,” Carle said as the audience chuckled. “It’s true.”

He said his own education was a “disaster,” and he dropped out by 16. But many of Carle’s teachers and mentors encouraged him to pursue his talents along the way. In fact, it was a teacher who first noticed Carle’s penchant for drawing and told his parents to nurture his talent. While Carle was growing up in Germany, his father taught him about nature and perspective in comic books, fueling his passion for art. However, as a pre-teen and teenager Carle did not see his father, who had been drafted to fight in World War II.

During this time, Carle’s grandfather encouraged him to be a doctor or a dentist, which he rejected. This greatly disappointed his grandfather, who told Carle he’d amount to nothing in life. Instead Carle followed his heart, using color, texture, nature, and friendships as muses — themes that are directly reflected in his work to this day. As he grew older, he had more teachers and mentors, many of whom “opened doors” secretly showing him abstract art, which was considered degenerative and socially forbidden in Germany at the time.

When Carle arrived in 1950s America, he had built up a significant portfolio. He landed work as a designer at The New York Times and later at an advertising agency. In 1967, Carle illustrated “Brown Bear” for writer Bill Martin Jr., which prompted him to leave the advertising business to pursue more creative work.

While working on a cookbook, Carle was asked to illustrate more children’s books.  He pondered becoming an author himself, though he admitted he wasn’t strong on grammar, spelling, or commas, which he quipped was why his first book, “1, 2, 3, to the Zoo,” only had pictures.

Now,  “I really do the books for myself — it sounds arrogant, but that’s how it’s done,” he said, noting that in 99.9 percent of cases it is more of a free-flow process that’s intuitive. To this day, Carle said, “Do You Want to Be My Friend?” is his favorite, though not his most successful, book.

Although Carle said he felt terrible for not providing “helpful hints that might advance your work as educators,” many attendees took the time to thank him for how his books had impacted their own teaching.

Calling Carle an “amazing educator,” a teacher of 20 years said that he truly is a gift. “Nothing that I have seen in all my years of experience or the three education degrees I’ve earned connects with children the way your work does,” the teacher said.