R.I.P. Eric Carle, creator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar

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Eric Carle
Eric Carle

Eric Carle has died. A best-selling children’s author and illustrator, best known for his 1969 mega-hit The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Carle spent his life writing and drawing books meant to give children something comforting to hold onto, even as they made the distressing transitions from home to school. His family released a statement this week that he died on Sunday, at his studio in Northampton, Massachusetts; no cause of death has been revealed. Carle was 91.

Although born in the United States, Carle spent much of his childhood in a profoundly uncomforting locale: Germany in the 1930s and ’40s, where he was eventually conscripted by the Nazi government, at age 15, to dig trenches along the defensive Siegfriend line on the country’s Western border. After surviving the war, Carle returned to the States, where he acquired a job as a graphic designer for The New York Times—only to get conscripted again, this time serving as a mail clerk for the U.S. during the Korean War. When he returned, he got his big break in 1967, when children’s author Bill Martin, Jr., saw an image that Carle had created (of a lobster) for an advertisement. Intrigued by Carle’s style, Martin invited him to collaborate; the resulting book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, became a quick hit, and Carle’s career as an author and illustrator was launched.

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Carle’s work was distinctive for many qualities, but especially his mixed-media approach to art, often employing a collage technique that saw him combine multiple illustrated pieces of tissue paper to create his characters’ distinctive looks. Often showcasing his love of the natural world, Carle’s works have appeared in classrooms, libraries, and kids’ private collections for more than 50 years, introducing them both to wildlife, and to new approaches to art. Carle also, with his wife, Bobbie Carle, founded the Eric Carle Museum Of Picture Book Art in Massachusetts, designed to be ideal as a child’s very first museum visit, introducing them to the world that Carle loved.

Heavily awarded across his career, Carle is one of the most successful children’s authors and illustrators of his (or, really, any) generation. The Very Hungry Caterpillar—telling the story of a caterpillar’s lifecycle from egg to butterfly—has been translated into over 70 languages.