An Interview with Eric Carle
Children’s book author and illustrator
Forty years ago, “in the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf.” It hatched, of course, into The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a well-loved children’s book that has sold more than 12 million copies in more than 20 languages. Its author and artist, Eric Carle, celebrated its 40th anniversary and his own 80th birthday this year.
Photo by Philipp Wente
Tell us about the teachers in your life who made a difference.
You know I was born in Syracuse, New York, and I had a wonderful, first-class kindergarten teacher who discovered my love for art. She called in my mother and emphasized that they should nurture that talent. That was a very important message.
We went to Germany when I was six and I started school there, too. The first four years I don’t remember at all in terms of art, except that it was small sheets of paper. In Syracuse, we had large sheets. In Germany, we had small sheets, a hard pencil, a rule and “don’t make any mistakes!” that kind of thing.
In high school, I had a wonderful teacher. This was during the Nazi time, but this wonderful teacher introduced me to so-called ‘degenerate’ art -- Impressionistic, abstract, that kind of thing. We did that secretly because it was forbidden to show it. That made the biggest impact on me.
If you were an art teacher, what would your class look like?
When I was an art student, we painted colorful paints, all kinds of colors on sheets of paper, and that way we accumulated a nice collection of color. Then we tore out shapes, cut out shapes, made collages. It’s not so important that right away you go ahead and do houses and animals. The children could make birds or elephants, if they like, but I’m not saying to do anything. If you just do abstract shapes and squares and you play with them, it would be a wonderful thing.
Some schools I’ve been to, they collect all kinds of discarded things -- wools and papers and sticks and stones. They make collages out of that and I think that’s wonderful, rather than sitting a child down and saying, “Now draw a tree!” Maybe the child is not in the mood to draw a tree!
You’ve been living with this little caterpillar for 40 years! Tell us what you think about the little guy now -- and why do you imagine he has been such a popular icon for children?
I don’t give it much thought really! It’s something I did, one of my books… I feel like children identify with [this] small, insignificant, ugly, little caterpillar -- because we are born little and ugly and helpless. [But then we grow up. And we have our own families and our own homes.] And that is the message of the caterpillar, to grow from an insignificant ugly thing into a beautiful butterfly flying into the world. It’s hope and encouragement. I think that’s what’s behind the caterpillar.
It’s a wonderful message, isn’t it?