It’s estimated that a copy of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” is purchased somewhere in the world every 30 seconds. It was first published in 1969 and has sold almost 50 million copies worldwide. The book’s author, Eric Carle, died on May 23, 2021, after writing or illustrating more than 70 children’s books during his life.
Carle’s own childhood was tumultuous. He was born in Syracuse, New York, but the family emigrated to Germany when he was six years old. By this time, Adolf Hitler was in power, and World War II was just four years away.
When the war came, Carle’s father was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1939 and served throughout the conflict. Carle was conscripted as a teenager in 1944 to dig earthwork defenses on the Siegfried Line, the last major fortification against the Allies crossing into the German homeland.
His father survived the war and captivity by the Soviet Red Army, but returned home a changed man, physically and mentally. Born an American, Carle longed to return to the United States and arrived in New York in 1952, just long enough to be drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
He was not sent to Korea, however, but ended up back in Germany, serving as a mail clerk with the 2nd Armored Division. Parts of Germany at this time were just emerging from post-war occupation, and the dividing lines between East and West were starting to emerge. After his service, he returned to New York, where he resumed his work as a graphic designer at The New York Times.
His journey to beloved picture-book author began to take shape in his years as a designer and artist. He began to work in the art department of an advertising agency. One of his illustrations caught the eye of children’s book author and World War II veteran Bill Martin Jr.
Martin was so taken with the illustration of a lobster Carle created that he tapped Carle to do the artwork for his upcoming book, “Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See?” Carle said the opportunity changed his life. After doing illustrations for a number of other picture books, he began writing his own.
Over the course of his career, he received many awards for his work in children's literature, including the Regina Medal, the Children's Literature Legacy Award and a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Illustrators. Later in life, Carle founded a picture-book museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, near his home in Northampton, where he lived and worked for 30 years.
“The Very Hungry Caterpillar” wasn’t Carle’s first book, but it’s his most popular and most enduring. The bright colors in its illustrations and Carle’s style made the book accessible to children while teaching them good nutrition, days of the week, colors, food and even a little about the metamorphosis of a caterpillar.
Carle died of kidney failure in his Northampton home at age 91.
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