Eric Carle, the Author Who Inspired Generations of Children, Has Died at 91

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Photo credit: Boston Globe
Photo credit: Boston Globe

Eric Carle, the beloved and prolific author of more than seventy books for children, has died at 91. Carle died of kidney failure at his summer home in Northampton, Massachusetts. According to a statement from his family, Carle “passed away peacefully and surrounded by family members on May 23, 2021.” The statement went on to say, “In the light of the moon, holding onto a good star, a painter of rainbows is now traveling across the night sky.”

Few writers and illustrators have left as profound a mark on children’s literature as Carle. Though he is best known for The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a classic that has moved generations of parents and children, his seventy-plus books have sold over 170 million copies around the world. Michelle H. Martin, the Beverly Cleary professor for children and youth services at the University of Washington, told NPR that The Very Hungry Caterpillar helps children grasp concepts like numbers and days of the week.

Carle’s path to children’s literature was long and winding. Born to German immigrants in Syracuse, New York in 1929, Carle’s homesick parents decided to return to Germany when he was six years old—just in time for World War II. Young Carle was beaten by teachers, shot at by soldiers, and, like his most famous creation, often experienced hunger. After being drafted to fight for the Nazis, Carle’s father disappeared in a Russian prisoner-of-war camp; when he returned, he weighed just eighty-five pounds. Carle himself, too young for the draft, was conscripted by the Nazi government to dig trenches on a 400-mile defensive line in west Germany.

"All of us regretted it," Carle remembered of the move to Germany. "During the war, there were no colors. Everything was gray and brown and the cities were all camouflaged with grays and greens and brown greens and gray greens or brown greens, and ... there was no color."

After the war, Carle studied typography and graphic arts at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart. There, Carle fell in love with the Impressionists—”color, color, color!” he remarked. In 1952, he moved to New York with just $40 to his name, and scored a job as a graphic designer in the advertising department at The New York Times. Yet his burgeoning art career was interrupted when he was drafted in the Army during the Korean War, sent back to Germany, and stationed with the Second Armored Division as a mail clerk. Upon the end of his service, Carle returned to New York and picked back up at the Times, where he worked until he hung out his own shingle as a freelance artist in 1963.

Photo credit: Mike Coppola - Getty Images
Photo credit: Mike Coppola - Getty Images

Carle’s breakthrough came in 1969 with the publication of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which has since been translated into seventy languages and sold over 55 million copies around the world. In the decades to follow, his colorful, imaginative books, anchored around artworks made of tissue paper and acrylic paint, earned him acclaim, honorary degrees, and legions of young fans. In 2002, he and his wife, Bobbie Carle, opened the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. The museum has since hosted 750,000 visitors, including 50,000 schoolchildren.

Carle continued drawing until the final month of his life. His longtime aide, Jennifer Chanda Orozco, wrote that “when words became clumsy and inefficient, it was his art that anchored Eric and allowed him to articulate himself in the language he knew best.” On the fiftieth anniversary of The Very Hungry Caterpillar in 2019, Carle spoke about the book’s lasting impact in a commemorative video released by his publisher.

"I think it is a book of hope," Carle said. “Children need hope. You, little insignificant caterpillar, can grow up into a beautiful butterfly and fly into the world with your talent. Will I ever be able to do that? Yes, you will. I think that is the appeal of that book. I should know… I did the book, after all!"

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