Eric Carle, Your Favorite Children's Book Illustrator, Is 87 And Still Making Art

"The Very Hungry Caterpillar" and "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" debuted almost 50 years ago.

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Consider these nostalgia-inducing book titles of your youth: Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? The Very Hungry CaterpillarThe Grouchy Ladybug. Are you seeing blue horses, butterflies and aphids yet? If so, you have Eric Carle ― the master illustrator behind the 1960s and ‘70s’ best children’s books ― to thank.

Carle is the collage artist who made layered illustrations of famished bugs and observant mammals to accompany the most unforgettable stories of your childhood. Brown Bear debuted in 1967, Caterpillar in ‘69, and Ladybug in ‘77, rounding out just the beginning of one of the most well-known picture book producers’ careers. Even if you were a ‘90s kid, these books likely made their way into your library checkout history.

Illustration from <i>The Very Hungry Caterpillar</i>&nbsp;&copy; 1969 and 1987 by Eric Carle.
Illustration from The Very Hungry Caterpillar © 1969 and 1987 by Eric Carle.

Today, Carle is 87 years old and still producing art. (Just last year, he published The Nonsense Showa tribute to surrealism toddlers everywhere can enjoy.) But it’s not so much his age as the span of his career that’s amazing ― the author and illustrator has been working for nearly 50 years, releasing a total of over 70 books, most of which he wrote and illustrated. That amounts to nearly one and a half books every year.

In honor of his professional longevity, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, is celebrating the wonder that is Eric Carle this summer with a giant retrospective consisting of more than 80 collages from his half-a-century career. We have a preview of the instantly recognizable artworks on view below, the ones that will take you back in time, to an era filled only with trains, pancakes and rubber ducks. 

Bonus: a few facts you’ve always wanted to know about the man who memorialized the lifecycle of a lepidopteran.

Illustration from <i>Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?</i>&nbsp;&copy; 1983 by Eric Carle.
Illustration from Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? © 1983 by Eric Carle.

Born in America, Eric Carle actually grew up in Nazi Germany.

Carle was born in Syracuse, New York, in 1929, but moved to Germany with his parents when he was 6 years old. During World War II, his father was drafted into the German army ― he spent eight years as a prisoner of the Russians ― only to return home when his son was 18 years old. Carle ended up graduating from the celebrated Akademie der bildenden Künste, an art school, before moving back to the U.S.

Illustration from <i>Pancakes, Pancakes!</i>&nbsp;&copy; 1990 by Eric Carle.
Illustration from Pancakes, Pancakes! © 1990 by Eric Carle.

He began his career as a graphic designer for The New York Times.

Carle started his life in New York City in 1952, with, as his online biography states, “a fine portfolio in hand and 40 dollars in his pocket.” His first job? A graphic designer in the promotion department of The New York Times.

Illustration from <i>10 Little Rubber Ducks</i>&nbsp;&copy; 1990 by Eric Carle.
Illustration from 10 Little Rubber Ducks © 1990 by Eric Carle.

His literary career began in 1967 when educator Bill Martin Jr. asked Carle to illustrate Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

Martin came across Carle’s advertisement work; specifically, an image he made of a red lobster while working as an art director for an ad agency that specialized in pharmaceutical products. So, they embarked on a collaboration that would result in Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? A year later, Carle wrote and illustrated his first original book, 1, 2, 3 to the Zoo.

Illustration from <i>1, 2, 3 to the Zoo</i>&nbsp;&copy; 1986 by Eric Carle.
Illustration from 1, 2, 3 to the Zoo © 1986 by Eric Carle.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar was voted the No. 2 children’s picture book behind Where the Wild Things Are.

In 1969, Carle released The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which, according to the School Library Journal, is the second best picture book for 21st-century readers. Note: The entry for Hungry Caterpillar lets fans in on a secret ― the book was originally titled A Week with Willie Worm.

Illustration from <i>From Head to Toe</i>&nbsp;&copy; 1997 by Eric Carle.
Illustration from From Head to Toe © 1997 by Eric Carle.

He creates his images by painting on white tissue paper.

He then cuts and tears the abstract, acrylic-covered papers into different concrete shapes. High Museum visitors will be able to see examples of this unique technique up close, including the original collages of Brown Bear, Yellow Duck and Green Frog (from Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?).

Carle explained his technique to The Horn Book:

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. There are many different mediums to work in; I just happen to like collage. I enjoy the process of gluing the pieces down in a picture. I am very interested in details, brushstrokes in a painting, and textures. So the process of painting my tissue papers is very satisfying to me. Many children have also 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.

Illustration from <i>The Very Lonely Firefly</i>&nbsp;&copy; 1995 by Eric Carle.
Illustration from The Very Lonely Firefly © 1995 by Eric Carle.

He believes “the passage from home to school is the second biggest trauma of childhood.”

Carle, who has two children of his own, has said

“I believe the passage from home to school is the second biggest trauma of childhood; the first is, of course, being born. Indeed, in both cases we leave a place of warmth and protection for one that is unknown. 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.”

Illustration from <i>The Very Lonely Firefly</i> &copy; 1995 by Eric Carle.
Illustration from The Very Lonely Firefly © 1995 by Eric Carle.

He founded an entire museum dedicated to children’s book art.

It’s called The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, and it’s currently celebrating the 75th anniversary of Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings (1941).

Illustration from <i>The Very Clumsy Click Beetle</i>&nbsp;&copy; 1999 by Eric Carle.
Illustration from The Very Clumsy Click Beetle © 1999 by Eric Carle.

He receives over 10,000 fan letters every year.

Carle’s stories have been translated into 62 different languages. He’s sold more than 132 million copies of his books worldwide. And, according to The Guardian, he receives more than 10,000 fan letters every year. The Nonsense Show was rumored to be his last book, but in an interview with The Chicago Tribune, he teased a potential Quentin Blake-inspired project. 

So, yes, your favorite children’s book illustrator is still making art.

Eric Carle. Photo 2013 Kristin Angel &copy; The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.
Eric Carle. Photo 2013 Kristin Angel © The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the title of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. We regret the error.



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