A very hungry caterpillar, loads of food, lots of colour, very few words (224 to be precise) and little holes to poke tiny fingers through—that’s the formula that made one of the most popular children’s books of all times. The book simply called The Very Hungry Caterpillar has sold more than 55 million copies around the world since it was first published in 1969, and has been translated into more than 70 languages.
This was one of the many books that author and artist Eric Carle created to delight generations of children (and parents like me) across the world.
Eric Carle died last week at the age of 91 leaving behind a legacy of colour and care for the generations to come.
Eric Carle Jr. was born on June 25, 1929, in Syracuse, New York, to German immigrants. When Eric was six years old, his parents moved back to Germany. With the start of World War II his father was drafted into the German army and soon became a prisoner of war in Russia. Eric, who was then 15, managed to avoid the draft but was conscripted by the Nazi government to dig trenches on the Siegfried line, a 400-mile defensive line in western Germany. The war left its ravages all around; his father returned home a broken man.
At the end of the war, Eric joined the State Academy of Fine Arts in his hometown Stuttgart to study typography and graphic art, from where he graduated in 1950. Eric always dreamed of returning to America, the land of his happiest childhood memories. In 1952, with only 40 dollars to his name, he decided to move to New York City, where he got a job in advertising, working as a graphic designer for The New York Times where he worked for nearly a decade. By then, he had had enough of the advertising profession, and was thinking of changing direction.
Inspired by what his art teacher had once told him—“start anew, move on, keep surprising”, Eric Carle embarked on a career as a freelance designer when he was almost 40 years old. He knew he wanted to make pictures but the thought of doing children’s books never crossed his mind. But as serendipity would have it, one of the pictures that he had created for an advertisement caught the attention of Bill Martin Jr, a respected educator and author, who asked Eric to illustrate a book for him. That opened up the new direction that he had been seeking. Soon he began writing and illustrating his own picture books.
Many of Eric Carle’s picture books are about small creatures like caterpillars, ladybugs, spiders, crickets and fireflies. These are a tribute to some of his happiest childhood memories of walks with his father. As he recounted “When I was a small boy, my father would take me on walks across meadows and through woods. He would lift a stone or peel back the bark of a tree and show me the living things that scurried about. He’d tell me about the life cycles of this or that small creature, and then he would carefully put the little creature back into its home. I think in my books I honour my father by writing about small living things,” he continued. “And in a way I recapture those happy times.”
Eric celebrates these little creatures and the world they inhabit with vibrant art work in his signature style of creating images by layering tissue paper painted with acrylic colours, and rubbing with his fingers, brushes or other objects to create different textures. His love for bright and intense colours was perhaps a subconscious rebellion against the colourless and grim palette of the Nazi Germany that he grew up in. Under the Nazis modern, expressionistic art was banned and all exterior facades were painted a dull grey or brown. As an illustrator Eric Carle not only used brilliant colours but often portrayed his creatures in unconventional colours to show his young readers that in art, there is no wrong colour.
What makes the Caterpillar book so unique is its interactive element which is created with using a hole in the pages. Suddenly the book becomes a toy which little fingers can explore, and enjoy, just as they want to. The idea for that ‘something extra’ came to Eric as he was idly playing with a paper punch and saw the holes that he had punched in some papers.
These were the design elements that defined Eric’s work. But the content was equally rich and meaningful. Eric had an instinctive sense of what made children and childhood so special. He drew upon the child in himself to reveal the cherished thoughts and emotions of children, and treated then with understanding and respect. The confusions and insecurities of the little creatures in his books reflect those of the little children who face their first transitions like leaving the familiar security of home to enter the strange new world of school. As Eric Carle explained, “The unknown often brings fear with it. In my books I try to counteract this fear, to replace it with a positive message. I believe that children are naturally creative and eager to learn. I want to show them that learning is really both fascinating and fun.”
Above all he believed that children needed hope and excitement for what the future holds; and nothing expresses that better than the hungry caterpillar that transforms itself into a beautiful butterfly!
The magic of Eric Carle’s books lies not just in their visual appeal but in the opportunity that they offer children to freely express their curiosity and creativity as they learn about the exciting world around them.
Every little child is like a hungry caterpillar, hungry for taking in the colours, sounds, and tastes of the world around. And just as the ravenous caterpillar ate its way through apples and pears, plums and strawberries, oranges, and piles of other goodies, through every day of the week, children have a voracious appetite for learning and imbibing new knowledge and new experiences. And unlike the caterpillar, they don’t get a stomach ache from being overstuffed with these! Let us strive to satiate these hungers by opening up the world for our children, by joining them in the adventure of exploring and discovering the world around them.
A good day to start is World Environment Day that is celebrated on 5 June.