Eric Carle, beloved picture book author and military veteran, dies at 91


It is 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 nearly 50 million copies worldwide. The author of the book, Eric Carle, died on May 23, 2021, having written or illustrated more than 70 children’s books in his lifetime.

Carle’s own childhood was tumultuous. He was born in Syracuse, New York, but the family emigrated to Germany when he was six. At that time, Adolf Hitler was in power and World War II was only four years away.

When the war arrived, Carle’s father was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1939 and served throughout the conflict. Carle was enlisted as a teenager in 1944 to dig earthwork defenses on the Siegfried Line, the last major fortification against the Allies entering the German homeland.

His father survived the war and the Soviet Red Army captivity, but returned home a changed man, both physically and mentally. American born, Carle aspired to return to the United States and arrived in New York in 1952, just long enough to be drafted into the United States Army during the Korean War.

He was not sent to Korea, however, but ended up returning to 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 lines between East and West were beginning 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 the beloved picture book author began to take shape during his years as a designer and artist. He started working 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 fascinated by the illustration of a lobster created by Carle that he asked Carle to do the illustrations for his next book, “Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See?” Carle said the opportunity was life changing. After doing illustrations for a number of other picture books, he began to write his own.

“The Very Hungry Caterpillar” was first published in 1969.

Over the course of his career he has received numerous 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 his 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” was not Carle’s first book, but it is his most popular and longest lasting. The bright colors of its illustrations and Carle’s style made the book accessible to children while teaching them about proper nutrition, days of the week, colors, food, and even a little bit about a caterpillar’s makeover.

Carle died of kidney failure at his Northampton home at the age of 91.

– Blake Stilwell can be contacted at [email protected] It can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell Where on Facebook.

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Grover Z. Barnes