Eric Carle's 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' is 50


It is Sunday morning. Little Eric and big Erich are walking through the forests of Feuerbach near Stuttgart in southwest Germany. Erich turns over stones, knocks on tree barks and shows Eric the many small, hidden creatures bustling in their micro-universe. The father explains the ways of life of ants, beetles and worms to his son — then he carefully puts the tiny creatures back where they belong. 

“I believe I honor my father by writing about small creatures in my books,” writes Illustrator Eric Carle on his website. “In a way, I’m also connecting with happier times.” His distinctive children’s books, which use his own unique collage technique, have been translated into more than 60 languages.

‘The very hungry caterpillar’: A children’s cult classic

Over the decades, Carle has created about 70 illustrated books, but The Very Hungry Caterpillar is by far the most popular. Published for the first time 50 years ago as a picture book, it tells the story of an insatiably hungry caterpillar. It eats its way through apples, pears, plums, strawberries and oranges from one page to the next, then moves on to chocolate cake, ice cream waffles, pickles, cheese, sausages and lollipops. Of course, it ends up with a tummy pain — but it also becomes a beautiful butterfly.

The book was published on June 3, 1969.

Carle once explained the unexpected, timeless success of his story in an interview with the German weekly Stern magazine: “It’s the story of hope. Like the caterpillar, a small and even ugly beast, you’ll be big and beautiful one day. Your wings, or your talent, will unfold and you will fly into the future.”

In the 1920s, the Carle family emigrated from Germany to the US in search of work and a better life. Eric was born in Syracuse, New York in 1929, but when he was six, the family moved back to Feuerbach. It was a decision with far-reaching consequences. 

When WWII broke out in 1939, Eric’s father was drafted and soon captured by the Russians. His son, along with the entire school class, was moved to the Siegfried Line, a defensive military line between Germany and France, to dig trenches. When Eric’s once caring father returned from Russian captivity eight years later, he was a wreck. The close bond between father and son no longer existed. “While he had lost all his will to live, I was discovering a new world,” Eric Carle wrote in an article in Germany’s Focus magazine.

A university education in post-war Germany

After graduating from the Academy of Art and Design in Stuttgart, Carle returned to the US in 1952. “I was not even 23 years old, had a nice workbook and $40 in my pocket,” the illustrator recalls.

More bugs: A page from Carle’s ‘The Grouchy Ladybug’

His adventurousness paid off, too. For many years, he worked in an advertising agency. “In the mid-1960s, Bill Martin Jr. [a children’s book author] saw a display of a red lobster I had designed and asked me to illustrate Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? What an inspirational book!” Carle said. “The big leaves, bright colors and thick brushes of my former school came to mind, and this opportunity changed my life.” 

Carle eventually realized that being an illustrator was not enough and began to write stories as well.

Project ideas in boxes

Carle recorded his ideas in sketchbooks that he would store in a small box. One day, as he was busy illustrating a historic cookbook, his editor asked to see the “box of ideas” he had heard about. “I gave him 1,2,3 to the Zoo,” Carle said. 

The Very Hungry Caterpillar also ended up in bookstores thanks to an editor, Ann Beneduce. He had told her about his story idea of a worm eating his way through the pages of a book. She suggested a different creature:  “How about a caterpillar?” she said. Thrilled, Carle answered: “Butterfly!” The story of ​​the transformation of the very hungry caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly was born and took the form of a book that uses simple language and impressive pictures.

To this day, Eric Carle, who celebrates his 90th birthday on June 25, is best known for this slender children’s book, found in children’s rooms around the world.

From May 18 to September 8, 2019, the exhibition “Eric Carle’s Picture Books: 50 Years of ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar'” can be seen at the Museum Wilhelm Busch: the German Museum for Caricature and the Art of Drawing in Hanover.





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