An Illustrator for the Young at Art

Renowned author and illustrator Eric Carle reveals his passion for picture books.

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At age 73 and with more than 70 books to his credit, Eric Carle is not about to rest on his laurels. This year, the beloved author and illustrator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Very Busy Spider, and many other visually stunning, brightly colored books for young children has seen yet another of his dreams come true: the opening of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA. The 40,000 square foot museum houses three galleries, which feature rotating exhibitions of prominent national and international picture book artists, an art studio that offers hands-on activities and classes, a 130-seat auditorium, and a library for reading and storytelling.

The secret to his success may well lie in his ability to understand kids' fears and hopes and see the world from a child's perspective. "When I work on a book, I try to entertain the child inside of me," says Carle, who recently shared with Child his creative process and his thoughts on what young children need most.

Child: You've illustrated and written so many beloved books for children. Which stand out in your memory and why?

Carle: I would have to say The Very Hungry Caterpillar because it was one of the first books that I both wrote and illustrated, and it's a very hopeful book. It says: I too can grow up. I too can unfold my wings (my talent) and fly into the world. This is a universal concern that children have: Will I grow up? Will I be able to function as an adult?

Child: "Slowly, Slowly, Slowly," Said the Sloth is a Child Best Book of the Year. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind this wonderful story?

Carle: One day I felt overwhelmed, so I hung the "Do not disturb" sign on the door and locked myself in my studio. My life had become so busy with meetings and appointments. That was when the gentle and slow-moving sloth came to my mind -- this strange animal that sleeps up to 20 out of 24 hours, this boring creature that eats 10% of what other animals of equal size and weight consume, this expressionless critter that lives by itself and rarely makes a noise seemed the perfect antidote to the hectic situation I found myself in.

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Child: What process do you go through when creating a children's book? Can you take us through the steps, from inspiration to finished product?

Carle: It all starts with one's imagination, a spark. Once you have an idea, you sit down and sketch it on a piece of paper. After it seems to work out all right, you put your story in rough form on a 32-page dummy.

Now you've begun. Sometimes the idea develops nicely, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you work at it furiously and for long hours. Other times you may merely dabble a little here and there. You may get frustrated and banish your idea to a drawer or box. (I have several idea boxes.) All this takes time.

After I have my dummy, I start to make my collage illustrations. I didn't invent collage. Artists like Matisse and Picasso made collages, so did Leo Lionni and Ezra Jack Keats. Many children have made collages at home and in their classrooms.

I begin with plain tissue paper and paint with acrylic paint. Sometimes I use paintbrushes or my fingers. Other times I paint on a piece of carpet or burlap to create texture. These colorful, painted tissue papers become my palette for my artwork.

Once the papers have dried, I cut out the shapes I need and glue them with wallpaper paste onto illustration board.

When I start a book, it's a lot of fun. After a while, it's work, and then it becomes labor. Toward the end, it feels like slavery! And once it's finished and I deliver the completed illustrations to the publisher, I become sad. But when I see the printed book, I'm happy again!

Child: What kind of correspondence do you receive from your young fans?

Carle: I get hundreds of letters and e-mails each month from readers of all ages, and everyone who writes receives a response in return. Many children ask me about myself -- how old I am, if I'm married, if I have any pets. Some are curious about my creative process or how I make the noises in the books like the chirping sound in The Very Quiet Cricket. I'm often asked where the ideas for my books come from. Interestingly, it was a child who first asked me this question and then went on to give me the answer. This child said that ideas come from both your outside and your inside. I found that to be a perceptive and accurate response.

The biggest compliment comes when children tell me that they can make art like my collage illustrations. "I am an artist too," they'll say. This is always a big boost to me.

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Child: What do you hope the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art will offer people?

Carle: Art. Beauty. Culture. Visual stimulus. There's so much ugliness in life, so much war, and it's not going to go away. But man lives not by bread alone. You need art. You need culture. You need beauty. And that's what I hope this museum will give. The exciting thing about opening the museum is that I am realizing a vision I had. But the vision is only 1% of the process. Ninety-nine percent is sweat, work, worry, and daily concerns and meetings with the architect, consultants, and staff. What they say about genius -- it's 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration -- is true of the museum too. But that 1% is so beautiful, it's worth it.

Child: How did the idea come about?

Carle: My wife Barbara and I began dreaming about the idea of a museum seven years ago. We started out thinking about a relatively small place, just one big room. Then we hired our architect, Earl Pope, who asked us how big we thought the museum should be and we arrived at the notion that it should be big enough to hold three busloads of children, plus some adults. Then we thought, "Well, it would be nice to have an auditorium, it would be nice to have a studio, it would be nice to have a library, it would be nice... Oh, make it a little bigger." So that's how it grew.

Child: Can you describe some of your childhood memories? What were some of your favorite children's books growing up?

Carle: I loved drawing as far back as I can remember. My father loved to draw and he drew well. Often he drew pictures for me. He was also a wonderful storyteller and told me stories of animals and insects. My father wanted to become an artist, but his father would have none of that -- no starving artist in his family! And so my father was forced into a managerial profession, which he loathed all his life.

While I didn't have many books as a child in Syracuse, NY, where I was born, I read Mickey Mouse and Flash Gordon comic books. In Germany, where my family moved when I was 6, I liked two classics: Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman and Max & Moritz by Wilhelm Busch.

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Child: How did you become a children's book writer and illustrator? If you hadn't gone into this profession, what do you think you might have done?

Carle: My career began as a graphic designer. Later I was an art director for an advertising agency in New York. In the mid 1960s, Bill Martin, Jr., saw an ad of a red lobster that I had designed and asked me to illustrate his book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? What an inspiring book! I was set on fire! It was possible to do something special that would show a child the joy that could be found in books. This opportunity changed my life. And almost without any planning, I became an author and illustrator of books for children.

Over the years, I have on occasion fantasized about being a chef in a fine restaurant, dreaming up mouth-watering meals, wearing a tall white hat, giving orders to my sous chefs and every so often dipping my finger into a pot or pan to taste my inventions. But most likely, if I hadn't started to create books, I would still be doing graphic design of some sort.

Child: Do you think there is an art to reading a picture book with a child? If so, can you share your philosophy with us?

Carle: I would suggest that the parent, grandparent, or other caregiver hold the child close when he or she is being read to. Put your arms around your child's shoulders, hold her hand, place her on your lap. The child is still of an age when she needs to be touched in order to be in touch. These gestures tell your child that you care enough to give your total attention. Growing up is often perplexing and a child needs reassurance. When you do these things, the book becomes more than pages with words and pictures.

Child: Is there a message you hope children and parents get from your books?

Carle: I am fascinated by the period in a child's life when he or she, for the first time, leaves home to go to school: from home and security -- a world of play and the senses -- to a world of reason and abstraction, order and discipline. I want my books to bridge that great divide. For me, leaving the warmth of home to go to school was traumatic. It occurs to me that I am trying to make that difficult first step from home to school easier with my pictures and books.

I would also say, very simply, that each child is an individual and that he should be allowed to respond in his own particular way to books, art, or whatever it is that he is learning from or looking at.

Child: How would you suggest parents support their children's creativity from the earliest ages?

Carle: I would just say encourage and nurture them in the same way you would anything else -- with respect and love.

Copyright © 2002

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