Ever since he began innovating the look and function of children's stories in the late 1960s, Eric Carle has remained an author whose stories reliably hit the bestseller lists and remain on kids' bookshelves through generations.
He began as a designer of promotions and ads, and one illustration of a red lobster helped jump-start his career. The lobster caught the eye of author Bill Martin, Jr.; Martin asked Carle to illustrate the now-classic 1967 title Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and a career was born.
Born in Syracuse, New York but brought by his immigrant parents back to Germany when he was six, Carle was educated in Stuttgart and designed posters for the United States Information Center there after graduating from art school. He finally returned to the country he missed so much as a child in 1952.
He eventually began procuring work on children's titles, and found himself becoming increasingly involved in them. "I felt something of my own past stirring in me," he wrote in a 2000 essay. "An unresolved part of my own education needed reworking, and I began to make books -- books for myself, books for the child in me, books I had yearned for. I became my own teacher -- but this time an understanding one."
He began his career with the 1968 title 1, 2, 3 to the Zoo; but his next title, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, is what still endears him to young readers today. Employing his bright, collage style and lending an immediacy to the tale by manifesting the caterpillar's hunger in actual holes in the pages, Carle began what would be a long career of creative approaches to simple stories. From the chirp emerging from The Very Quiet Cricket to the delightful fold-out pages in Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me, Carle's books provide surprises that make his stories come alive in ways that many titles for preschoolers do not.
Carle's style, with its diaphanous, busy and bold artwork, is perfect for engaging new readers. His stories are also popular with parents and educators for their introductions to the natural world and its cycles. It's a particular pleasure to follow Carle into different corners of the world and see what can be learned from the creatures who live in them.
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Regularly asked where he gets his ideas, Carle is quoted on his publisher's web site as responding: "Of course, the question of where ideas come from is the most difficult of all. Some people like to say they get ideas when they're in the shower. That's always a very entertaining answer, but I think it's much deeper than that. It goes back to your upbringing, your education, and so forth." He does say, however, that the idea for The Very Hungry Caterpillar came when he whimsically began punching holes in some paper, which suggested to him a bookworm at work. His editor later suggested he change the bookworm to a caterpillar, and the rest is history.
Carle was unhappy to be in Germany when his immigrant parents brought him back there as a child. He hated his new school and wanted to go back to America. He said: "When it became apparent that we would not return, I decided that I would become a bridge builder. I would build a bridge from Germany to America and take my beloved German grandmother by the hand across the wide ocean."
Before he became a freelance illustrator and began working on children's books, Carle worked as a graphic designer for the New York Times and as art director of an ad agency.
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In 1999, Carle spoke with Barnes & Noble.com about his inspirations, his stories, and what was potentially his last "Very" book, The Very Clumsy Click Beetle.
From The Very Hungry Caterpillar to The Very Lonely Firefly, Eric Carle's bestselling "Very" books have dazzled and delighted kids everywhere. Now Carle's created a brand-new "Very" book about a clumsy little click beetle who can't seem to land on his feet. However, when it matters most, he finally succeeds -- saving his own life in the process. This winning story of perseverance and pride in achievement also has an ingenious, interactive surprise -- a hidden sound chip provides an audible "click" each time the reader turns the page.
How did you come up with the idea for The Very Clumsy Click Beetle?
I like little bugs and insects, and I know that they have become my signatures -- but it's not an artificially arrived-at signature. I grew up fascinated by little worms, bugs, and insects. I suppose my father had a lot to do with it.... In our walks around the garden, he would point out these little insects to me. Maybe it was because in Germany we didn't have elephants, giraffes, or other large animals, so I had to settle for liking little creatures-ants, worms, and bugs. But don't you think that most little boys and little girls seem to have an interest in them, too? There are so many surprising things about insects -- their life cycles, for instance. Some, like cicadas, take seven years to hatch, and then only live for a week or so! Why would nature do that? Recently, I was reading about butterflies, and to my surprise, I discovered that one species is carnivorous! It eats other insects. And ants are amazing! There are so many different kinds of ants in the same colony, each with its own specialization -- builders, fighters, food hunters, and harvesters -- some even build mushroom cellars! Fascinating!
The click beetle might seem at first like a dull little guy, but it has this remarkable ability to flip through the air, and I found that very interesting. I learned that adult click beetles have this wonderful ability, but do you know that they land on their feet only 50 percent of the time? One out of two attempts is not successful. Don't you think that's strange? What did nature have in mind when it designed a bug that has only a 50 percent chance of getting out of harm's way?
The click beetle is an insect I had been thinking about for some time. Perseverance seemed to be the natural theme. Because click beetles land on their feet only 50 percent of the time, it takes perseverance to get really good at it. Of course, that is an anthropomorphic point of view. My little insects are metaphors for children, who have the same problems of learning to walk, to talk, to run, etc. So the importance of stick-to-itiveness became the theme for The Very Clumsy Click Beetle.
Do you have a favorite animal?
No, I like to learn about all animals and insects.
How long did it take to produce The Very Clumsy Click Beetle?
The Very Clumsy Click Beetle has gone through the same process that most of my books do. An idea begins with a blip, a fragment that gradually grows. It grows sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly (some ideas never mature) -- parts of it develop effortlessly, other parts develop painfully. Sometimes I feel it's the best ever, or the worst ever. This process can take a year or more, steadily on and off. The production of The Very Clumsy Click Beetle embodied the message of perseverance. Because of technical difficulties the publication date was delayed one full year. But we (publisher, printer, binder, and I) did, in the end, make it work.
When did you start doing collage art? Is this your favorite medium to work in-or is it because it's your trademark that you continue to illustrate in this style?
I learned collage in art school. After art school I was a poster artist. I always liked big, bold images, which are important in poster design. I love to do collages -- the whole process of it -- painting tissue papers, storing them, handling them, cutting and tearing out shapes.
When you were a child, did you always know you'd be an artist of some sort? Did your parents encourage you?
Yes. Before I knew the word "artist" or the concept of art, I knew I would draw pictures. It was my favorite occupation at that time of my life. My parents were very supportive, and my relatives brought me watercolors and papers and crayons. My mother would proudly show off my work to anyone who happened to come by.
Your books are so intuitive about children's thoughts and feelings. How do you know so well what will touch and engage kids?
The underlying topics that are addressed in each of the books you mention are indeed very basic and universal desires and needs. Very basic ideas. In the books, these lessons are camouflaged, are not didactically presented; they are not the primary concerns of my books. The primary concern is to tell a good story, to impart just sheer fun and then, secondarily, to educate or to convey some useful idea. In part, the ideas come from my own philosophical thoughts and musings. My ability to write them simply and in a way that children can easily understand is intuitive. I try not to intellectualize too much about the ideas in my books. I do remember my own childhood feelings and emotions quite clearly; perhaps this helps me to understand the basic needs and interests of the young children for whom I create my books. Other than that, I really don't know how I do it. Either you have intuition or you don't. And you have to trust your intuition, too. Trust that it's not going to lead you away from the point you are trying to make, and trust that it is correct in terms of the child reader.
Because you've established such a stellar reputation, do you find it is more difficult to create books (i.e., a lot is expected of you)-or in fact, is it easier (i.e., you have more clout, so you can do what you want)?
Sometimes I am convinced that I will not do books anymore, but then I come up with an idea -- what can I do?
Yes, a lot is expected of me and yes, I do have some clout. That is the time to be most careful. But my state of mind (working, illustrating, writing) while I am doing a book has never changed.
Are you planning to do more "Very" books in the future? Are you working on any other books now?
I'm not planning more "Very" books. And yes, I am working on other books, but will not mention them. If I do, I'll put a hex on them.
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