Eric Carle, The Man Behind The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Since 1969, countless numbers of children have learned to read with the help of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Eric Carle’s beloved toddler picture book has been translated into more than 60 languages, across which more than 50 million copies have been sold. If you include sales figures of his other children’s books, that figure shoots up to more than 145 million. The merit of his works have been recognised time and again, and he continues to be a best selling author in the genre.
Notably, readers of the US School Library Journal voted The Very Hungry Caterpillar as the second-best children’s picture book (Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak was in first place). In 2019, the Uroballus Carlei, a jumping spider that imitates a caterpillar, was named in his honour. Whatever your feelings about spiders, you have got to admit that is quite an accolade!
However, before Carle became a celebrated author and illustrator of classical children’s books, he endured some truly difficult experiences. I want to share a little of his inspiring story in this blog.
A Wartime Childhood
Eric Carle was born to Johanna and Erich Carle on 25 June 1929. His parents were German immigrants, and he was born in Syracuse, New York.
His mother longed to return to Germany, and when he was six years old, that is exactly what happened. The entire family returned to their ancestral homeland. The boy was enrolled at the State Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart, from which he graduated.
When World War II began in 1939, the father of the future children’s books author was forced to join the German army. During the war, Eric Carle and other children were sent to the small town of Schwenningen to keep them safe from bombers that targeted Stuttgart.
He was 15 years old when he and other boys were forced by the Nazis to dig trenches on the Siegfried Line. In an interview, the writer and artist described how three men were killed only meters away from where they were working on the first day.
When Germany surrendered in 1945, Erich Carle became a prisoner of the Soviets. He was able to return home in 1947, and at the time he weighed a mere 38kg. Speaking about his father, the author said the wartime experience had devastated his father both physically and psychologically.
Return to America
Eric Carle was not happy in Germany, and he wanted nothing more than to return to the USA. In 1952, he was able to fulfil his dream. He had only $40 saved up, but he was lucky enough to find a job soon after his arrival in New York City.
He started work in the New York Times’ promotion department as a graphic designer, but it was not long before he found himself back in Germany. During the Korean War he was drafted into the US Army, and sent to the country to serve as a mail clerk.
Eric returned to his job at the New York Times after he was discharged from the army, but eventually left it to work at an advertising agency. He had been appointed the art director; a move that would open the door to becoming a children’s books author.
The Move Into Books
One of the adverts Eric Carle illustrated while at the agency featured a lobster. An educational author named Bill Martin, Jr. saw it and thought that Eric would be the perfect illustrator with whom to collaborate.
He approached the art director, who agreed to work with him. The result was Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? This book was published in 1967, and quickly became a best-selling title for younger readers.
Eric then tried creating his own children’s books. His first books, 1, 2, 3 to the Zoo and The Very Hungry Caterpillar were published in 1969. A few years later the Royal Entomological Society endorsed his famous story about the ravenous insect because it introduced children to the concept of metamorphosis.
Today, Eric is married, and he has a son and a daughter. He lives in Key West, Florida, USA. He has been honoured with numerous awards, honorary degrees, and even a Google Doodle.
In an interview, Eric Carle said he wants his books to show children that learning can be interesting as well as entertaining. That is one of the intentions behind Toby Books. Learning never needs to be boring!
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