Updated: May 28, 2021 8:04:03 am
What is red-and-green, wriggly and crawly — and very, very hungry? For millions of children who have grown up with the art of Eric Carle, the answer arrives in a heartbeat: A caterpillar, of course. A Very Hungry Caterpillar, a picture book by Carle published in 1969, about a little insect that chomps through apples and pears, ice cream cones and cherry pies over seven days of impressive gluttony is a classic of children’s literature. It was one of many such works that made Carle, who passed away at the age of 91 on May 23, a delightful fixture of bedtime stories around the world. The magical world he created for children was full of grumpy ladybugs and kind seahorses, and ladders that went all the way up to the moon.
Like the best art meant for children, Carle’s books were deceptive in their simplicity and ambitious in their scope. A Very Hungry Caterpillar is several things at once — a book about the days of the week but also of numbers; a collage that explains the difficult concept of metamorphosis but also a story of growing up, from a little insignificant creature to a splendid winged thing. But most of all, in their imagery, colour and sophistication, Carle’s books measured up to illustrator Martin Salisbury’s idea of the perfect picture book: A child’s first “personal, private art gallery, held in the hand, to be revisited over and over again.”
Born in 1929 in New York, Carle’s childhood was spent in Nazi Germany. He returned to the US to find his calling as an illustrator and artist. The greyness of his childhood, he said, fuelled the dreamlike colours of his art. Carle knew how to speak to children and believed they knew best. When some children remarked of his work, “‘Oh, I can do that”, he said, “I consider that the highest compliment.”