The other day, as I was flipping through the die-cut pages of the classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar, my 10-year-old son peeked in to comment. “I remember this story of a hungry caterpillar that eats every day of the week to become a butterfly — without being eaten by a bird.” I was surprised to hear how my son had sneaked in the concept of the food chain and an imaginary bird into one of his favorite childhood tales.
Yet that is the hallmark of beloved children’s author-illustrator Eric Carle’s work. His picture books are an open invitation for children to think beyond the obvious. The white space he leaves around his brilliant collages encourages youngsters to imagine and explore.
Since the launch of The Very Hungry Caterpillar in 1969, Eric Carle has created more than 70 books and sold 125 million copies. He continues to entertain and inspire young readers with his vibrant artwork and simple stories. With the release of Friends on November 19th, he adds yet another jewel to his picture book crown.
Memphis Parent conducted an email interview with the internationally acclaimed author to learn more about his creative journey.
Memphis Parent: You graduated from the Akademie in Stuttgart, Germany, to become a graphic designer. In your autobiography The Art of Eric Carle, you mention that almost without planning, you became an author/illustrator. At what point did you realize this was your calling?
Eric Carle: My work and my training in art school and graphic design were very important in my development. But when I was asked to illustrate Bill Martin Jr.’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? I was set on fire. I was so inspired to be able to do something that would make a difference in the lives of young readers. And I felt I had found my true course in life.
In your autobiography, you write that it was your first-grade teacher who discovered your artistic ability, and your mother, who, in turn, nurtured your talent. In your 30s, editor Ann Beneduce finds you and encourages your playful idea of a bookworm, which becomes the famous caterpillar. Looking back, were there others?
Carle: I feel so fortunate to be able to do the work that I love, and that I’ve had so many “door openers,” so many people in my life who have supported my work — teachers, editors, readers, friends, and family.
In Artist to Artist, you said, “Making pictures is how I express my truest feelings, my truest self.” Why did you pick the collage art form to illustrate your books?
Carle: I first learned about collage in art school in Germany and later used this technique as a graphic designer and art director for an advertising agency. But I didn’t invent collage. Artists like Picasso and Matisse, Leo Lionni and Ezra Jack Keats, made collages. Many children have done collages at home or in their classrooms. In fact, some children have said to me, “Oh, I can do that.” I consider that the highest compliment. I make my pictures out of hand-painted tissue papers that I paint with acrylics. Then I cut and tear these painted papers and glue them onto illustration board. My painted papers are like my palette.
What is the story behind opening The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Massachusetts?
Carle: Years ago, my wife Bobbie and I traveled to Japan and visited several picture book museums there. Inspired, we decided to create such a museum in this country to encourage, especially in children and their families, an appreciation for and an understanding of the art of the picture book. In 2002, The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, which exhibits the work of picture book artists from around the world, opened its doors in Amherst, Massachusetts.
What was your favorite book and what attracted you, its words or pictures?
Carle: One of my favorite books for children that I did not write is Leo the Late Bloomer, which was written by Robert Kraus and illustrated by Jose Aruego. I love how this book, in a very simple and straightforward manner, embraces the fact that we all learn and develop in our own particular way. I was a late bloomer, just like Leo, and have identified with the main character in this delightful story. I also love the illustrations!
You and your wife, Bobbie, share a common interest of reaching out to the needs of children. Has your wife inspired you to write on a particular topic?
Carle: It is true my wife, Bobbie, was a teacher, and I am very grateful to and inspired by teachers. But my background is not in the field of education or children’s literature or psychology. And I tend not to think of children as a group. I see a child, and a child, and a child. I try to write for the child in me, the child inside. That is where I always begin.
When you talked about how you got the idea for the book, From Head to Toe, you mentioned you get the “too much, too soon” feeling when you see overloaded picture books or watch children’s television programs (with the exception of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood). With the introduction of e-books, what do you think is the future of reading aloud from a book?
Carle: The computer has changed so many things in publishing and the world of books. But I believe strongly that by reading to your child, by taking him or her onto your lap and holding them close while you read, that you are letting them know by this simple act that you care for them, have time for them, and love them. Then sharing a book (or a screen) becomes more than just pages with words and pictures.
Friendship has always held a special place in your heart. You dedicated the wordless picture book, Do You Want to Be My Friend? to your Syracuse boyhood friend, Carlton Mayer. You were also paired with Japanese artist Kazuo Iwamura to create Where Are You Going? To See My Friend, a bilingual book in English and Japanese. Now you’ve come out with Friends as a way to explore connections that bring people together. What do you hope to share with children via this new selection?
Carle: I have always believed that friendship is very important to children. I know it was for me as a child and I can still remember my strong attachments and feelings for my friends when I was a boy. As with all of my books, I hope readers will find comfort and enjoyment, and possibly some learning. Mostly, I hope each reader will enjoy this book in his or her own way, for the pictures, for the way it makes them feel about their own friendships, for the story.
A Review of Friends
by Eric Carle
Author Eric Carle finds his way into a child’s heart with yet another timeless tale of friendship with Friends. Young children can easily relate to how the boy in the story feels when his best playmate, a girl, moves away.
As the young boy bravely swims a river, climbs a mountain, dashes through the rain, and finds his way through the forest, Carle’s bold, bright illustrations reassures the reader that his quest will not be in vain. Youngsters will rejoice at the surprising reunion.
Friends reminds us that life is about finding new experiences, in the natural and human world. — Meena Viswanathan