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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

For nearly 40 years, kids around the world have been fascinated by "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" who eats his way through a market basket of food before turning into a beautiful butterfly.

Mr. JACK STUEBBLE(ph): (Reading) On Monday, he ate through one apple, but he was still hungry. On Tuesday, he ate through two pears, but he was still hungry. On Wednesday, he ate through three…

ELLIOT: Eric Carle created "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" and scores of other colorful and curious creatures all crafted from strips of hand-painted tissue paper.

Mr. ERIC CARLE (Creator, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar"): I'm the guy you see in a museum that's - the painting is a wall painting, you know, 20 feet tall. I'm the guy who's three inches away studying the brush strokes and the impressionistic dots.

ELLIOT: Now, we're going to take that kind of close-up look at Eric Carle. He's published some 70 picture books, including "The Mixed-Up Chameleon," "The Very Busy Spider" and "Does a Kangaroo Have a Mother Too?" These simple tales and their bright engaging characters give no hint of the complicated childhood that Eric Carle experienced in wartime Germany.

We'll hear his story in a moment. But first, a visit to his home in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

If you try to imagine where Eric Carle must live, you couldn't do any better than his garden. Butterflies flutter in the flowerbeds and the focal point is an abstract sculpture of - what else - a caterpillar.

Carle gives me a tour of the ground, proudly pointing to the full-grown trees -he started from acorn - and introducing me to the bullfrogs that live in his pond.

Mr. CARLE: There are two of them in there. That's the bigger one. See him?

ELLIOT: There he is.

Mr. CARLE: I used to have fish in there, but some birds or something gets them. So my wife won't allow me to buy fish to feed to birds.

ELLIOT: Colors are so vibrant…

Mr. CARLE: Yes.

ELLIOTT: …in all of your books.

Mr. CARLE: Yes.

ELLIOT: I'm wondering, when you were thinking of your color scheme in the garden, were you…

Mr. CARLE: I exactly did, yes. You can tell I do. Just like in my drawings, large patches.

ELLIOT: Now the purple over here is so striking. And it has a burgundy behind it.

Mr. CARLE: Yes. You see in the foreground here, the blue, and then the lighter blue, and then that will be another blue over there. So they work against each other.

ELLIOT: I am fascinated in your books - your intricate details about nature. You seem to really have an appreciation for things that some of us might not notice.

Mr. CARLE: Well, I think it started with my father. He took me for long walks and explained things to me. You know, we might see a hole underneath a tree. It was a foxhole or something, and then he could tell me whether the fox lives there or not. If there was a spider web in front of it, of course, the fox wouldn't live there. So there was that little things he told me, or if we saw bird droppings, he'll say, okay there are bird droppings on floor, and now just straight up, then that's where the nest would be.

ELLIOT: So you would see a nest?

Mr. CARLE: Yes, mm-hmm.

ELLIOT: This is so beautiful and your frogs sound very happy.

Mr. CARLE: Yeah, yeah. Well, we can go in, if you want to.

ELLIOT: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. CARLE: Okay, let's get away from the bugs. We're going in.

(Soundbite of noise)

ELLIOT: We go inside and up an open stairway to a loft studio. It's filled with light coming in from the window; it's overlooking the garden. Lining one wall is a series of flat metal drawers.

Mr. CARLE: Oh here. These are the tissue papers.

ELLIOT: They are filled with sheets of vibrantly painted tissue papers that he'll later tear into pieces to compose his collages.

Mr. CARLE: I have them color-coded. I have four drawers of reds, three of blues, two of yellows, five of another color. And children often write to me. They say, what's your favorite color. And over time, I think yellow is my most favorite color.

The reason is it's the most difficult color. When you take a green, you know, you can do ten different variations in a green - lighter, darker, bluer, redder, browner. It's always green. But when you do it with yellow, the minute you put in yellow, mix it with another color, you destroy the yellow itself. It becomes green, or it becomes orange so it's a very difficult challenging color and that's why it's my favorite color. Plus, the sun is yellow; according to children, it's also a yellow sun.

ELLIOT: Eric Carle's fascination with color stems from a dark childhood in Nazi Germany.

Mr. CARLE: During the war, there were no colors, no - there was no fashion. People didn't have colorful scarves. Everything was gray and brown and the cities were all - (unintelligible) to houses were camouflaged with grays and greens and brown greens and gray greens or brown greens, and - there was no color. Then after the war, I became more familiar with abstract artists(ph) and especially the impressionists - color, color, color. I'm frustrated that I cannot be more colorful than I am.

ELLIOT: Yeah, you were born to German immigrants in Syracuse, New York. But by the time that you were 6 years old, your family moved back to Germany. And this was when Hitler was in power just before World War II.

Mr. CARLE: Yes. Hitler got into power 1933, we moved to Germany in 1935, and the war started in 1939. What - I really rarely talk about that, but my grandmother came over visiting in 1934. My mother got terribly homesick and wanted to go back. And my father didn't want to, but she won. They went back. And all of us regretted it.

When the war broke off, my father was drafted. When I was 10, my father was taken away from me. And he didn't come home until I was 18 because he spent a couple of years in a Russian prison camp after the war.

ELLIOT: There's a story I would like for you to read a part of, for us, if you would, from "Flora and Tiger," which are short stories from your life that you've written. And I don't even know how to say this word. Would you read me the word?

Mr. CARLE: Oh, maikafer(ph). Mai is month of May and kafer is a bug or beetle - the May beetle. We don't have them here. They resemble a little bit the Japanese beetles, but bigger but the same kind of coloring. And then they come only in May and they just (unintelligible) in the forest - they eat and eat and eat. You can hear them crunch and you can hear the droppings when you walk through the woods or when you stand still. We grow up with this little poem. And it says…

(Foreign language spoken)

Mr. CARLE: And I translated this here.

(Reading) Maikafer fly, your father is in the war, your mother is in Pomerania - which is a state by the way in eastern Germany - your mother is Pomerania, Pomerania is burned to the ground. Maikafer fly.

And it was so fitting because where I grew up in, Stuttgart was 50 percent destroyed and the surrounding cities were destroyed.

ELLIOT: Can I back up a little bit? And when you first moved with your family back to Germany, you had a real awakening as far as the instructional methods in the German schools there compared to what you were used to here.

Mr. CARLE: Yes. What I remember in Syracuse was we were in a - I ought to say, it's a large room with big windows and lots of light and large sheets of paper, big brushes and colorful paints. That was what I, kind of, remember in Syracuse.

And then we came to Germany, it was a smaller sheet of paper and a hard pencil and a ruler, and not to make mistakes. And I went back to first grade in Germany. I had a terrible teacher, bamboo-switch wielding, and the first week I was in school, he punished me, three in each hand - three times with all of his might and that hurt. And that turned me off from education. So I hated school except for my art teacher.

I was fortunate I have a wonderful art teacher in high school who came from the modern expressionistic movement before Hitler came into power, and who then became the so-called degenerate artists. So he couldn't teach what he believed in. He had to teach naturalism, realism, you know, flag waving, Aryans, that type of stuff. So he invited me to his home, and secretly showed me prints of the so-called degenerate art.

ELLIOTT: Like who?

Mr. CARLE: Picasso and Matisse, and Paul Klee, and Corinth, Fuhr and Dix, all the German expressionists.

ELLIOTT: What did you think when you saw them?

Mr. CARLE: At first I was upset. I thought this man is crazy because I've never seen anything like this. Obviously, he had - he believed in my artistic development and then at something that had - I had been deprived of. That's why he felt I should see it. Also he had enormous trust in me that I would not turn him in. That man had an enormous influence on me by showing me that type of work.

ELLIOTT: And taking a risk showing it to you.

Mr. CARLE: Taking a risk, yes.

ELLIOTT: Now, all this time, your father was away during the war. Two years after the war he returned. Do you remember?

Mr. CARLE: I remember that very well. It was a very - he returned, he weighed about 85 pounds. But he…

ELLIOTT: He's been in a Russian POW camp?

Mr. CARLE: In a Soviet camp.

ELLIOTT: Was it hard for you to rekindle your relationship with him?

Mr. CARLE: We never did really. That's a sad part. By now, I was 18, I was in art school; I was onto other things. Many, many years later in my life, it dawned on me how important my father was in my life. And when I became aware of the importance he had in my life, I become to do books.

ELLIOTT: By then Carle was already in his 30s, living in New York with two kids of his own. He was a commercial artist in the advertising world. One particular ad caught the eye of children's author Bill Martin. It featured a pink, red, orange and purple lobster crafted with Carle's now trademark tissue paper technique.

Martin asked Carle to illustrate his book "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" That's when Eric Carle found his calling.

Mr. CARLE: All of Bill Martin's books all have that terrific rhythm, the heartbeat. And I think that that's what set me on fire. I don't know how else to say it.

ELLIOTT: "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?"

Mr. CARLE: What do you see? I see a red bird looking at me and I've heard Bill, you know, read this to children. I mean, so - such magic. So now, I was - now, all of the sudden I became interested in doing books. But I was very careful and I didn't trust my writing so I did something very conventional: "One, Two Three to the Zoo." You know that line? Then after that I had gained some confidence and I had punched holes into a stack of paper and I look at the holes, and I thought of a bookworm, and out of a bookworm became a green worm and I submitted that to Amy Bennett(ph), who was…

ELLIOTT: Who was an editor?

Mr. CARLE: …who was an editor. And she said she didn't like the green worm so we talked back and forth. At one time she said, how about a caterpillar? And I said, butterfly. So that's how that became.

ELLIOTT: And the book ends with that beautiful butterfly - the colors are just amazing.

Mr. CARLE: Yeah. My books - each - I treat each page as a poster. I've always remained a poet to artist. My work is the best part.

ELLIOTT: That one page to catch someone's attention.

Mr. CARLE: Strong. Yes. Yeah. Because when you look at, you know, a poster art, if they advertise shoes, you'll look at it, it says shoes. It's not a beautiful landscape (unintelligible). It's a shoe. And in a way my books, too, you know, it says an elephant in a tree and you see an elephant in a tree. As a poster artist, you simplify all the time to its essential.

ELLIOTT: Now, your books are translated in all sorts of…

Mr. CARLE: The "Caterpillar" is, like, 35 languages. Yeah.

ELLIOTT: It has that universal appeal. What to you think it is that makes it work across cultures?

Mr. CARLE: Yeah. First, I don't know. My wife is an educator. She's a former Montessori teacher and Special Ed teacher. So we talk. Why is that - why is the "Caterpillar" beloved? And he is truly beloved. As some - and again, as I said, number one: I don't know.

Number two: I think it's a book of hope that you little, insignificant, ugly thing can grow into big, beautiful butterfly and unfold your wings, unfold your talent and fly into the world. I think that's it.

ELLIOTT: Thank you for spending time with us today, Eric Carle.

Mr. CARLE: Thank you. My pleasure.

ELLIOTT: Eric Carle is 78 years old now and devotes much of his time to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. This year marks the 40th anniversary of his first book, "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?"

Carle has a new book coming out this summer, "Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See?" He says it might be his last.

To see an audio slideshow of Eric Carle's art, go to our Web site, npr.org. Special thanks to Jack Stuebble for doing our reading. Our profile of Eric Carle was produced by Tina Tennessen.

Mr. STUEBBLE: (Reading) Polar bear, polar bear, what do you hear? I hear lion roaring in my ear.

(Soundbite of mimicking lion bellowing)

Mr. STUEBBLE: Lion, lion what do you hear? I hear a hippopotamus snoring in my ear.

(Soundbite of mimicking hippopotamus snore)

Mr. STUEBBLE: Hippopotamus, hippocampus, what do you hear? I hear a flamingo foot(ph) in my ear.

(Soundbite of mimicking flamingo thumping)

Mr. STUEBBLE: Flamingo, flamingo, what do you hear? I hear a zebra braying in my ear.

(Soundbite of mimicking zebra braying)

Mr. STUEBBLE: Zebra, zebra, what do you hear? I hear…

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