Eric Carle

The making of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Emerging from a chrysalis of middle-aged ennui, The Very Hungry Caterpillar transformed children's books.

Howard Calvert
Eric Carle
Image: Ryan McEachern/Penguin

If you have children, the chances are you’ve read The Very Hungry Caterpillar at least once this year, perhaps this week, maybe even uttered the words “That night he had a stomach ache” this morning. It’s a behemoth of the publishing world, a book that surpassed all expectations and, 51 years since publication, remains ever-present on book sales charts, notching up more than 50 million sales worldwide and is read on average nine times a year by each child in the UK.

But how did Eric Carle , who passed away in May aged 91, go from a creative in the Mad Men-era ad industry to writing one of the most popular children’s books of all time? And why do we have a hole puncher to thank?

In the mid-1960s, Carle was a graphic designer working in advertising in New York. Although he enjoyed the job, like many people approaching 40, he had become disillusioned with the way his career was going. “It’s a profession for young men and women,” he said in Show Me A Story. “All too often I had to go out with clients, have dinner and drinks with them, attend meetings, and there was all the backstabbing and office intrigue. It just hit me one day that I wanted to make pictures.”

'You want to distil the image into a target for the child to grab onto and ignore everything extraneous'

With these thoughts of a change in direction, and inspired by a phrase his art teacher told him to live by, “start anew, move on, keep surprising”, Carle embarked on a career as a freelance designer. At that point, the idea of going into children’s books had not even crossed his mind, but things changed when author Bill Martin Jr saw an illustration Carle had done for an advert for antihistamines featuring a lobster and requested Carle illustrate his book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?.

While working on the book, Carle said he was “set on fire”. “The large sheets of paper, the colourful paints and fat brushes of my school came to mind,” said Carle in The Art of Eric Carle. “It was possible, after all, to do something special, something that would show a child the joy to be found in books.” It also taught him the value of rhythm and repetition, which he went on to employ in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. This, combined with his advertising background, meant he innately grasped concepts essential for making picture books, generating the perfect environment for creating bold and innovative new works in children’s publishing.

“He arrived with a formidable arsenal of skills as a designer and someone who understood colour, collage and composition,” says Leonard Marcus, author and expert on children’s literature. “Advertising and picture book art have much in common. You want to distil the image into a target for the child to grab onto and ignore everything extraneous. Eric looked at everything he did as a design challenge – a way of extracting the maximum impact or meaning from an image or blank page.”

'When I saw Eric’s work, I knew it was exactly what I wanted'

“Eric never shied away from acknowledging the seminal role Ann played in getting his career off to a strong start,” says Marcus. “She understood the picture book genre before Eric did, and she nudged him in the right direction.”

Carle showed Beneduce a shoebox that was packed with ideas for children’s stories. “I was interested in the art world of the 1960s; with pop art and op art, art had become fun,” Beneduce told the LA Times. “When children looked at magazines, they were exposed to bright colour, a more simplified kind of art. They were ready for it in children’s books, and I wasn’t finding artists who could produce it. When I saw Eric’s work, I knew it was exactly what I wanted.”

One story leapt out, inspired by, of all things, a hole punch. “I was playing with a hole puncher, playfully and innocently, and I punched holes into a stack of paper, and I looked at the holes and thought of a bookworm,” Carle revealed in his 1990 lecture ‘Where do Ideas Come From?’

It was the tale of a gluttonous worm, called Willi, who feverishly consumed a number of items over a seven-day period, leaving holes in the pages as he chomped his way through the feast. The book ended with Willi oversized and looking miserable. Beneduce recognised the huge potential, but was hesitant about the main character. “I didn’t think a worm was terribly appealing,” she said. “And it didn’t have an ending. The worm ate, he didn’t feel well, he went to sleep. That was where I said, ‘Let’s try a caterpillar,’ and we were so in tune with each other, I didn’t have to finish my sentence. Eric said, ‘BUTTERFLY!!’ It took him not two days, practically overnight, to finish the book.”

'Many people might call it a simple book, but so many things are going on in it'

The first thing that draws children to this book is Carle’s deceptively simple illustrating technique. His working method remained the same since The Very Hungry Caterpillar: he would daub large sheets of tissue paper with bright acrylic paints (“I love colour,” he said in the Eric Carle: Picture Writer documentary, “and I have this one frustration that I can’t be more colourful”) then cut out the relevant shapes and paste them to white paper before adding details with pencil crayons.

But the illustrations are just the first layer to this book’s long-lasting appeal. “Many people might call it a simple book, but so many things are going on in it,” says Marcus. As well as the life cycle of a caterpillar, readers learn about colours, foods, days of the week and numbers.

Add to that the groundbreaking interactive elements. “The hole is mind-blowing, because it has the element of a performance about it – you actually put your finger through a real hole,” adds Marcus. “You can imagine yourself being the caterpillar. It plays into children’s capacity for make believe, and all those elements work together with no distractions. That’s where Carle’s advertising savviness all comes together.”

A book as a toy was important to Carle, and he was constantly striving to add something extra to his work. In Show Me A Story, Carle said that he thinks of the holes as a design element, and he’s always trying to squeeze as much as possible out of the paper. “I don’t want just a plain sheet of paper. I often want to have a fold or hole or other device.”

The book builds up to the show-stopping final reveal: the caterpillar has become “a beautiful butterfly”. Marcus claims the brightly coloured insect was inspired by something unexpected. “It’s not coincidental that the book was released the same year as the first Woodstock music festival. It’s a psychedelic ending. Eric had a ticket for Woodstock that year but decided not to go as he thought the traffic would be too bad. That’s very Eric – interested but practical.”

'I couldn’t find anyone in the US who could manufacture this book'

It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. The book nearly didn’t get printed at all. After it was finished, Beneduce discovered a major problem: no printer in the US could handle the book’s unique holes and binding challenges.

“I was determined to publish it,” she told The Lion and the Unicorn journal. “It was very original. Eric was not a new [innovative picture book author and illustrator] Bruno Munari, but someone working just as inventively. I couldn’t find anyone in the US who could manufacture this book, with all its ingeniously die-cut pages and irregular bindings.”

While visiting Japan, she took Carle’s book with her to show to Japanese publishers. One publisher, Hiroshi Imamura, of Kaisei-sha Publishing, liked it so much he agreed to print it. And so, thanks to Imamura, The Very Hungry Caterpillar made its debut on 3 June 1969, just weeks before Carle’s 40th birthday.

Carle’s career, like his book’s ravenous protagonist, had finally metamorphosised, echoing words he told German magazine Stern. “Like the caterpillar, a small and even ugly beast, you'll be big and beautiful one day. Your wings, or your talent, will unfold and you will fly into the future.”

“Most people think it’s easy to write a story for children, but this manages in a concise way to tell a story about life, and everyone gets it,” adds Marcus. “The ending is: you grow up and it’s worth it. It’s like handing the baton: ‘now go fly somewhere.’”

A previous version of this article stated that Eric Carle and his publisher had creative differences over the book. This was, in fact, an April Fool's joke that has been believed to be fact.

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