arts and design

Children’s authors on Eric Carle: ‘He created readers as voracious as that caterpillar’

The late Eric Carle has been hailed by fellow children’s writers for creating generations of readers as voracious as his best-loved creation, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Carle, who died on Sunday at the age of 91, left behind titles including his worldwide bestselling board book – about a caterpillar who eats his way through a week’s worth of food before turning into a butterfly – as well as The Very Busy Spider, The Mixed-Up Chameleon and Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me.

“Picture books are a child’s first art gallery, and Eric Carle – maybe more than anyone else – made the world aware of picture books as an exciting art form,” said Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo and former children’s laureate. “The Very Hungry Caterpillar is such a clever book. As well as the tactile element (all those holes!), it combines colours, counting and days of the week, and also manages to teach children about insect development – all that as well as being beautiful and funny. It is bound to remain a classic.”

Chris Riddell, the children’s author and illustrator, praised the “deceptively simple beauty” of Carle’s pictures, and the way his painted paper collage technique connected with children. Carle’s signature style came from bright tissue paper, stippled and smeared with acrylic paint, which was then cut with a knife and stuck on to white cardboard to form bold designs.

“Perhaps his greatest achievement, also wonderfully simple, was to introduce his readers at the earliest age, to the idea of the book as an object, by adding holes in the pages of The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” said Riddell. “He created readers as voracious as that caterpillar, and gave them wings.”

Chris Riddell on Eric Carle
Chris Riddell on Eric Carle. Photograph: Chris Riddell

How to Train Your Dragon author Cressida Cowell, the UK’s current children’s laureate, said: “Writing picture books for little ones is like writing haikus for aliens – harder than it looks … The Very Hungry Caterpillar effortlessly combines counting, days of the week, and a child’s favourite subject – food – alongside Eric Carle’s gloriously simplistic and vibrant illustrations. No wonder it has such timeless appeal.”

Anthony Browne, author of classic children’s picture books including Gorilla, said he was stunned when he first read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, while on a graphic design course in Leeds.

“It was a simple, logical story for young children that seemed to break all barriers as to what a book could be. Here was magnificent art work, beautiful colours and in many ways an object closer to sculpture than literature,” said Browne. “It’s so tactile and I’ve never encountered a child who doesn’t love being involved in such a relationship between story and reader. It’s without doubt one of the best and most influential children’s books ever made.”

Published in 1969, The Very Hungry Caterpillar has been translated into more than 60 languages and has sold the equivalent of a copy a minute since it was published.

“I think that, in common with thousands of children worldwide, The Very Hungry Caterpillar was the first book I fell in love with. A world of book lovers. Could there be a better legacy to leave the world than that?” said children’s author Emily Gravett. “It’s brilliant because despite its apparent simplicity, it manages to cover a lot of ground – hope, nutrition, consequences, life cycles, counting, days of the week, colours, biology – without being remotely preachy or coming across as educational. Also kids can stick their fingers into the holes, which is pretty much what small children are hardwired to do.”

Carle wrote and illustrated more than 40 children’s books, often about animals, insects and nature, tackling topics from quiet crickets to philosophical sloths. It was his father who introduced him to the natural world. Carle told the New York Times: “When I was a small child, as far back as I can remember, he would take me by the hand and we would go out in nature. And he would show me worms and bugs and bees and ants and explain their lives to me.”

Piers Torday, whose books include The Last Wild trilogy, said: “Carle’s great genius was – with just a few words and bold images – to present the seemingly everyday lives of animals as transformational stories of hope that even the youngest child can grasp. He established the natural world as a vivid wonder of brightness and colour from page one for so many lives. There are millions of people who owe their first experience, their first love of our planet’s endless diversity, with its sustaining powers of growth and renewal, to a 22-page board book. That is a remarkable legacy.”


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