Generations of parents and children have delighted in Eric Carle’s book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” as they have followed the ravenous insect who chomps his way through apples, pears, plums and finally a formidable dessert table.
Carle’s illustrations were first published in “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” in 1967, and now, almost 50 years later, his 67th illustrated book, “Friends,” is set to be released this fall.
Carle described the inspiration and personal connection behind his latest book in a recent news release.
“‘Friends’ dates back to 1952, when I was a 22-year greenhorn who arrived in New York City from Germany, speaking poor English and carrying a cardboard suitcase and a portfolio of my graphic designs,” Carle said. “It was my good luck to meet Leo Lionni, then the art director of Fortune magazine, who became my mentor.”
Lionni helped Carle acquire a job as a graphic designer with the New York Times and a casual friendship continued between the two men until Lionni’s death in 1999.
“‘Friends’ started out as a tribute to Leo Lionni, but the story somehow swerved into the story of another friendship, that of two small children,” Carle said. “All friendships are somehow connected.”
Friendship is a recurring theme throughout Carle’s books, which most often depict animals. BYU juvenile literature librarian Rachel Wadham said it is the simplicity of Carle’s works that makes them so enduring.
“He is able to take simple concepts and make them come to life with bold choices of words and colors, yet what the books say and show has a deeper meaning,” Wadham said. “This is a unique combination of complexity through simplicity that Carle captures in all his books.”
Carle’s striking art defines his work; the colorful images remain in readers’ minds long after their memories of the stories fade. Carle creates his unique pictures through the medium of collage, layering plain tissue paper and acrylic paint. Once the paper and paint harden, he cuts the sheets into shapes and pastes them onto an illustration board to form, say, a famished larva.
Elementary students frequently replicate Carle’s artistic process, bringing their own hungry animals to life. BYU student Danielle Leavitt recalled participating in an Eric Carle unit in second grade.
“I liked him the most because I remember I was never good at drawing, but we had an art project where we were trying to imitate his paper style of illustration and it was fun; I could do it,” Leavitt said.
Even though, as a Russian studies major, Leavitt is frequently absorbed in heavyweight works by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, she said she still enjoys perusing Carle’s works.
“I’d be interested in seeing his new book just because I haven’t really heard of it since I was little, so I guess I’m intrigued that he’s still putting out new material,” Leavitt said. “I’d be interested in introducing my kids to it also because I think it’s a sweet generational connection — I grew up with him, they can grow up with him.”
BYU grad Rachel Phillips, a stay-at-home mother of five, read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” in elementary school and now shares Carle’s works with her young children.
“We have loved those books — all of my kids have read them a lot,” Phillips said. “They’ve had the books read to them at a very young age, but they still read them once they can read — they like to bring them home from school and the library.”
BYU student Derek Croft, a mechanical engineering major, said he has a soft spot for Carle’s books.
“When I was really, really little my dad used to read them to us,” Croft said. “I remember ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ — I think it’s a funny little story, and I liked the flip pages with the different layers for each page. I’d probably still read it. I like reading kids’ books, I think they’re fun.”