Eric Carle, the author and illustrator of more than seventy books that captivated, amused, and educated generations of children, died last month at ninety-one. Carle’s work, and his seemingly effortless connection to young readers, was motivated by the privations of his own childhood. Raised in Nazi Germany, he was forced to dig trenches on the Siegfried line; his father, whom he adored, had become a prisoner of war in Russia. Carle’s later proclivity for vivid, exuberant colors was a reaction against the “grays, browns and dirty greens” of buildings camouflaged to protect against bombing. After the war, in America, he worked as a commercial artist, developing meticulous collages of tissue paper and acrylics that soon launched his career as an illustrator and children’s writer. His most famous book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, came in 1969, and has sold more than 55 million copies worldwide. “I think it is a book of hope,” he said on its fiftieth anniversary, in 2019. “Children need hope. You—little insignificant caterpillar—can grow up into a beautiful butterfly and fly into the world with your talent.”
If you looked at Twitter after Carle’s death, you may not have seen that quotation. It was lost in the din surrounding another remark:
My publisher and I fought bitterly over the stomachache scene in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The caterpillar, you’ll recall, feasts on cake, ice cream, salami, pie, cheese, sausage, and so on. After this banquet I intended for him to proceed immediately to his metamorphosis, but my publisher insisted that he suffer an episode of nausea first—that some punishment follow his supposed overeating. This disgusted me. It ran entirely contrary to the message of the book. The caterpillar is, after all, very hungry, as sometimes we all are. He has recognized an immense appetite within him and has indulged it, and the experience transforms him, betters him. Including the punitive stomachache ruined the effect. It compromised the book.
This story was drawn from Carle’s interview with The Paris Review for Young Readers, and tens of thousands of people shared it in praise and remembrance. “What a good man,” one wrote. Another posted, “Eric Carle said fuck the system eat cake and be unapologetically hungry.” A third was inspired to go big for lunch: “a chicken Parm and a whole ass order of garlic knots.” Nigella Lawson retweeted the story, Smithsonian Magazine included it in their obituary, and the parenting site Motherly noted that it had “a profound impact … Eric Carle recognized the harm in implying shame should be something a living creature feels simply for eating food they need to eat in order to grow.” On KQED, during a live broadcast, the radio host asked Carle’s son, Rolf, for more details about the stomachache quarrel. “That’s one of the stories I haven’t heard,” Rolf said, “and when you get an answer, please get it to me.” Read More