Eric Carle, Difficult Childhoods & Creativity

Art isn't easy, and making art for kids is even harder: Context Collapse #95

Legendary children’s book author Eric Carle passed away last week. He was 91.

Carle lived a life well-lived. He wrote or illustrated more than 70 books, including The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See, and The Grouchy Ladybug. He had a successful career in advertising. He had two kids. He opened a museum. He even appeared on an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. By most metrics, it was a life pretty damn well lived.

Carle illustrated his first children’s book, Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See—in a classic case of knocking it out of the ballpark on your first try—when he was 38 years old. As the story goes, Carle was working as an art director in the advertising industry with a distinct style, and children’s book author Bill Martin Jr. saw an advertisement Carle made of a lobster. Martin then tracked him down as a likely choice to illustrate a children’s book based on that ad. It worked.

But where did all that creativity come from?

Maybe his childhood.

Like a lot of creative people, Carle hit rough times before he turned 18.

Born in the United States in 1929, his German immigrant parents made the fateful choice to move back to Nazi Germany when he was six years old. His childhood and his family’s future was defined by their decision to move to Germany: Carle’s father was conscripted into the German army, captured by the Soviets, and became a POW on the Eastern Front. Carle himself was conscripted as a teenager in 1944 to dig earthwork defenses on the Siegfried Line. Things weren’t easy afterwards (NYT):

“In Stuttgart, our hometown, our house was the only one standing,” Mr. Carle told The Guardian in 2009. “When I say standing, I mean the roof and windows are gone, and the doors. And … well, there you are.”

When his father returned from the war, he weighed a mere 85 pounds and was, Mr. Carle recalled, “a broken man.”

Along the way, Carle allegedly had an art teacher who secretly introduced him to Picasso, Matisse, and other artists frowned upon by the Nazi regime. They influenced him profoundly in his artwork; Carle went on to go to art school in Stuttgart and returned to the United States to work in advertising (with a detour drafted into the United States army) along the way (WaPo):

Mr. Carle pursued artistic training at an academy in Stuttgart before returning to the United States. Working in advertising, he told the Chicago Tribune, he “had the Brooks Brothers suits and the attache case” and “took the 8:02 every morning.” But he did not find contentment until he was presented with the text of a children’s book about a brown bear who meets a red bird who meets a yellow duck who meets a blue horse . . .

Carle went through a lot of earthquakes before he turned 18. He was born just before a global economic depression. His parents moved him across the globe to a foreign country that spoke a different language. His father was conscripted into the military and became a POW on one of the most brutal fronts of history. His hometown was repeatedly bombed. He was at work digging ditches for the German army at 15 years old.

Pretty crappy beginnings. But Carle was able to turn his reaction to all of that into an undeniably unique art style that brightened millions of childhoods all around the world (WaPo):

Mr. Carle received thousands of letters from his young fans every year. Many children unburdened themselves to him. Some asked him to be their father. Mr. Carle said that when he thought about his own father, he was left with sadness, and that artwork was an antidote.

“The child I am helping,” he said, “might just be me.”

Further Reading

Eric Carle, writer and illustrator who gave life to ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar,’ dies at 91 (Washington Post)

Eric Carle: The very busy illustrator (Sally Williams, The Independent)

Eric Carle, Author of ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar,’ Dies at 91 (New York Times)

Eric Carle’s Colorful World of Childrens Books (NPR)


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Memorial Day weekend watch 1: Netflix’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines, which is basically the Griswold family vs. killer AI robots but made with such love and attention to the characters. (And here’s a bonus guide to all the pop culture references in the movie!)

Memorial Day weekend watch 2: Also from Netflix, Army of the Dead. If a Zack Snyder zombie heist movie in a post-apocalyptic Las Vegas with zombie tigers and zombie horses is going to be made, damned if I’m not going to watch it.

Vicki Boykis on why Google Drive is production.

Rae Alexandra on ‘Punk House Oakland’ and ‘90s punk rock ephemera on Instagram.

TikTok historian/Chicago city treasure Sherman “Dilla” Thomas is now hosting IRL tours of the city at Chicago Mohagany Tours:

A post shared by @6figga_dilla

Derek Thompson on remote work and the future of office jobs post-pandemic.

Robert Sapolsky talks about the biological underpinnings of religious belief:

And, last but definitely not least, pug TikTok: